Yisrael Pinson has lived everywhere: Paris, Manchester, Melbourne. And, in a few months, he and his family of seven will be moving to Detroit.
Some may say that being a do-gooder has gone to Pinson’s head. What is he thinking, coming to a city that is known for its racial divides, its horrendous crime rate, its poor schools and its corrupt government? Well, he’s thinking he can change all of that.
You need a preschool? Pinson will open one. You want a community center that serves not only those of the Jewish faith but Detroit as a whole? He’s got that covered. You want to watch a neighborhood go from good to great? Then, Pinson’s your man.
Pinson is the founder of the first Chabad House in Detroit. A Chabad House is what some might describe as a Jewish community center; it is where both educational and outreach efforts will be centered, helping all ages and serving all those who come to its doors.
“I want to be there not just coming in and out when it’s convenient. I want to BE there. I don’t want to be a visitor from the suburbs that visits there,” Pinson said, running between meetings in the suburbs and the city. There = Detroit.
The location is perfect. You’ve got downtown (Gilbertville). You’ve got Midtown (Moseyland). Now, Brush Park has a righteous leader who will ensure, in his straightforward and single-minded way, that this historic neighborhood has a faith element that is new, different and essential.
That’s not to say that Pinson is going to rule the roost. Rather, he is working diligently to fit into the established community. He is attending CDC meetings. He is hanging out with public officials. He is shaking hands and kissing babies in a metaphorical sense. He gets Detroit. He gets the problems. He sees the huge challenges.
And, still he comes to the city.
Now, he’s kinda got it good. The home at 278 Mack Avenue was largely move-in ready when Pinson took it over. He received furniture donations, which made it easier to open the doors. And having Whole Foods a block away means he’s ready to host a few get-togethers. (There’s one tonight – see the details below to attend the only Open House that will serve Atwater’s Midtown beer with no plans on running out.)
And it’s not hard to elevate a block when you’ve got some incredible company. His neighbors include the DMC, Whole Foods, Wayne State University. Newcomers to the block will be the M1 rail and a Detroit Red Wings entertainment district. Is his move fated? Is this the ideal location to put a Chabad House? All signs are pointing to a resounding, “Yes.”
Please note: Pinson is relatively new to the area. He moved to Metro Detroit about 14 years ago; his wife, Devorah, is from Ohio. So when he started talking to people about Detroit, he got the usual comments: You’ve got to be kidding. You’re naïve. Nothing will ever change. You don’t want to LIVE in Detroit.
Those are the people Pinson doesn’t listen to for advice, thankfully.
“To me, it was very important that my involvement in the city of Detroit ends with me being in the city, not just coming to the city,” Pinson said, noting that his first weeks in the Chabad House combined with a workspace at Bamboo Detroit has been full of revelations he needed.
It helps that Chabad is worldwide. It helps that he has lived with both his parents and as a young man across the globe. His grandmother still runs a school in Africa; his mother teaches in France. He doesn’t have a narrow view of what Detroit was, is or could be. He sees everything. So driving in from West Bloomfield every day won’t cut it – that is why, over time and school year, his family will join him either in Chabad House or a nearby residence. (Hey, it’s a family of seven. That takes some serious square footage.)
And that’s his point. “People still really don’t get it. They ask me, ‘What do you see there?’ To me, I see the past, present and future,” Pinson said. “I come from a very spiritual place. To me, finding out how things started, where we are today and planning for the future is awesome.”
“The most exciting thing to me right now is our location,” Pinson added. “We’re at the North end of Brush Park. We’re a 1908 house, and we’re one of the only 22 historic buildings still up there. There was a prominent Jewish community here. The whole neighborhood was developed and designed by (famed architect) Albert Kahn.
“Today, there are barely any structures left but it’s in the direct vicinity of downtown,” Pinson said. But there is so much on the way. For example, the DMC is building its heart hospital and a new gateway to the whole complex just a few steps away. There will be that massive hockey arena. It is centralized; it is the final connector between downtown and Midtown. And it will be great. He’ll make sure of it.
Friends call Pinson a community powerhouse. He is honest, forward thinking and extremely intelligent. He and his wife have huge clout with not only the Jewish community but with many, many others (including me, having met Pinson years ago when he was part of the Friendship Circle, a very worthy organization that helps children with disabilities).
Progress. It’s what Pinson stands for; it’s what he wants for Detroit. And he is working with great groups including the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue to build up more of the faith there. There is a welcome party in the works; more details on that to come.
As he meets people, as he brings in the rest of Metro Detroit’s Jewish community, as he learns about the city, he has already picked up on one important lesson that we ALL need to hear about Detroit right now: “It’s a small sandbox and we have to play together.”
“It’s literally coming back to life in front of our eyes,” Pinson said. “I see preservation and progressive working together. … I hit the jackpot with this area.”
If you are free tonight, pop into the new Chabad House from 5 to 9 p.m. and enjoy a fruit buffet along with a beer and wine tasting in honor of Tu B’Shvat. There is free parking at the Hospice of Michigan (400 Mack Avenue). The Chabad House of Greater Downtown Detroit is located at 278 Mack Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48201. Don’t be a stranger. (Want to sign up for emails or donate? Click here.)