The Well program explores faith through Jewish lens

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

It’s not often that one finds a Jewish rabbi who has a law degree, shoots hoops, plays the guitar and passes out cards inviting others for coffee.

Rabbi Dan Horwitz, center, thrives on combining religious conventions, social networking and distinctive elements to explore faith.

Yet Rabbi Dan Horwitz thrives on combining religious conventions, social networking and distinctive elements to connect with others in Metro Detroit as well as help them explore their faith — which led him to launch The Well last year. The Jewish community-building, education and spirituality outreach initiative offered through Temple Israel in West Bloomfield Township is geared toward attracting those who yearn to maintain their spiritual ties yet haven’t connected with traditional institutions or groups.

So, from yoga sessions to intense discussions on social issues, the effort unites hundreds of attendees as they view modern life through a Jewish lens.

“I think people are open to innovative reinterpretations and explorations of traditions in a way they maybe weren’t a generation or two ago,” said Horwitz, 32, who lives in Huntington Woods.

The 21st-century approach has thrust the rabbi into the national spotlight. Thanks to reader nominations, The Forward, a national Jewish news organization, recently selected him as among “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” of 2016.

“Through The Well, Rabbi Dan challenges the convention that young, modern Jews can live fulfilling Jewish lives while ignoring the thirst for a deeper spiritual connection to their faiths, however they chose to interpret it,” Daniel Devries, one of the nominating readers, wrote in an entry on the website.

As many newcomers and participants note, Horwitz and his colleagues strive to create an outlet for a demographic that might feel under-served.

“Dan has really brought an innovative approach to Jewish engagement and how to engage a less observant generation of Jewish people that skews younger,” said David Kurzmann, executive director at JCRC/AJC, a partnership that represents the Jewish community in southeast Michigan. “Traditional synagogue or temple membership in many areas is declining. It takes creative leadership to find solutions to increase engagement. He’s created a model that is really extraordinary.”

The Well, a project of the Lori Talsky Zekelman Fund at Temple Israel, evolved from synagogue officials hoping “to explore what 21st century pluralistic Jewish outreach looked like with a specific focus on young adults,” Horwitz said. The plans followed a 2013 Pew Center Research survey that suggested shifts in American Jewish identity — including one-in-five Jews describing themselves as having no religion.

Few seemed better suited to pursue innovative outreach than Horwitz, who previously was the nonprofit Moishe House’s rabbi/director of immersive learning and also served at Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy.

A classically trained violinist who studied politics at Brandeis University and played sports in high school, the married father has taught in Hebrew schools and worked as a Jewish summer camp counselor as well as a mediator, according to his biography. He pursued ordination after staffing Birthright Israel treks, when other travelers started calling him “rabbi,” Horwitz said. “Those trips were the a-ha moment of: ‘This is really the path you were meant to be on because for whatever reason people are opening up to you and trusting you in this way.’ ”

Drawing on his varied background he assembled other like-minded folks to form a board and brainstorm ways to uniquely reach an audience.

The Well is named after what for Jews’ ancestors was essentially the “equivalent of the coffee shop, the singles bar, the water cooler all in one,” Horwitz said.

Coordinators sought functions centered around issues they and others were passionate about. “ ‘What would I want to attend?’ was how I approached it,” said Jessica Katz, a board member from Royal Oak.

Those gatherings, some free thanks to donors and many planned with other groups, underscore the initiative’s tagline: “where community, education and spirituality meet.” So far this year, participants have flocked to a “Shabbat Under the Stars,” a farm animal sanctuary visit, even an adult coloring book night.

“He’s really turned it into quite an impressive driving force in the Jewish community here in Metro Detroit in the last year, and I’ve just been floored by the work he’s been able to do,” said Steven Hurvitz, another board member, who lives in Huntington Woods. “People see it as a new way to approach their Judaism and approach their spirituality.”

Rabbi Horwitz’s 21st-century outreach approach has thrust him into the national spotlight.

Another draw is the “Coffee. Study. Interpret” series, which typically features guest speakers who address wide-ranging topics — refugees, the criminal justice system — then small break-out groups parsing those through the lens of Jewish tradition using ancient as well as contemporary texts.

That appeals to Jews such as Molly Mardit, 27, of Huntington Woods. “It’s really needed. A lot of the outreach to young Jews is affiliated with some denomination … and there’s not always a lot of secular, social justice programming that’s integrated. I feel that getting together and learning is a really spiritual act. And it just makes me more curious.”

For the latest CSI event, a diverse group of about 50 guests met at Yad Ezra in Berkley. Surrounded by the kosher pantry’s brown boxes brimming with noodles and rices, they learned about regional food insecurity, read a Scripture on leaving part of a harvest for the poor and pondered why Jews are called to bless what they eat.

Among the crowd was Max Milstein of Oak Park, who welcomes the Well’s thought-provoking spiritualism. “I’m someone who hasn’t connected with a temple or worship area here,” he said. “I like that it’s a way for me to stay in touch with my Jewish roots.”

The inspirational response sparked the Forward honor, editor-in-chief Jane Eisner said. “We look for people who are doing things differently. That’s what caught our eye about Rabbi Horwitz. It was just the power of the story.”

Besides the learning events, the Well has shared interest groups, including those for vegans and vegetarians, even a men’s whiskey club. Katz helped launch a “giving circle” with several philanthropically minded couples who donated more than $1,000 to Forgotten Harvest, she said. “It was really nice to see that this process works and the community that was being built among a small group that didn’t know each other.”

Though Horwitz is involved, he prefers giving others a chance to plan activities. “It’s one of our hallmarks and it’s something that for me is very much a personal passion: striving to find as many ways as possible to have young Jewish adults take ownership in exploring their culture faith heritage traditions.”

Upcoming Well plans include a mix of the traditional and inventive: music jam sessions and a ceremonial casting away of “sins” at Detroit’s Chene Park during Rosh Hashana this fall. Expectant mothers have a “meet-up” at a Royal Oak ice cream shop. And later this year, The Well is partnering with The Detroit Jewish News to honor 36 activists, educators, and others impacting the area.

“Trying to think out-of-the box creatively on how to have people come together and in a spirit of learning, is something that we really pride ourselves on and are excited to continue developing," Horwitz said.


To learn more about The Well: http://www.meetyouatthewell.org/