Novi and Northville are communities on the edge . . . on the edge of the “core” of the Metro Detroit Jewish community.
The recently completed 2005 population study done by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit showed the suburban area where most Jews live expanded from 13 ZIP codes in 1999 to 23 ZIP codes in 2005. Royal Oak to the east and Commerce Township and Walled Lake to the northwest have been added. But the Jewish population in Novi and Northville did not exhibit enough growth to nudge the core further west.
Not yet, anyway.
There is no doubt that those who live there are increasingly connected to each other and Rabbi Avrohom Susskind has become the Pied Piper for area Jews. Rabbi Susskind, 31, is the director of the Novi-Northville Center for Jewish Life, a project of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. With his wife, Leah, 29, and their three little girls, Chaya Mushka, 5, Fayga, 3, and Chana, 1, the Susskinds are playing a Jewish tune that has brought Jews out into the open.
“It’s the Susskinds that are trying to bring the community and local families together,” Celia Gendloff of Novi says.
And, indeed, anyone you approach about the Jews in the community suggests the Susskinds are the people to talk to.
They grew up in Crown Heights, New York, and were teaching in Oak Park at Lubavitch-run schools when they decided it was time for a change. “We were looking for more challenge, to start something fresh and new,” Rabbi Susskind explained.
As they made contacts in the area they were encouraged. “Meeting one family led to another. Each family knew two or three other families – not 20, but a few others,” the rabbi says. “In every subdivision, I’d meet a few Jews who thought they were the only Jew there. But there was no place for Jews to congregate as Jews in Novi.”
So the Susskinds looked to move to the area and open their home for Jewish activities. They plotted Jewish homes and businesses on a map in order to decide where to live.
“We found there was no particular spot with Jewish people. There were some in every subdivision, on the west side, and the north side. So we decided to move where we thought we’d be central.”
Their real estate agent thought they were crazy when they decided on a neighborhood – he was certain there were no Jews there. “But we found that two of our neighbors are Jewish, and there is another family just down the block,” Rabbi Susskind says.
With unpacked boxes still scattered around their new home, the family held a Sukkot party last October. “We exceeded our expectations,” Rabbi Susskind says of the 60 people who turned out and the connections that were made. “People saw each other and said, ‘I know you form Temple Israel’ … ‘I know you from Adat Shalom.’”
“We’ve grown a lot quicker than we anticipated, in both quality and quantity,” the rabbi says.
For example, just a few days after the Sukkot party, he received an e-mail from several parents of teens asking him if he would meet with their kids if they got them together. “It wasn’t even our initiative,” he says. “They came on their own. There were about 10 kids and we met several times.”
While people aren’t moving to the area to be with other Jews, Rabbi Susskind says, they see his Center for Jewish Life as a plus. They’ve held a Chanukah party in their home and a Purim party at the Novi Civic Center. Leah Susskind runs a monthly Women’s Circle and is planning a program for mothers with young children.
As more families get involved, the Susskinds hope to further expand their offerings.
More than 30 years before the Susskinds moved in, Julie Abrams, like many other Jewish Detroiters, were looking to move to the suburbs.
“At the time, for me, West Bloomfield was out of my price range, and Southfield just seemed to be a lateral move,” explains Abrams. “I had some Jewish and gentile friends from Detroit who recommended Novi as a growing community. I knew I would be close to Jewish communities in Farmington and West Bloomfield, and figured they would be soon moving into Commerce Township and Novi.”
Though that hasn’t happened yet, Abrams stays connected to the Jewish community. “Anything I want Jewish is close by to me,” she says.
She does her kosher shopping at the Kroger on Halsted in Farmington Hills or the Hiller’s on Haggerty in Commerce. There was once a Northville/Novi Hadassah chapter – currently there are 40 Hadassah members in Novi and six in Northville – and back in the late 1980s there was even a United Hebrew Schools branch at Village Oaks Elementary School for a few years for 15 children.
Abrams has served on the Novi Community Schools’ Board of Education since 1992. The district has 6,372 students.
“I think it’s been very minimal,” Abrams says of the presence of Jewish families, based on her experience with the schools. “Sometimes, it’s mixed marriages so you can’t tell by the names, and we don’t count religious groups in the school system, but it’s always very few.”
She estimates there are maybe a dozen Jewish teachers in the school district. “It hasn’t caused my family any problems at all,” she says. “I’ve had no experiences with anti-Semitism. They always cover both winter holidays in the schools, very carefully as they should.”
It’s the first anniversary of the Lunch and Learn program run by Rabbi Susskind and catered by Leah, and it brings about a dozen people into the conference room at Global Office Solutions, a national supplier of office products and furniture. The owner, Reuben Levy, 33, moved to Novi 10 years ago and established his business there two years later.
At the age of 23, Levy came to Novi primarily to be on the lake with his ski-boat.
“I had a real estate license at the time, and I looked at nine different houses and found one on South Lake Drive with lake access,” he says. Since then, he has moved around the lake twice and is now on the east side of Walled Lake, the third largest lake in Oakland County and located mostly in Novi.
“I get up every day and its like I’m up north, but I’m only a mile away from the insanity of Twelve Oaks [Mall] and Fountain Walk.”
He says the city felt much smaller and quieter a decade ago. “Now the city has good restaurants, nice nightlife and great shopping.”
Levy and his wife, Jill, are expecting their third child in January. He says Novi is a good place to raise a young family and he’s glad that the Jewish community is becoming more visible.
“When I moved out here, I wasn’t really thinking much about it. But getting older and having children, you want the association with other Jews as a community,” Levy says. “We’ve been finding more people around our age with children our age. There’s more people close by, and if they’re not in Novi, they’re in West Bloomfield or Farmington Hills.”
Levy learned about Rabbi Susskind when his “Rabbis in Training,” teenagers spending their summers assisting Chabad programs around the world, came to his door looking for Jews.
“It was really neat having those guys knock on the door at your office and say, ‘Where are the Jews?’ It catches you off guard right off the bat,” Levy says. Levy and his older brother, Jason, who works with him and also lives on Walled Lake, had lunch with Rabbi Susskind and decided to invite others. The monthly Lunch and Learn was born.
“It keeps you focused on remembering about being a Jew. With today’s business and the American lifestyle, some of those things can pull away from you,” says Levy. “It reminds me not to lose touch and helps me from an identity standpoint, personal standpoint and spiritual standpoint. It’s especially important with our younger generation.”
“I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Northville,” says Rick Halberg, who in 1994 opened Emily’s, a well-regarded French and Mediterranean-influenced restaurant in an old house on North Center Street, which is now a neighbor with a newly remodeled Hiller’s market.
“I was looking for a place like this in a small town but close to a metropolitan area. Northville was perfect for it,” Halberg says of the restaurant he named for his daughter.
His clientele is made up of locals, people connected to Ford Motor Company’s Wixom Plant – though he sees less of them these days – and people for whom the restaurant is a destination. “We’ve got a very active Chamber of Commerce who know how to bring people to the city,” he says. “They love parades here – high school, homecoming, Fourth of July – just name it.”
He says the city is changing but retains its small-town character and charm.
“There are lots of upwardly mobile young people moving in. People are buying up small homes and putting up big footprint homes.”
“This place is growing like crazy,” agrees Chuck Keys, owner of an insurance company in Novi, who moved to Northville Township in 1986 and loves the small-town feel.
He’s a regular at Rabbi Susskind’s Lunch and Learn and likes the opportunity to get together with other Jews to talk.
“The historic district in Northville is like the old Jewish neighborhoods without the Jews,” he says, noting an influx of people of Indian, Asian and Arab descent. “The kids play together, it’s very safe, affordable and the schools are great. There are a lot of nice people.”
A well-known area Jewish business is Weinstein Jewelers of Novi on Grand River Avenue. Gary Weinstein is rebuilding following a fire, and plans to be back in his original building in time to celebrate his 19-year anniversary in December. Weinstein says it was a dream to be in Novi. Literally.
“I was looking a several different areas back in 1987, and my mother had a dream and said, ‘I was dreaming of Weinstein’s of Novi,’” Weinstein explained. “I saw this little village and it reminded me of something right out of Camden, Maine.” “I consider myself a neighborhood jeweler,” Weinstein says, explaining why he is rebuilding in the same spot. “There is a clientele here that wants good jewelry. It’s been a very good community and we’ve done well over the years.”
Weinstein lost his wife and two young sons last year when their car was hit by a speeding drunk driver in Farmington Hills.
Everyone raves about the easy access to the highways in the area, but maybe no one more than Harvey Gutman, 46, of West Bloomfield, who is the operations manager of the Rock Financial Showplace on Novi Road.
Gutman says the easy access to I-275 makes the area 30 minutes from the airport, I-96 makes it convenient from Lansing and I-696 connects it to all the other major expressways. He also is a fan of the city services, including the fire and police departments.
The Showplace brings 2 million people a year to Novi for a wide range of events, but it also can accommodate smaller gatherings in style. “I’ve already booked the dates for the bat mitzvah party of my 11-year-old twins, Marni and Alana,” he says.
Older daughter Jessica, 13, had her bat mitzvah party elsewhere but works at the Showplace on weekends.
The Galper Eye Center is located near Twelve Oaks Mall at 12 Mile and Novi roads. Bruce Meyers and his wife, Diane Galper of West Bloomfield, have worked in Novi for 12 years. Diane was an optometrist in Novi for several years before they opened their own office.
“Novi has been booming and growing very, very well,” says Meyers, who is an optician and vision therapist. “There’s lots of new growth and neighborhoods going up.”
When 12 Mile Road was extended west as a boulevard from Farmington Hills, it helped connect the business to its Jewish clientele, as did M-5, which goes to West Bloomfield. But Meyers hasn’t seen much growth in the Jewish community in Novi, though the overall growth has been good for business. “When the phone rings too much, we’re okay,” jokes Meyers.
Nonetheless, he says businesses in Novi have been affected by the slowing economy, like other places in Michigan.
Celia Gendloff remembers her in-laws asking, “Why would you want to live in Novi?” Gendloff grew up in Oak Park but moved to Novi with her husband, Mitchell, 20 years ago. “I told my mother-in-law there would be more Jews coming sooner or later. She said if she comes to visit she’d have to stay in a hotel because it’s too far away.”
“We looked in Southfield,” Gendloff recalls, “but we figured the houses weren’t going to appreciate. We looked in Farmington Hills and West Bloomfield, but the homes [in our price range] were 30 and 40 years old. In Novi, we were able to get something new.”
Gendloff says Novi has a Homestead Exemption Act, which keeps city taxes from rising if the homeowner lives in the same house for more than 10 years. That helps keep the community stable; the Gendloffs say their taxes would double if they moved to a similar house elsewhere in the city. “It’s quiet. It reminds me just a little bit of Oak Park because there’s a lot of great subdivisions, and they all have sidewalks,” she says.
She likes the mix of the old and the new, like the old barns that are still standing, the huge boulders in front of Guernsey Ice Cream that kids like to sit on, as well as the shopping, and the new highway access. Providence Park Hospital is opening on Novi Road in mid-2008.
“One of the reasons we moved to Novi was because of the schools,” Gendloff says.
“When I grew up in Oak Park, the schools there were No. 1. Now, we’ve got the best schools,” noting that the high school just underwent a major renovation and expansion. Her daughter Jacalyn, 17, will be a junior at Novi High School in the fall.
Of course, a big difference was a large Jewish student population in Oak Park and few in Novi. But she says that’s not a problem. “There’s a few of us parents out here that let the teachers and principals know there are Jews in Novi, and they’ve come around,” she says.
Gendloff is slowly meeting other Jews at different events, including Leah Susskind’s challah-baking session in late July, but hopes more will be coming. “All you Jews who are looking for a home, come to Novi,” she says. “And if you’re here, please come out of the woodwork – we’d like to meet you.”
Rabbi Avrohom and Leah Susskind at the Novi-Northville Center for Jewish Life can be reached at (248) 790-6075 or www.novijewishcenter.com.