Holistic Approach to Jewish Life in a Revitalized Detroit Suburb

Rabbi Herschel and Chana Finman have taken their passions for Judaism, sustainability, food and art, and combined them as part of a new center, Jewish Ferndale, named for its location in a Detroit suburb.

From Chabad.org by Eric Berger:

Leslie Goch wanted to talk with Rabbi Herschel Finman. Her husband, Donald, grapples with Crohn’s disease, an ailment that affects the digestive system. But kefir grains—the bacterial fermentation starter used in the popular milk drink—have “pretty much healed him,” she says.

Goch, who lives in the Detroit area, is in the process of converting to Judaism and aiming to keep kosher. She wanted to know how to kasher the kefir. A friend in the Jewish community had told her that Finman, a Chabad rabbi with Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan, is “the ‘go-to’ person for advice on natural foods.”

Indeed, Finman advised her that the grains could be kashered by using the fermentation starter in three batches of chalav Yisroel milk, the highest kosher variety. By the third batch, he told her, any remnants of non-kosher milk in which the grains originated would have disappeared.

It’s not unusual for a rabbi to be seen as an authority on kosher food, but on general nutrition?

Finman and his wife, Chana, however, have long occupied a unique space in the Detroit Jewish community. They have now taken their passions for Judaism, sustainability, healthy food and art, and combined them as part of a new center, Jewish Ferndale, named for its location in a growingly popular Detroit suburb.

They wanted to establish a community house “where people could get together and do things Jewish that weren’t necessarily religiously motivated,” according to the rabbi, who is known for his locally-based radio show, “Jewish Hour,” which he has been hosting for more than two decades.

The three-quarter-acre property features a fruit-tree orchard, community garden, solar panels and four bedrooms, which they can operate as a “kosher B&B,” according to the couple. They also converted a two-and-a-half-car garage into the Center for Jewish Creativity, an art studio.

“We are trying to do things that other people really aren’t doing,” says Chana Finman, an art teacher. “We tell people all the time, ‘We are going to follow your lead.’ ”

‘A Lively Place for Young People’

Ferndale, located north of the city, “is a neighborhood that in the last 30 years has undergone a tremendous transformation,” explains the rabbi. Once a bedroom community for those who worked in the city, Ferndale fell into disrepair in the 1970s as people started migrating farther away from urban centers. About 15 years ago, it began to revitalize as artists started moving into local apartments because of the cheap rent. Ferndale, according to the rabbi, is now “one of the hottest suburbs in Detroit.”

An article in Model D, a local online news magazine, argues that the neighborhood’s economic rebound is due to city officials and business owners’ efforts to build a welcoming and diverse community outside a city that has seen its share of economic woes over the years, including filing for bankruptcy in July 2013.

The Finmans began organizing events in Ferndale about four years ago, both social and educational. They held classes in libraries and hosted dinner parties in outside venues. “We had amazing turnouts,” says Chana Finman.

Jason Wine, 43, first encountered Finman about a decade ago. Then Wine saw him again a couple of years later at the Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club, where members scout for different kinds of mushrooms in parks and other nature areas.

“He fits in with the whole Ferndale community,” says Wine, an attorney in special-education law. “It’s edgy; it’s progressive. It’s a lively, great place for young people.”

A few years ago, Wine started attending Talmudic classes and Jewish gatherings, including a Lag BaOmer bonfire, led by Finman.

“I like learning with him. I can relate to him and talk to him about Torah, and not be afraid to express my views. He doesn’t necessarily reject them; he listens to them,” says Wine.

After renting space in Ferndale for a few years, the Finmans eventually purchased a former dentist’s office that needed renovations. Still, they didn’t move away from their modest approach. For example, they took the garage doors off the building and converted them into raised garden beds. And a local artist used trash from a landfill to create paths and sculptures on the property.

Goch attended the “Day of Jewish Women’s Healing” this past June at the center. Speakers included Chana Finman and representatives from Hazon, a Jewish organization that promotes food sustainability. Guests were offered fresh salads and homemade ice-cream, using plant-based, nondairy almond milk.

“They are just a very warm, welcoming, grounded family,” attests Goch, who works in outdoor retail. She also attended the grand opening of the new building on Sept. 17, which featured art, food, music and a peek at community garden.

“I was so happy to see what had finally come to fruition,” she says. “It was amazing to see an entire community come together to support them.”

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