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Mensches of Motown: Rebuilding Detroit

5305_753954927979874_822597788960443057_nAt Freedom House Detroit, a temporary residence for asylum seekers from the most violent or oppressive parts of the world, I was curious about the inhabitants’ transition.

“How do you like Detroit so far?” I asked a Nigerian refugee, one who grew up in a country plagued by bloody ethnic conflict, AIDS epidemics, water shortages, sanitation crises, and terror organizations like Boko Haram.

“Man, Detroit is a damn warzone.”

A warzone.

Detroit, factory-forged from sweat, steel, and the American entrepreneurial spirit to become the one-time pride of our nation, is now being called a warzone from a man escaping Boko Haram.

The onslaught of crime, corruption, economic depression, and abandonment in the postindustrial era clearly took its toll on the American paragon.  Each passing Michigan winter, conditions degraded for Detroit until that Motown rhythm was blunted to a complete halt.  The city is now littered with abandoned buildings and blight.

But if our group of young professionals learned anything from the weekend volunteer trip, it’s that the spirit of Detroit, the spirit of big dreams and bigger community, hasn’t broken.

The 25 of us young professionals from Washington Hebrew Congregation in DC gathered this right off the bat from our first morning with Ben Falik and his team from Repair the World.  Within minutes of meeting the passionate, ambitious troop of staffers, it was clear that Falik and his crew could be living extravagantly in Manhattan, employed at any given corporate acronym with lavish expense accounts.  Instead, the Repair the World crew is taking disadvantaged inner city Detroit youth to museums.  RTW paired us with rambunctious grade school boys and girls to guide through the Michigan Science Center as they witnessed the wonders of engineering and air pressure via 4D movie theaters and trashcan wind cannons.  At the proceeding barbecue and ultimate Frisbee game, the thoroughly caffeinated, curly haired Falik detailed all of the other work the organization does with healthcare, education, and nutrition within the struggling city.

That night, we attended services at the Isaac Agree Downtown synagogue, the last surviving synagogue inside Detroit, resilient to the exodus of Jews.  The small congregation with no rabbi embraced our group with open arms, excited to share their beautiful 80-year old shul with young travelers to welcome in the Sabbath together.

The following morning, we had a breakfast meeting with Jon Koller who has been organizing volunteers to renovate and revitalize a once abandoned 100-year old housing complex.  We then drove to the B’nai David Cemetery, a graveyard entirely enveloped in the weeds of long neglect.  Our trip Rabbi, the tirelessly passionate Aaron Miller, told us that, in Judaism, there is no greater deed than charity for the dead because the deceased can never repay.  With that in mind, we terraformed the veritable jungle throughout the day to salvage the integrity of our buried Jewish brethren.  Trees were trimmed, grass was cut, and dozens upon dozens of garbage bins full of shrubbery surrounding the tombstones were removed.

We spent Saturday night at the aforementioned Freedom house, playing volleyball and sharing stories with the asylum seekers stuck in limbo, their true homes an entire world away.  We prepared a massive dinner together with fresh, local ingredients procured from Detroit’s bustling Eastern Market.  Before leaving, we were serenaded with the Detroit Freedom House song written by a former resident, repeating “G-d bless America” throughout the refrain.

We split up on our final day.  Some toured the city by bike with Falik, some were blindsided by the stunning collections at the Detroit Institute of Art, and myself and a few others joined John George of Motor City Blight Busters in a tour of the almost 700 properties his organization has cleaned up.  Almost all of us slopped up some Slow’s BBQ.

The volunteer weekend of the young professionals of 2239 is a drop in the bucket in terms of what Detroit needs.  But that drop meant so much to Ben Falik, John George, Jon Koller, Freedom House, Downtown Synagogue, and all the people of Motor City that we met.

We somberly left Detroit back to fight its own battle, but Detroit will never leave us.  That sense of community, volunteerism, and service will inspire us forever.

And one thing is for sure: that Motown rhythm is picking back up.

Judy Blume, Jew-dy Blume

BlumeRemember the good ole’ days of Middle School? Oy Gevalt! Don’t remind me!  Unibrows are out of control and you have been to 20 Bat Mitzvahs, and still no one has asked you to slow dance.  Through these tumultuous times, there was one woman who got it all—Judy Blume.

For young American girls, Judy Blume, is something of a hero.  She authored books like Tiger Eyes (1981) and Summer Sisters (1998) that cover a range of topics from puberty to relationships to sex.  For pre-teens, Blume’s books double as entertainment and a biblical guide for navigating the rocky waters of life, and though these “bibles” speak a universal language, Jewish themes seep through the sheepskin.  Her most popular novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) tackles the issue of understanding religious identity and relationships to God—Issues that hit close to home for Blume, who was born in 1938 as Judith Sussman to Esther Rosenfeld and Rudolph Sussman in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Growing up, Blume attended Synagogue, but didn’t understand much of what was going on, as it was all Yiddish to her!  Most of her aunts and uncles passed away during her youth, so she attributes much of her philosophies on religion to the fact that her family seemed to be in a perpetual state of Shiva sitting.

Blume grew up culturally Jewish, but like the character of Margaret, God was more of a personal confidante, rather than an omniscient religious being.  Confidante or not, Blume could not escape the wrath of Jewish guilt, and when she fell for a goy named Fred in ninth grade, she was told it was okay, “since they weren’t getting married.”  Story of every Jewish girl’s life.

Coming from a Jewish community, but having gentile friends and boyfriends at school, made the world seem split between two faiths (Judaism and Christianity) for the young Blume. This limbo between religions was the inspiration for Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, where the protagonist sixth grader tries to reconcile her half Jewish and half Christian identity, all the while waiting for her own red sea to rise (her period ahem ahem).

Blume’s heritage and understanding of the trials and tribulations of being a young adult made her a best-seller amongst Jewish girls, so it’s no wonder that every girl at JCA Shalom sleepaway had their Judy Blume paperbacks nestled between their Lisa Frank folders!

What I’ve Learned So Far: GTJ’s December Business Leader of the Month Shares Insights

Adelman, CEO and founder, Reel Tributes and ReelGenie.

Adelman, CEO and founder, Reel Tributes and ReelGenie.

In this new monthly column Victoria Shapiro asks top young business leaders in the D.C. area to share their thoughts on succeeding in business and life.

Business Leader of the Month: David Adelman, CEO and founder of Reel Tributes, a personal history film production company, and of ReelGenie, an online storytelling platform.
Age: 30
Relationship Status: Married to Melissa Adelman, economist at the World Bank
Education: Undergrad: Harvard University; MBA: The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
About Reel Tributes: The company produces tribute documentaries for families and family businesses. By incorporating oral histories, photos and other content, these films add a special touch to milestones such as birthdays, anniversaries and retirement celebrations.
Reel Tributes’ Key Market Differentiators: The company focuses exclusively on creating personal history films, so their client needs are well-understood and met. The team organizes and guides clients through the production process, ensuring the experience is easy, fun and educational.

Victoria: David, you’re a perfect fit for this column which spotlights business leaders who have shown a sense of adventure, innovation, tenacity, and commitment to community.  It’s going to be fun to interview you.
David: Thanks Victoria!  Looking forward to it

Victoria: Talk to me a little bit more about what Reel Tributes does.
David: We create documentary films, mostly for families and family owned businesses.  Perhaps a grandmother is turning 90, and the family wants to capture her stories.  They would hire us to interview the grandmother and other family members… to make sure her stories and values are never forgotten.  Our family business clients understand the importance of preserving the legacy of the company’s founder and maintaining a sense of tradition.  This is especially critical around a leadership transition, as the founder hands the reigns to a son or daughter.  Every film is customized according to the client’s preferred focus, which makes each project fun and unique.

Victoria: You started Reel Tributes when you were still at Wharton?
David: I started it in the summer between the first and second year of business school.  My grandmother, who was a very impressive woman, passed away.  My mom made a film about her life, and brought the family together to watch it.  No one had ever seen anything like that.  It was great to see the joy and inspiration on everyone’s faces, and that’s how the company got started.

Victoria: I read that genealogy is the second most searched topic online.  You’re tapping into this market with another venture, ReelGenie.
David: Yes, ReelGenie in an online storytelling platform, focused on family history.  Users can showcase all of their research and genealogy findings by creating their own movies using photos, voiceovers, music, and other relevant content.  Often genealogists spend years doing research, and the family yawns at it.  This platform allows family history enthusiasts to share their findings and get the rest of their family engaged in what they’ve done.

Victoria: Has ReelGenie launched yet?
David: We are planning to launch in March 2013, only a few months away!

Victoria: What energizes you?
David: Making a difference in peoples’ lives, and solving challenges.  I love bringing a smile to their faces.  One of the reasons I got into entrepreneurship is that I saw it as the best way to make a difference in the most lives.  Also, every business faces challenges, but the companies that succeed are the ones that come up with creative solutions and are led by individuals who understand that every day is a new challenge.  You can never be complacent. Embracing adversity is part of the fun of growing a company.

David and his wife, Melissa Adelman, with their dog Samson. David recently wrote an article for Forbes on how dogs are great for entrepreneurs.

David and his wife, Melissa Adelman, with their dog Samson. David recently wrote an article for Forbes on how dogs are great for entrepreneurs.

Victoria: You’re running a company.  You’re starting a new business.  You’re newly married.  How do you balance the different pieces of your life?
David: Since a young age, I have been a multi-tasker… I’ve always thrived on being really busy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I love work, but there’s a limit.  I make time for being social and doing things that I enjoy… Having an active social life and spending time with my wife and our friends keeps me grounded. We also have a little puppy, a shih tzu named Samson.  I actually wrote an article for Forbes about how great dogs are for entrepreneurs.  Also, I prioritize staying in shape.  I believe in the link between staying physically fit and being emotionally and intellectually fresh.

Victoria: Your perspective every day as an entrepreneur is…
David: An entrepreneur with tunnel vision is doomed to fail.  You have to have a goal or plan, but need to stay attuned to the opportunities that arise along the way.  There will always be new information coming in that should change the way you see your business.

Victoria: Talk to me about some of your other philosophies.
David: I was a speaker at my Wharton graduation, and my speech was about how we, as Wharton graduates, can help the world and not just make a lot of money.  The analogy I used in my speech was from when I climbed a mountain called Cotopaxi in Ecuador.  The trip leader had this phrase he used, “Don’t reach the peak but miss the point.”  It’s not just about getting to the top of the mountain, it’s about how you behave along the way and what you do once you reach the top.  There’s a lot more to life than just making money.  It’s important to think about building meaningful relationships and service to the community.  These other aspects make the most difference and add incredible meaning to our lives.

Victoria: Are you a practicing Jew?  How do your Jewish values inform you as a business leader?  What’s your philosophy?
David: I am a practicing Jew.  My philosophy is very consistent with Judaism, but I wouldn’t say it’s because I’m Jewish that I live the way I do.  It’s a combination of upbringing and personality.  Judaism — and especially seeing both of my parents being really active and giving back— taught me important lessons about the value of community and compassion.  My mom raised me on a kibbutz in Israel, to impart the values of community and help get me away from some of the materialism that she saw in America.  I also value Shabbat services and dinners.  I find synagogue to be a soothing time for reflection and spirituality.

Victoria: What kind of a leader do you aspire to be?
David: I want to continue to love what I do.  I want to be the type of leader who has a smile on his face when he’s leading the company and not stressed because every day is a fire drill.  Leading a company should be fun.  On a personal level, I want to make a difference.  If I get to the point where I’m not making a difference, I need to stop.  Also, I want to be fair. It’s really important to me to think about fairness and leading in such a way that no one feels cheated, whether it’s employees, clients, or competitors.  I don’t want to be known as the guy who lied and cheated his way to the top.

Victoria: What advice do you have for people who want to start their own businesses?
David: You need to have thick skin.  Don’t take anything too personally, since you’ll have a lot of people telling you “no” along the way.  That’s just part of the deal. You have to persevere.  There will be times where you think you’re the smartest person in the world and times when you think you’re the dumbest person in the world.  Also, nothing happens as quickly as you expect it to.  You need to be prepared financially and emotionally to weather the storm for a long time.  But if you do, the dividends are enormous.  It’s worth the wait (or so I hear!)

We at GTJ wish David continued success and can’t wait to check out ReelGenie!

Victoria headshotVictoria Shapiro is a senior account executive at Susan Davis International, a full-service communications and public affairs firm on K Street. She is also an advisor to her family’s company, The Donald J. Ross LLC, the official licensing company for the legendary 20th century golf course architect.

 

 

 

 

 

From the Four Corners of the Earth: At the Crossroads of Ghana and Judaism

Deep in a rural and remote area of Ghana, a community has existed for centuries called the Sefwis. They’ve been practicing a religion unlike any of those around them – and just within the last twenty years, realized that this religion is Judaism.  An even more profound discovery among the Sefwi’s was the realization that they aren’t alone, as millions of people around the globe are following the very same religion.

Along with the help of Toronto based Filmmaker, Gabrielle Zilkha, a documentary entitled “From the Four Corners of the Earth” aims to film the Sefwis’ journey to self-discovery of Judaism – from the past to the future as they embark on their very first trip to Israel.

“From the Four Corners of the Earth” is currently in its first phase of production, as the focus is on the Sefwis’ telling their story and journey of discovering their Jewish roots, and will also paint a vivid picture of their life today.  The goal is to explore how Judaism has shaped who they are, their understanding of the world, and their place within it.  Gabrielle and her crew plan to have just 2 people working on this phase of production, to take place over 3 weeks.  Additions to the first phase will include key interviews with experts in African Jewish history and past visitors to the Sefwi Wiawso community.

Delving deeper into the project, Gabrielle and her team seek to enhance the creation of “From the Four Corners of the Earth” by employing techniques that use a variety of digital, social media, and communications technologies to enable deeper and ongoing communication between the Sefwi community and people around the world.  One solution to this is to provide members of the Sefwi community with video-enabled smartphones and enable them to post their own video diaries online.

Why is Gabrielle and her team so interested in the Sefwi’s?  A little back-story reveals that as a young Jewish Canadian, Gabrielle was six weeks into a five-month volunteer placement in Accra, Ghana when the Jewish High Holidays came around.  The prospect of finding a group of Jewish people was looking grim, until she discovered the Sefwis.  Whilst Gabrielle was looking for nothing more than to celebrate a holiday with others, what she found was a community with an incredibly touching story.

Though Jewish traditions such as celebrating the Sabbath, circumcision, and kosher dietary laws have been followed for generations by the Sefwis, it was only in the last twenty years that they came to the discovery of Judaism and its worldwide belief.  Driven to find out more about who they are and to find others like them, the Sefwis embarked on an incredible journey of self-discovery, which leads us to the premise of this upcoming film.

Gabrielle Zilkha and her crew have started to raise money to fund the first phase of “From the Four Corners of the Earth”, but unfortunately still haven’t reached their financial goal.  They’ve recently started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to ask for help, which can be seen here for more information: http://kck.st/U0BhF5

The Mayans are 227 Years Early…

Another doomsday is lurking before us.  A lot of speculation, controversy, and talk have come up regarding the end of the Mayan Calendar.  As with most prophesies of the sort, there will be a large number of people swayed by convincing information found in the infinite world-wide-web regardless if the information is legitimate or not.

I first learned of the Mayan calendar ending on a trip to Mexico when I was a young teenager.  The date,  December 21, 2012, seemed like an eternity away, but, with the kind of mathematical accuracy this long gone civilization had, was such a thing plausible?  I found myself curious and wondered what would actually happen, but it’s not something I ever lost sleep about.  I’ve lived through a few doomsdays: The first Rapture in 1994, Nostradamus’ August 1999, Y2K, The second Rapture in 2011 and now the Mayan Calendar coming to an end.

It’s a bit ridiculous when you think of it in terms of a calendar ending.  We don’t go into a frenzied panic when the Gregorian calendar ends each year, so why all the fuss about the Mayan Calendar ending?

Every culture has their doomsday prophesy.  Did you know the Hebrew Calendar is supposed to end, too?  We’re currently in the year 5773 and according to the Talmud we have 227 years left until everything will come to a close.  The details of which are extremely vague, of course.  Then after the year 6,000 we’re supposed to have 1,000 years of rest; some call it 1,000 years of Shabbat which doesn’t sound that bad, actually.

Can you imagine what it will be like 226 years from now?  Will there be the same kind of conspiracy like there is today?  Just picture it, observant Jews will argue and debate about it for years and years prior!  Or perhaps they’ll be too busy while beginning to make arrangements for the everlasting Shabbat by preparing vats of cholent and plenty of challah ahead of time.  How will they agree on what to do when the calendar comes to an end?  Will we light Shabbat candles every night or just once marking the first night of many to come?  …All very important questions.

This actually might be something to look forward to!  We’ll leave all the chores, work, and business left to the goyim and the rest of us will relax, lounge, reflect on life, and more importantly we’ll eat and enjoy the company of our family.  Let’s not get a head of ourselves, though… We still need to get through a few more prophesies first!!  This coming December 21, I’ll be welcoming Shabbat with friends and family.  We’ll be sure to toast the end of the Mayan Calendar with some tequila and start planning for the 1,000 years of Shabbat.

This author is a writer on www.worldofjudaica.com.

GTJ Health Series: Six Tips for Stress Relief

The contents of this article are for informational purposes only.  The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

For many of us, the holidays can be a stressful time filled with deadlines at work, travel (and delays), and extended time with family.  To help manage your stress this holiday season, GTJ offers six tips for stress relief.

1- Eat, Sleep, and Exercise: A Dose of Prevention

Dr. Adam Goldstein of yourhealthradio.org, and an expert on and advocate for quality of life, gave me three pieces of advice when I started medical school (arguably the most stressful 4 years of my life).  His advice was to:

  1. Eat
  2. Sleep, and
  3. Exercise

These three activities are things that all of us, as busy professionals and students, struggle to prioritize. Let me convince you why you should.

  1. Eat well: A poor diet, such as those high in sugar, caffeine, and fat, has been shown to decrease mood and increase stress and anxiety symptoms.  Lessen your risk by eating three well balanced meals a day with plenty of vegetables, lean protein, and fiber and by limiting your sugar, caffeine, and alcohol consumption.
  2. Sleep: Sleep deprivation causes an increase in Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH) which leads to the production of stress hormones like adrenaline.   A 2010 study in the Journal of Sleep in which 30,000 adults participated found that those that get at least 7 hour a day of sleep are half as likely to have stress related illnesses like heart attack, stroke, and chest pain compared to those who slept less than five hours a day.  Other studies support this research and have also shown that those who were sleep deprived were more likely to be rated as less attractive, have poorer skin tone, be overweight, and die prematurely.  So do your body and attractiveness a favor: get at least 7 hours of sleep a night.
  3. Exercise: Exercise prevents stress by increasing production of mood boosting endorphins, lowering the production of stress hormones such as cortisol, increasing self-confidence, and even improving mild symptoms of anxiety and depression.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week.  So whether you enjoy jogging, Pilates, or basketball, make sure to get your 150 minutes a week.
2 – Breathe

We all take breathing for granted, but it is a valuable tool for relieving stress.  When you are in a stressful situation, your body releases hormones that create a “flight or flight response.”  Your breathing rate increases and your heart beats faster and faster.  While beneficial in the short term to help us catch the metro or fight off overzealous shoppers on Black Friday, if this response continues it can create physical and emotional damage.  The opposite response, known as the “rest and digest” response, serves to lessen stress and the potential damage of the “fight or flight” response.  To promote this “rest and digest” phase over the “fight or flight” phase, practice this simple deep breathing relaxation technique when you’re stressed:

Close your eyes and picture a relaxing scene (my current favorite is the beaches of Costa Rica) and, while counting to five, take a deep slow breath in through your nose.  Then, while counting down from 5, breathe slowly out through your mouth.  Repeat as necessary to encourage relaxation and relieve stress.

3 – Avoid Making a Mole Hill into a Mountain

We’ve all done it- treated a small inconvenience as if it was the end of the world.  Catastrophizing is, when a challenging event occurs, foreseeing the worst possible outcome, however unlikely.  Most likely just because you missed your bus, your significant other is in a bad mood, or your mother isn’t talking to you, the world isn’t ending.  When you feel yourself drawing broader conclusions from a relatively minor hiccup, take a moment to put the issue in context and consider asking a trusted friend for their opinion.

4 – Be Grateful

“The ship of my life may or may not be sailing on calm and amiable seas.  The challenging days of my existence may or may not be bright and promising.  Stormy or sunny days, glorious or lonely nights, I maintain an attitude of gratitude.  If I insist on being pessimistic, there is always tomorrow.  Today I am blessed.”  — Maya Angelou

Much of what we face on a daily basis are minor challenges compared to the much greater totality of things we are grateful for.  During this holiday season, take a moment each day to reflect on the things you are grateful for and approach each day with an attitude of gratitude.

5 – Help/Treat Yourself

As Donna and Tom Haverford from Parks and Rec always say you don’t need an excuse to treat yourself.

To relieve stress, do (at least) one nice thing for yourself every day.  Start each day with a relaxing ritual such as yoga, take a walk at lunch to clear your mind, or watch a hilarious video on YouTube after a long day.  By taking time out of your day for yourself, you combat the buildup of stress.

6 – Let Someone Else Treat/Help You

If you find you are stressed, seek support from relatives, significant others, friends, and, at any point, physicians or therapists.  Mental illnesses- whether panic attacks, depression, or anxiety- are serious and often treatable issues that need to be brought to the attention of a professional.  We can all benefit from a little help from our friends (or our doctors).

Liked this article? Stay tuned for Alex’s next article on New Year’s Resolutions!

Alex Berger, a new GTJ contributing columnist, is a native of the Washington DC Metropolitan Area.  He graduated in 2008 from the University of North Carolina and is currently in his last year of a combined MD/MPH program. He is excited to be back in the DC area and to share tips on nutrition, health, and fitness. He can be reached at Alexander_Berger@med.unc.edu.