Rabbi's call prompts campaign to help former Jewish sector of Detroit
Here's how strong that Yom Kippur sermon was in 2012: Six years later, it's responsible for first-graders in Detroit voluntarily eating raw cucumber slices.
Clearly, there have been some steps in between. And sadly, there has been a significant death.
But that's where physician Melvyn Rubenfire heard the message that inspired Project Healthy Community, bringing the gospel of good food and good habits to the sector of Northwest Detroit he grew up thinking was the best place in the world.
PHC operates an after-school program at Schulze Academy, with aspirations to expand to other schools. It teaches a nutrition unit there for first-graders, tends an urban garden at the Northwest Activities Center, conducts a summer camp and runs a mobile pantry that distributes 25,000 pounds of food on the fourth Wednesday of every month.
Rubenfire and his daughter Karen say they’re only getting started, and if you’re a foundation or a corporation with a checkbook, they'll gladly explain their vision.
They've done enough already to earn the annual Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC Activist Award, presented at a dinner last week in Farmington Hills.
They have also earned the appreciation of Temple Israel's Joshua Bennett, who says the Rubenfires are "the dream of every rabbi. We often joke that we hope people are listening to our sermons."
His suggestion was that his congregants give back to "the old neighborhood." Even the people who'd never lived there knew what he meant: the area near Livernois and Seven Mile where much of the area's Jewish population lingered for a generation or two, after Dexter and before Oakland County.
For Mel Rubenfire, 78, the map is plotted in his DNA, starting at 18685 Birwood and extending to anyplace he could reach from there on a bicycle.
"I remember it like yesterday," he says. A trip to the movies cost a quarter, or less if you didn't buy candy. The kids used Life magazines as shin guards when they played hockey.
World War II had been won, the economy was booming and the school system was renowned. Mumford High was placidly integrated, he says: about 15 percent black, another 30 percent non-Jewish, the rest connected to nearby synagogues.
A few blocks north, the Birwood Wall kept a black neighborhood penned in, away from the white residents on the other side.
"We had no idea the racism they were living with," Rubenfire says. But by the time he absorbed Bennett's words he was well aware, and he understood some of the high costs of being poor.
Still working full time, he's the director of preventive cardiology at the University of Michigan, racking up 25,000 miles a year between Ann Arbor and his condo on a lake in West Bloomfield. Before UM he spent two decades at the old Sinai Hospital, well within the boundaries of his childhood bike route.
His patients there were mostly local and frequently poor, the same as the clients served by his nonprofit. Little has changed since he left Sinai in 1990, he says: dangerously high rates of hypertension and stroke, greater likelihood of diabetes and dialysis.
If some of that is inherited, much of it is ingested. There's too little fresh produce, he'll tell you, and too much fried everything.
So PHC plants the seeds of better eating at school, then gives the kids vegetables and recipes to take home.
"We can't deal with safety," Rubenfire says. "We can't deal with crime. We can't fix the blight on Six Mile Road."
But they can grow tomatoes, collards, kale, squash, and a taste for something healthier than potato chips.
At an after-lunch session of the F.U.N. Pantry — Fundamentals for Understanding Nutrition — 6- and 7-year-olds might make cucumber silly faces, using hummus as a paste to tack on peas for eyes, corn for noses and pieces of red pepper for hair.
They're still vegetables, but now they're festive. That's important if you want to sell celery and push parsnips.
"Junk food companies do this left and right," points out Tom Rifai of Birmingham, a doctor, health coach and the founder of the wellness company Reality Meets Science. Lucky Charms and Cheetos have mascots, and studies have proven that kids get more excited about carrots if a clear plastic bagful has a McDonald's logo on it.
"The companies are going to get started early," Rifai says. Healthy alternatives might as well do the same, even if the task is daunting.
"It's going to take a generation to make an impact," Rubenfire concedes, "and we're only focused on Northwest Detroit."
But you have to start somewhere, like with a visit to the Northwest Activities Center on Meyers Road.
In his childhood, it had been the Jewish Community Center. He and his wife, Diane, showed up there the Monday after their rabbi's Yom Kippur oration. That's when things started to roll — ideas, projects, partnerships with places like Gleaners Community Food Bank, Forgotten Harvest and Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, which provides a warehouse to hold the mobile pantry during wintertime.
Diane had been a year behind him at Mumford, though they didn't meet until the summer after he graduated. He was shy, so she'd drive by his house to reinforce the notion that he should call.
He was 21 when they married, and she was as devoted to PHC as he was, right up until she died of lung cancer in April of 2014.
"Even when she was sick," says Karen, 53, "she was here."
It's hard to resist cute kids, after all, and there's an even stronger pull when you can help those cute kids eat and read better and maybe upgrade the direction of their lives.
Besides, someone has to watch for sharp objects — a duty, on one recent afternoon, that falls to mostly-retired doctor Bonnie Sowa of Orchard Lake.
PHC operates with a $225,000 budget and 2 ¾ employees, with Karen Rubenfire as the fraction. Beyond that are some 400 volunteers from within and without Temple Israel, including a core corps of 25 devotees who treat it like a calling.
In that second group, Sowa mostly tends the vegetable garden, though sometimes she tends to the 30 kids who might be working on homework or STEM projects after school. They top out at second grade, and half an hour after a trip to the playground, a few of them are getting squirrelly again.
One boy is practically doing cartwheels. You needn't have been a pediatric specialist in emergency rooms — though Sowa was — to see trouble tumbling into view.
"Please," she says, "put the pencil away."
The next morning, an orderly procession of adults steers orange shopping carts across the rear of the activities center parking lot.
Semi-trailers from Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest have offloaded 12 ½ tons of food. Show up, sit through a brief session inside about exercise or community resources or diet, fill a cart.
Lemonade, pink or yellow. Quick-cooking rolled oats. Heavy cream and almond milk. Big bags of egg noodles and dry beans. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini. Bags of snack-sized candy bars, because zucchini is long but life is short.
It's volunteer-heavy and complaint-light; a few people say they wish there was ground beef or turkey, but most weeks the charity can't afford it, and the clients understand.
Kim James of Detroit is pushing a groaning cart toward an aging car. Between her family and another they share a house with, she has eight mouths to feed.
"You get low toward the end of the month," she says. "I got noodles here. I can make spaghetti."
Karen Rubenfire, a social worker by trade whose official title is Director of Programming and Community Outreach, is overseeing the operation. She's wearing a light blue script-Detroit baseball cap and the widest possible smile.
"I am so proud," she says. Her family went to temple on a high holiday and paid attention, and now 350 families who might have gone hungry won't.
Better yet, they have fresh produce. Maybe better than that, they know somebody cares.
A lot of somebodies, in fact — including some of the people who used to walk these same streets, wondering where life would take them next.