Thursday, July 12, 2012

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein's Detroit Roots

I've been following Rabbi Yonah Bookstein for several years now. He's a little more than 6 years my senior and I suppose I've looked up to him as a social media guru in the virtual Jewish community of the Web. I learned about his Detroit roots from a blog post he published back in September 2008 following a "Young Detroit in Hollywood" event that took place in California for Jewish expats of Michigan. He wrote:

Jewish Ex-Detroiters like myself have a religious attachement [sic] to our hometown. We have a tight-knit Jewish community, allegiance to local sports teams, and favorite bakeries, cafes, or delis. (Notice the absence of any allegiance to a synagogue or temple). When we leave Detroit, we leave close family back home – grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents, siblings and cousins. We get back for family events when we can. We try to keep up with the Tigers or Pistons. We root for U of M at the Rose Bowl. We often are connected to other Detroiters who made the move out here before us.

The Jews who left West Bloomfield, Birmingham, Southfield, or Bloomfield Hills, left for the greener pastures of Hollywoodland. Most are going to stay and put down roots. My Detroiter street cred: Zeemans [sic], Hillel Day School, Cranbrook, grandma at The Heritage, Tigers, Camp Tavor – I won’t mention the Synagogue.

I appreciated Rabbi Yonah's honesty in that post and I let him know it. But I also made certain to inform him that Jewish Detroit was making a comeback and it was legit. Since that time almost 4 years ago, we've maintained a nice relationship through our blogs, projects, and Twitter. We regularly shmooze (virtually of course) about Detroit sports, and he will often ask me to weigh in on certain Detroit-specific issues.

The local Jewish newspaper, the Detroit Jewish News, often features young Jewish leaders who have returned to Detroit. I thought it would be interesting to look at someone like Rabbi Yonah with Detroit roots and no intention to return to Detroit, but an unwavering attachment to his hometown. So, two months ago I sent an email to the publisher and editor of the Detroit Jewish News: "Did you know Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is from Detroit and went to Cranbrook? He's the guy behind Jewlicious. Might make for an interesting article. Maybe Robin Schwartz?"

Robin Schwartz's story about Rabbi Yonah and his Detroit roots is featured on the cover of this week's issue. Here it is:

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein recalls picking up a guitar for the first time at age 10, in the late 1970s, as a Hillel Day School student growing up in Detroit’s Palmer Woods neighborhood.

His late father, Marvin Bookstein — a bluegrass musician who played six different instruments — taught young Yonah the fundamentals, opening his eyes and ears to the beauty and power of music. He spent his early years attending concerts, going to Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, and attending chamber music festivals; so it’s fitting that Bookstein, now 42, of Los Angeles is the force behind Jewlicious. The nonprofit organization hosts hip seasonal music festivals in California that attract hundreds of young Jews from across the country.

“Music unifies and inspires people,” Bookstein says. “One of the reasons I got so into creating musical events is that music was an integral part of my life as a child.”
Bookstein’s family has deep roots in Metro Detroit. His father, grandfather and greatgrandfather all owned Ace Furniture Co.; the decades-old family business was sold in 1979. Bookstein attended high school and graduated from Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills. He was active in the Jewish Socialist-Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror and spent summers at its Camp Tavor near Kalamazoo.

Bookstein left town to attend the University of Oregon and Oxford University, was ordained by Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in New York and is a former Fulbright Fellow to Poland. In the 1990s, he and his wife, Rachel, worked for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Poland. They founded Jewish youth centers in Krakow and Lodz, revived the Jewish Community Center in Warsaw, established the annual Warsaw Jewish Book Festival and created a center for adult Jewish education. Since returning to the United States, Bookstein’s focus has been uniting and inspiring young Jews across the country, first as a campus rabbi and now as director of Jewlicious. He has four children: Moshe, 13, Sophia, 11, Shlomo, 9, and Naftali, 5.

“I believe passionately in the Jewish future, and young people are the inspiration,” he says. “Our overall goal is to increase participation in Jewish life.”

The concept of Jewlicious was created in a garage in Long Beach, Calif., in 2005. The first festival attracted about 100 people, and the crowds have grown bigger and bigger each year. One event is held each summer; a second festival takes place each winter on an old cruise ship.

“It’s a mash up of a music festival and a conference, and it has about 90 programs over the course of three days,” Bookstein explains. “Everything from Jewish yoga to conversations with famous Jewish actors — it’s a pluralistic weekend with all kinds of offerings.

Tickets are currently on sale for the third annual SummerFest Music and Summer Camp Festival Aug. 16-19 in Brandeis, Calif., which has been described as “Jewish summer camp for grownups.” The event includes concerts, speakers, horseback riding, rock climbing, midnight hikes, bonfires, swimming, yoga, wine and pickle making, and more.

“We get people from 20 states and 50 colleges and universities,” Bookstein says. “It’s a really amazing pilgrimage.” Tickets range from $60-$175 for the weekend.

Participants can camp out or pay more for a room in a bunk or cottage. Right now, these events only take place in California, but Bookstein’s goal is to take the show on the road and host Jewlicious Festivals across the country. He already creates Shabbat hospitality tents at national music festivals. He’s also a member of the band Shankbone, which performs Jewish and Indie music a few times a year.

“Young people love festivals, and they love music,” he says. “We’ve created this platform, and it really could be replicated all over the country.

“I know Detroit because I grew up there. The Jewish community in Detroit has always been more cohesive, but in other places there’s a huge amount of assimilation. There’s an unengaged population of young Jews.

We’re only tipping the scales somewhat; there are so many people to reach and so many people to engage. It’s a huge undertaking.”

Bookstein relies heavily on social media to get his message out. His blog is said to be the Internet’s most-read Jewish blog. He also has podcast classes on Judaism on iTunes, more than 5,000 “friends” on Facebook and more than 8,000 followers on Twitter. In 2009, he was the top vote-getter in the Jewish Federation of North America’s inaugural Jewish Community Heroes Award, receiving more than 90,000 online votes.

“I’ve made it my focus to connect with young people,” Bookstein says. “If I want to be relevant and reach the constituency I believe is so critical to our future, I need to be engaged in social media on a daily and hourly basis.”

Rabbi Jason Miller, a local Jewish leader, entrepreneur and president of Access Computer Technology in West Bloomfield, follows Bookstein on the Web. Miller has his own blog,, and thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers. He believes the “traditional borders of the global Jewish community have disappeared through globalization and new technology.” The two rabbis are in regular communication online, but have not yet met in person.

“Yonah is one of these Jewish thought leaders of the social media age,” Miller says. “I read his blog regularly, and we mutually re-post and ‘retweet’ each other’s content because we run in the same social media circles. Yonah has an immense Twitter following and strong social clout, but it’s the way he uses those to push the boundaries of the ‘Jewish establishment’ that has really earned my respect. Not only is he a change agent helping the Israeli and Diaspora communities to think outside the box, but he also exudes a contagious form of excitement and optimism. I hope to meet him IRL (in real life) soon.”

Rabbi Bookstein tries to get back to Michigan at least once a year to visit friends and family members. Last summer, he brought his friend, Chasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, to the Motor City Moishe House in Detroit. The communal home for young adults offers subsidized housing and is meant to breathe new Jewish life into the city. At least 50 people showed up to meet Matisyahu and share a kosher meal before his concert at St. Andrews Hall.

After the visit, Bookstein wrote an article for the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles. In part, it reads: “When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1970s and ’80s, the notion that Jews would return to the city — literally the areas of old Detroit that housed the core of the community for a hundred years — was a remote fantasy. The community had been moving to the suburbs since the 1950s… However, Detroit’s Jewish community, who live almost entirely in the suburbs, is not ready to give up on a city that has such a rich and vibrant Jewish past.”

Just as Detroit is trying to revitalize and reinvigorate Jewish life locally, Bookstein is working to generate excitement and increase participation among young Jews nationwide. Jewlicious is attempting to win a Chase and LivingSocial grant of $250,000 through an online contest to further Bookstein’s efforts.

“Like everybody in the nonprofit sector, it’s challenging to fund these programs and meet the financial demands of creating these kinds of opportunities for young adults,” he says. “[Young Jews] care about their Jewish future and want to be a part of it. Business is booming. There’s a huge demand for what we do.”

While Rabbi Yonah might not be planning on a return to his hometown of Detroit, it is important for Detroiters to know that such an important figure who is making the future of American Jewry fun and exciting and vibrant got his start here. Deep down he wants to see the Jewish community of Detroit succeed and he has much insight to offer. I'm glad that Robin's article will bring Rabbi Yonah and his energy a little closer to home.

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