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Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit

278 Mack Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48201

Yisrael Pinson

By MJ Galbraith
March 28, 2014

There's a grand old house that sits on Mack Avenue, a reddish brown brick beauty built in 1909 by architect Peter Dederichs. It's a stretch of Mack that will only get busier over the next few years as the Detroit Medical Center builds its new Mack Gateway smack across from that old house, an entrance that will provide easy access to all of the hospitals on the DMC campus. The house itself was most recently a urologist's office, though the majority of the building was kept designed as a home. Only the kitchen was removed, becoming the examination room.

Rabbi Yisrael Pinson hopes to rebuild that kitchen sometime soon. He'll have to, anyhow, once he moves his wife and five children into that house on Mack. The Pinson family will be moving into Detroit's first Chabad House, a center for metro Detroit's Jewish population. The Chabad tradition asks families to move into the heart of a city and set up a sort of community center where people are invited to explore Judaism, take classes, and take part in religious services.

Rabbi Pinson comes from a Chabad family. His parents set up a Chabad school in Nice, France, where Rabbi Pinson was born and raised. His grandparents set up Chabad schools in Morocco and Tunisia. So it's surprising that when the idea for Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit was first formed, Rabbi Pinson didn't think he was the right person for the job. But after failing to convince other families to come to the city and lead the house, Rabbi Pinson woke up one day and realized that his passion for the city was critical in running the Chabad House.

“I'm not coming here just to be here. I'm coming here to bring people here. I want my move to be a signal to the Jewish community that they should move too. I want for people who are on the fence who are like, ‘Should we go or should we not go—and this guy with his five kids moved there?’” says Rabbi Pinson. “Right now, my biggest pleasure since we bought this house in December is to bring people to the city.”

Rabbi Pinson believes in, as he says, walking the walk. For him, living in West Bloomfield and espousing the virtues of Detroit isn't enough. He wants to introduce Detroit to friends and peers who may not otherwise have come to the city. There's something in the suburbs called F.O.D.--Fear of Detroit, says Rabbi Pinson--and it's a personal joy of his to see it wash away.

The rabbi also sees something happening in Michigan that is not unique to the Jewish community. Young people are leaving the state after graduating college—the brain drain, as it’s called—to move to other big cities like Chicago and New York. And they're not moving to the suburbs of those cities. By strengthening the core city you strengthen the region, as the theory goes.

“One of the things that we can do is have a strong urban core. Royal Oak and Ferndale are nice, but here in Detroit. And it's happening,” says Rabbi Pinson. “We know people are moving down here. We know that there are new residential developments that have to be built. And that translates to the whole of metro Detroit and the Jewish community having a future. If we're not here to make sure that this city comes back and is attractive to young people, then we're losing the battle.”

Every Thursday evening, Rabbi Pinson hosts a lesson in spiritual Judaism at the house, Ancient Lessons for Modern Times. After the class, discussions and conversations are held as people hang out and socialize over food. The Chabad House also hosts Shabbat on Friday nights. The rabbi is planning more programming for the future as the community grows.

When he's not at the Chabad House, Rabbi Pinson spends a lot of time running from hospital to hospital in the city, performing chaplain services for Jewish patients. He's also working on partnerships with Hillel organizations on the Wayne State University and University of Detroit Mercy campuses.

“I'm here because I believe in this place and want to be a part of it,” says Rabbi Pinson. “Even if nothing else pans out, if this whole dream falls apart, I'm not going anywhere. I'm in Detroit. That's where I am. I'll find something else to do. I don't think it's going to fall apart, but I'm just saying—it's not like I'm here for the social experiment. If it works, good. If it doesn't, let me try something else. This is, for me, a long-term commitment.”

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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