There wasn’t a dry eye in the Palace of Auburn Hills.
No, this wasn’t another Pistons championship – it was the opening ceremonies for the 1990 Maccabi Games. As we paraded around the Palace floor, Master of Ceremonies David Hermelin announced a delegation from the Soviet Union. It’s hard to remember today just how momentous it was for a group of Jewish teenagers to come to America from behind the iron curtain. The Palace erupted in applause and flowed with tears. The world was changing, and we caught a preview of it in metro Detroit.
The scale of the games was remarkable – 2,000+ Jewish athletes came from around the world to compete and connect. More athletes participated in those games than in the previous Winter Olympics; 1,000+ area families hosted the participants. I played racquetball and my family hosted kids from Mexico and Venezuela.
Now I live on Long Island. And any time I mention the Maccabi games to my Jewish friends here, I get a blank stare back. Finally, I looked it up – it turns out that there are no delegations from Long Island (or anywhere in New York). How is it possible that the area with the biggest Jewish population in the country does not even participate in the Maccabi games?
And then I realized it: each of the places that do – Detroit, Pittsburgh, Miami, etc. – has a Jewish community. Sure, it’s spread over a number of towns and various congregations, but it is tight knit and you’re never more than a couple degrees of separation from anyone else.
Long Island has lots of Jews, but there isn’t a unifying Jewish community. It’s easy to grow up on Long Island feeling like you live in a Jewish country. So when we chose a town here in which to raise our children, we deliberately chose one where Jews were a relative minority (only four congregations).
As I reflect on my own childhood, I realize that the desire to be in the minority comes directly from my parents. They avoided the places where one could feel like the Jewish community was the prevailing population, instead seeking out those where we might be a meaningful part of the minority.
When I attended Bloomfield Hills Middle School, my grade had fewer than a dozen Jewish kids. West Hills students often attended multiple Bar Mitzvahs in one weekend. (East Hills was literally on the wrong side of the tracks.)
We were active members of Temple Kol Ami — or Temple You're Almost There for out-of-towners heading west on Walnut Lake Road — engaging, even without space for a Hebrew school. I only lasted one session each at Tamarack and Walden before joining a small Detroit contingent at Camp Nebagamon in Wisconsin.
We had breakfast on Sundays at Embers and the booth fit in a way the Stage Deli (or IHOP) wouldn’t have.
I participated in the next two Maccabi Games – Cleveland and Baltimore. In those two years, the games were as much about meeting other kids as they were about the sports themselves (though I did medal in table tennis in 1991, thank you very much). In the 1992 games, I met a girl from London. I knew we would be taking a family trip to England a few months later, so I asked for her phone number. During our ensuing vacation, our families got together a few times, building on that bond that comes from living in tight-knit Jewish communities.
My dad used to tell me how my grandma would read the newspaper – scanning it for Jewish names. She felt personally humiliated when a Jewish person committed a crime and celebrated when Hank Greenberg had a good day at the plate. As a member of the Detroit Jewish community, I always felt the same way. Antisemitism could strike at any time, so we had an obligation to demonstrate our goodness to the world.
And there was so much goodness – Jewish hospitals, schools, summer camps, charities, senior centers, nursing homes, and even cemeteries played pivotal roles for friends and family members in every stage of life from birth to death. I try to teach my own children the values I learned from the Detroit Jewish community – that we need to take care of ourselves and each other.
Last year, I sat shiva for a friend who had lost both of his parents a year apart from each other. He had grown up far from this non-Jewish town of ours and could not have formed a minyan on his own. But his house was full of members of the temple he had recently joined. At the end of the service, through tears, he thanked the guests by recounting the sage advice his parents had given him: “Wherever you live, find a Jewish community. You never know when you will need it.”
My great-grandparents escaped Eastern Europe and found a Jewish community in Detroit. That community has shaped who I am today in countless ways. I think about those kids from the former Soviet Union at the Maccabi Games and can only imagine what their Jewish communities meant to them as they hid their identities from their oppressive regimes. Now I have ventured away and found a new Jewish community to call home. Like Jewish Detroit, I hope it is a source of strength, support and purpose for my children – one that matters to them, at least in part, because they matter to it.
Adam Lenter is the Founder and Executive Director at Nonprofit Data Solutions. He is retired from competitive table tennis but still prefers that you not refer to it as pingpong.