Jewish Journey Interviews - Congregation Shir Tikvah (Troy)

Jewish Journey Interviews

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  Aura Ahuvia
Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Holocaust, Jewish Gentile Relations, Observance, Upbringing

Summary: Rabbi Aura Ahuvia discusses the historical meaning of a rabbi and the multiple roles of a rabbi as a teacher and interpreter of Judaism and as a helper for the needs of the congregants.  In 1938, Her father’s family fled Vienna by train to Italy and then took a boat to Palestine. Both her parents told her and her brothers to keep their Judaism secret. Interviewer Larry Boocker questions her about the Rabbi’s role in determining Jewish education, involvement in the business of the synagogue, and as the representative of Judaism to the inter-faith community.


  Edith Bernstein
Themes: Jewish Identity, Upbringing, Holocaust
Summary: Edith’s parents were part of the underground in Holland and they hid people
during the war. Her father would find people who were willing to take in a Jewish child. She was hidden at a farm away from the city. As an adult she went to Israel and met her husband on a Kibbutz. Together they returned to his home in New York City, and then came to Detroit.


   Sam Boocker
Jewish Identity, Immigration, Jewish Gentile Relations, Upbringing 
Summary: Sam Boocker is the son of immigrants who grew up in a mixed neighborhood.  He’s always had a strong Jewish identity including fluency in Yiddish.

     Elena Bose

Themes: Jewish Identity, Immigration, Jewish-Gentile Relations, Upbringing

Summary: Born of an observant Jewish Orthodox mother and a non-practicing Hindu father, Elena was raised in Calcutta (Kolkata), India. She speaks of being a spiritual Jew and a cultural Indian. She recalls observing Passover and the High Holidays in the home with Ashkenazi traditions and also participating in Hindu cultural celebrations.  Elena went to a convent school in Calcutta, an Indian Methodist boarding school, Drew University in New Jersey, and then transferred to and graduated from City University of London.


    Leon Bruer z"l
Themes: Jewish Identity, Upbringing
Summary: Leon Bruer did not know that he was Jewish until he was age 28. His parents were German Jews who migrated to the US in the late 1920’s and decided not to practice Judaism. Thus he did know very much about his Jewish heritage other than that he was a Jew by matrilineal descent. His son, Matt, became interested in Judaism. Then Leon and his son started a course of study about Jewish religion at Congregation Shir Tikvah

   Matthew Bruer
Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Observance, Upbringing
Summary: Matt Bruer describes his return to spiritual Judaism after years of being a secular, rational atheist with ties to ancestral Judaism. In difficult times, he recounts that God (Ha Shem) came to him and offered the solace of prayer. He began doing Jewish customs, such as laying tefillin and davening. He started learning Hebrew, while also joining the community of a Reform/Renewal congregation.

  Menachem Caytak

Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Holocaust, Observance, Upbringing

Summary: Menachem’s family was a traditional Jewish family. Menachem’s father was in training to be a doctor when he became interested in Chabad and living the lifestyle of the Hasidim. The Lubavitcher rabbi encouraged him to become a doctor, rather than leave medical school and become a rabbi. His mother became religious when she stayed on a religious Kibbutz in Israel. Menachem is the ninth of twelve children. Since many relatives had died in the Holocaust, Menachem’s parents felt it was important to have a large family. He went to a Jewish day school in Ottawa, Canada, and then high school and yeshiva in Chicago with further study in New York and Israel. He describes how his marriage followed the Chabad traditions of using a matchmaker followed by the couple meeting and talking to see if they shared the same values and beliefs. After becoming a rabbi, he and his wife decided to settle in Troy, Michigan to advance Jewish growth and pride in being Jewish. With the emergence of the coronavirus and the Covid-19 restriction, he has learned more about technology and doing virtual events.

      Edward Chezick
Jewish Identity, Conversion, Holocaust, Jewish Gentile Relations, Upbringing

Summary: Intrigued by Judaism from an early age, Edward Chezick’s path to conversion at Shir Tikvah is one built by careful spiritual learning and philosophical investment. His time while stationed in Frankfurt in the Army included learning from an enlisted Rabbi, Israelis working for El Al, and Holocaust survivors. These experiences are detailed as well as his personal journey to becoming an “enduring member of the tribe”. 


     Carolyn Comai

Themes: Jewish Identity, Conversion
Summary: Carolyn Comai converted from Lutheranism to Judaism in her college years. She was influenced by lectures from Rabbi Sherwin Wine. The Hillel rabbi was not encouraging of her intention to convert, however she found the synagogue, Beth Emeth, in Ann Arbor, which had both a Jewish and a Christian congregation meeting in the same building. She grew to love the holidays, but always missed the choir music that she had grown up with. While she did not experience anti-Semitism in her community, she sometime felt that older Jews were inclined to let her know that she was not part of the “club”. The community of ShirTikvah strengthened her Judaism as did her involvement in representing children’s Jewish holidays in public schools.



           Robert Crowe 

Themes:Jewish Identity, Conversion, Upbringing
Summary:Robert details the difficult childhood and painful part of his adulthood as he struggled to understand and accept his gender identity. His Jewish identity came about when he was trying to connect with spirituality.


   Anna Fraymovich

Themes:Jewish Identity,



      Elwin Greenwald

Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Observance, Upbringing
Summary: Elwin was raised in an orthodox family who kept Shabbos and his father went to services weekly. His first memories of being Jewish were Seders. His parents came from Hungary, his family did not live in a Jewish neighborhood. After going to public school (Cooley High School) where he was one of a few Jewish students, he was transferred to Cass High School because of his art talent. While there was more diversity of student at Cass, he was shy and insular.


     Rabbi Brent Gutmann



          Wolf Gruca z"l

Themes: Jewish Identity, Anti-Semitism, Doctrine, Holocaust, Immigration, Jewish Gentile Relations, Observance

Summary: Wolf Gruca was born in 1920 in Poland, in Czestochowa, a town of about 20,000-40, 000 Jewish. About 10 years before the war (WWII), Jews would keep to themselves, they would walk on one side of the street, Jews were separate from Gentiles, not because of the law, but that was just the way it was. Jews had stores and homes and the Polish people were envious. Wolf Gruca was the youngest of six kids and he was raised religious, going to religious school in the morning, and the Polish public school in the afternoon. At home they spoke Yiddish, he spoke Polish and could read Hebrew. Jews made a living selling in markets/stores. His father was a shoemaker. His mother saw his father in his army uniform and decided to marry him—she got a matchmaker to make it happen. Wolf went to synagogue with his father that was the way it was, “you had no choice”. He loved the prayers and the singing in the synagogue and he loved it when a “maggid”, a rabbi would come to town and give sermons, explaining without a book, just talking to the people.


     William Hoffman
Themes: Jewish Identity, Anti-Semitism, Conversion, Doctrine, Jewish Gentile Relations, Upbringing

Summary:William Hoffman’s Jewish identity is a microcosm of the American Jewish diaspora’s path to Reform and Renewal practice. Born into a traditionally Orthodox family of Kosher bakers in Pittsburgh, Hoffman drank deep at the well of tradition before his thirst for debate and different styles of Judaism led him to the reform movement. Along the way he moved to Michigan and found a reconnection to his liturgical past at Shir Tikvah. Hoffman also details his family putting down roots in America.


         Eileen Isenberg

Themes: Jewish Identity, Upbringing, Jewish Gentile Relations
Summary: Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Eileen Isenberg’s early life was clouded by her father’s battle with cancer. Her cousin Dave, a doctor, would make house calls to care for her father but also helped cultivate a love of Jewish-styled joke and story telling in Eileen. This joyous appreciation of Yiddish-tinged humor stayed with Eileen as she and her husband raised a family in Detroit’s Jewish community. Eileen reflects on her early life in Cleveland and fun times with Shir Tikvah in this interview.

  Steve Klaper

      John Kovacs
Themes: Jewish Identity, Holocaust, Immigration, Observance, Upbringing

Summary: John Kovacs’ family was torn apart when the Germans entered Hungary during World War II. His grandmother and brother were killed in Auschwitz while his mother managed to survive the death camp. At the age of 11, John was sent to a work camp intended for 15 to 45 year olds, where he toiled alongside his stepfather. At one point the workers at the camp were loaded into a train. John’s stepfather - realizing the train had made its way past Budapest and was going to continue towards Germany - bade John to escape. From then on during the war he lived and worked in different settings including a Jewish house “protected” by Germans and an open-air brick factory. In 1945, with the war over, John reunited with his mother and returned to the city where he had lived and he and his mother later immigrated to New York, later moving to Michigan. He has since visited in Hungary and one of his sons was Bar Mitzvah’d at the Budapest Synagogue.


   Nira Lev


      Cary Levy
Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Jewish Gentile Relations, Observance, Upbringing

Summary: Cary Levy speaks of his strong attachment to Judaism, starting with his father as an ethical role model and his mother as a keeper of the rituals. He grew up in Detroit in a Jewish neighborhood going to public schools that were interreligious and interracial. His sense of Jewishness seems ingrained and not dependent on spiritual belief. He and his wife, JoAnne, were not affiliated with a synagogue until Congregation Shir Tikvah. He surprised himself by joining the Youth committee and attending many of the early events of the newly formed congregation.


   Pennie Michelin
Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Observance

Summary: Pennie’s Orthodox grandparents came from Poland and Russia eventually settling in Metropolitan Detroit.  She grew up with a close and large extended family in a kosher Conservative house. Her life journey has taken her through all branches of Judaism.  She has chosen the one bringing her the most fulfillment and spirituality: Reform/Renewal movement. Equally important are being welcomed, heard, and empowered as a person and a woman in the community.


Dean Purcell



        Rochelle Rubin
Themes: Jewish Identity, Holocaust, Immigration, Observance, Upbringing

Summary: Rochelle Rubin’s parents met in a displaced persons camp near Dachau concentration camp. Both of her parents had spouses and children who had died in concentration camps or in Siberia. She describes herself as Jewish by culture, by tradition, by religion but not by faith. She says, I believe prayer has to do with communication with yourself and making yourself a better person. She conducts tours at the Detroit Holocaust Center.


Dena Scher 


   Judy Schreiber
Themes: Jewish Identity, Holocaust

Summary: As a young child (3-6 years) Judy Schreiber and her father and mother were kept at Terezin, a central transit camp for Jews during WWII. From Terezin, Jews were deported to extermination camps. Judy does not remember her early life in Prague. She was able to live with her mother in barracks, but her father was separated from them. Her earliest memories of Terezin were that it was always scary and always being hungry. She has memories of the camp becoming briefly as a “show” or propaganda camp for the Red Cross, with fake money being printed for a pretend bank. Her mother’s six sisters and brothers, mother and father, nieces and nephews did not survive. Judy’s adjustment was at first difficult, because while she spoke Yiddish, Czech, and Hebrew, she did not speak English. Eventually they moved to Detroit where she went to a Yeshiva. She describes her father as never recovering from the experiences of the camps, going into the camp as a strong man and coming out broken. 


     Cindy Silverman
Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Observance, Upbringing

Summary:Cindy Silverman describes living in a Conservative Jewish home with frequent contact with her maternal grandparents who were Orthodox. Her family did not attend services very often, but she for a short time attended a Hebrew High School. In particular her Grandpa Joe instilled a love of Judaism in her and always supported her participation in Congregation Shir Tikvah, Reform/Renewal synagogue. Grandpa Joe started the tradition of providing the challah for Shabbat service and that continues as a family tradition. Her engagement with Congregation Shir Tikvah has been a major part of her adult life—there she has served on the Rituals Committee, learned the meaning of Hebrew prayers, learned to read and chant Torah, and continues to participate in Torah study. She recounts how during a violent encounter, she started to chant the “Shema” in Hebrew, and the intruder fled her house. Going to Israel has helped her to examine her relationship with God. Now that she is retired and older, she is examining her role as a senior citizen in the Congregation. She expects that like every other time in her life, “God will be with her”.


      Arnie Sleutelberg

Themes: Jewish Identity, Anti-Semitism, Doctrine, Holocaust, Jewish Gentile Relations, Observance, Upbringing
Summary: Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg’s upbringing in Hudson, MI featured a reverence for Judaism observed in secret from the rest of the community. Sleutelberg reflects on this as he examines his parent’s flight from the Holocaust, the path to rabbinical school, and his own sexuality in this interview.

Interviewee: Pamela Spitzer

Themes: Jewish Identity, Observance, Doctrine, Jewish Gentile Relations

Summary: Hailing originally from Auburn, NY, Pam Spitzer’s Jewish journey has spanned across a wide breadth of Judaism’s spectrum. Pam grew up in a conservative synagogue, which started out orthodox, and then became reform. Brought up in a kosher home, Pam’s parents shifted from orthodox to conservative and she remained in this denomination for years on, enrolling her children in the first branch of United Hebrew Schools in Troy, MI. Pam reflects on the early meetings of the Troy Jewish Congregation, which grew into Congregation Shir Tikvah, and how choices such as whether to be reform or conservative and where to hold services were made in those formative years. Pam also speaks to her 36 years of experience teaching in CST’s religious school, her work with B’nai Mitzvah students, and her own Jewish practice in the home especially including ethical treatment of animals in her family’s Kashrut practice.

   Aaron Starr
Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Observance, Upbringing

Summary: Rabbi Aaaron Starr describe his natural choice of becoming a rabbi. Growing up, he and his family had participated in the founding and organization of the reform/renewal Shir Tikvah synagogue. With his father, he frequently set up the synagogue for services and Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg, the congregation’s rabbi became an important mentor. Starr expounds on the many aspects of being a pulpit rabbi and his moving from a Reform rabbi to a Conservative rabbi, and he and his wife, Rebecca, increasing respect and love off Jewish ritual.

     Rebecca Starr
Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Jewish Gentile Relations, Observance, Upbringing

Summary: Rebecca’s childhood in Michigan’s Upper Pennisula meshed frontier living with a kosher style home. Having uprooted from their lives in Detroit, the family settled into a farmhouse in Pickford, MI, where they hunted and grew food while also holding weekly Shabbat dinners.

Following her mother’s example, Rebecca took on the responsibility to educate people about Judaism. During this interview Rebecca also reflects on how her childhood, college years, marriage, and current role as the Rebbetzin at Shaarey Zedek provided essential steps in her Jewish identity. 


         Susan Tauber

Themes: Jewish Identity, Jewish Gentile Relations, Upbringing
Summary: Having moved from Detroit to Alabama to start fourth grade, Susan Tauber was struck by the lack of racial and religious diversity. Tauber’s family background was equally divided between Her Orthodox Jewish paternal grandparents, and her socialist atheist maternal grandparents. Though Alabama was different, Tauber always fit in easily and was always open about her Judaism. Her friends came to temple with her and she would visit churches with them. She remembers: I would go horseback riding with my girlfriends. We ride through town. We throw a saddle on and we go ride all over. The family then returned to Detroit. Having returned as an accomplished pianist, Susan was glad to reconnect with Jewish culture. Later in life, she starting a career in journalism, and moved to Rochester, MI.  Susan found herself again detached from a Jewish community, until she became part of the founding of Shir Tikvah synagogue.


  Gretchen Thams
Themes: Jewish Identity, Anti-Semitism, Conversion, Jewish Gentile Relations, Upbringing
Summary: Gretchen Thams’ identity as a Jew has remained close to her heart but has been expressed differently across diverse eras and geography. From moving to Detroit, MI and attending services at Temple Beth El on Woodward to her family’s move to Rochester, MI and subsequent conversion to Christianity. Later, as Christian, Thams served in the State Department abroad and in D.C. Throughout the interview, Thams tells of navigating a range of Anti-Semitism, building up her own identity as a Jew and how she made Bat-Mitzvah at age 85.


   Sandy Walker
Themes:Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Observance, Conversion
Summary: Sandra Walker grew up and went to college in New Jersey. Her family was Orthodox and she went to Hebrew school three times/week. Her father immigrated from near Kiev to the US. Her paternal grandfather came alone to the US and after 2 years he had enough money to bring his wife and son. Her maternal grandfather came alone to the US at the age of 14—The maternal side of her family is from Austria and Romania. She has an interfaith marriage and found that the Reform congregation, Shir Tikvah, was a good fit for their family. She has lived in Milwaukee and Dallas before moving to Michigan—She compares the Jewish presence in these cities. All of the family has been to Israel and presently she continues to be part of the Saturday morning Torah study group.


    Paul Wenig

Themes: Jewish Identity, Anti-Semitism, Doctrine
Summary: Paul Wenig is a retired doctor who served in the military during the Vietnam era. He is currently active in CST’s Torah study group.


  Phyllis Wenig

Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Observance, Upbringing
Summary: In this interview, Phyllis Wenig speaks of her upbringing in a Jewish community, affiliation with a Reform congregation, the influence of a respected Rabbi, and the importance of her involvement in Jewish youth and leadership groups. She has positive views on Orthodox Jewish practices, which were formed by her first marriage to an Orthodox Jewish man and more recently by her son’s marriage to an Orthodox woman.  As she talks about the early formation of Congregation Shir Tikvah in 1982, Phyllis recounts the early Hebrew school in Troy, her “parking lot” meeting with Pam Spitzer, the first group meetings, housing the early student rabbis, and her feeling that the group “invented it as it went along.”



Interviewee:  Ralph Yamron
Themes: Jewish Identity, Anti-Semitism, Holocaust, Immigration, Observance, Upbringing

Summary: Ralph Yamron reflects on his identity with Reform Judaism, even though he disagrees with having women rabbis and cantors. He respects the fervor of his Orthodox neighbors and expects the Orthodox to maintain the legacy of Judaism. He recalls the story of his grandfather’s getting a one-eyed horse as a reward for building a large oven for the Czar.


   David Zachman

Themes: Jewish Identity, Conversion, Upbringing
Summary:David Zachman’s mother was 8 years old and being raised Christian, when his grandmother converted to Judaism and married a Jewish man (David’s grandfather). Both David’s grandmother and mother converted. When his mother prepared to marry her high school sweetheart, she asked him to convert to Judaism. David was the first in the family to be born into a Jewish family. 


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Fri, April 16 2021 4 Iyar 5781