Chaldeans And Jews: Building A Common Community

They share an ancient lineage, but have found themselves at new crossroads in Oakland County. Chaldeans and Jews are literally neighbors in communities like West Bloomfield, yet they hardly knew each other until the publishers of The Chaldean News and The Detroit Jewish News formally introduced them.

For the past year, both newspapers have published identical editorial installments in a project called “Building Community,” which documented the history and the current environment that the two Semitic cultures have found themselves in. The educational initiative has taken root in a series of community-based activities that are creating new ideas, including development of an angel investment fund — the “Mayflower Angels” — established for Chaldean immigrants at Tech Town.

Most notably, young Chaldean and Jewish entrepreneurs are finding common opportunities as potential business partners, which the publishers hope will help revitalize the region’s economy, according to Martin Manna, publisher of The Chaldean News.

“The seed has been planted,” says Horwitz. “Hopefully, some of the friendships that have developed during the past few months will lead to businesses.”

Indeed, a formal evaluation of the program has been conducted by the University of Michigan-Dearborn College of Business.

Chaldeans and Jews once lived side by side in Babylonia, in what is today Iraq. According to Horwitz, they shared the social and economic discrimination of minorities, in addition to the rich cultural traditions and language of the region. “Both had a common history of having their rights constrained or restricted, not having the ability to own property.” And both communities developed the skills of entrepreneurs, or “business people who had to carry their businesses between their ears.”

At one of the cultural programs spawned by the newspaper initiative at Shenandoah Country Club last year, home of the Chaldean Community Cultural Center, members of the Jewish and Chaldean communities attended a program about their shared heritage.

“The one common comment after seeing those abridged stories was ‘That looked like me… that looked like my family… You sure that wasn’t my family’s grocery store in Hamtramck?'” recalls Arthur Horwitz, publisher of The Detroit Jewish News,

It very likely could have been, adds Manna, who explains that Chaldeans often bought Jewish businesses. “Our communities have always lived together,” he says.

There currently are 72,000 Jewish and 121,000 Chaldean people in the region. “Through this project, we realized how many similarities we have. …Growing up in West Bloomfield, personally, as teenagers going to high school, it was clear that our communities didn’t understand each other. The divisions came because the Chaldeans – even though their ancestral homeland is Iraq, they’re from the Arab world. They’re not Arabs, but many would perceive them to be. There were a lot of stereotypes established in our youth.”

The misunderstanding between Jews and Chaldeans exemplified the ethnic and racial polarization in the region. But Manna and Horwitz wanted to do something to correct that. “Unfortunately in this region the talk is, ‘What’s your background, what ethnicity are you?’ which creates a lot of division,” says Manna.

“For the ‘Building Community’ initiative, we wanted to change attitudes and perceptions that our communities had,” he continues. “Many of our folks lived next to each other. We wanted to get them to understand they’re more friends than they are foes. By bringing people together it has helped create new relationships – not just for the Chaldean and Jewish communities, but for the broader community.”

“Building Community” was eight years in the making, beginning with a luncheon between Horwitz and Manna in 2003 to discuss the newspaper business. The two men developed a friendship that resulted in continued social contact. In 2009, as a wave of Chaldean refugees arrived, Horwitz and Manna realized it was time to deal with the misunderstanding that existed between their communities. Business brought them together, but friendship took them to the next step.

“I felt that we needed to find a way to do something together that first and foremost helped both communities better understand their histories, their similarities, almost as if to put a framework around why there should be so many opportunities for us, as communities, to help each other, and at the same time help the rest of Detroit and the region,” Horwitz recalls. “I huddled with Martin and said we have to figure out a way to better educate our communities about each other. They weren’t informed. Both communities had certain assumptions that were not necessarily true.”

“Building Community” was launched as a monthly installment with identical editorial content for both newspapers. Grassroots cultural projects such as architectural presentations by Victor Saroki on the Shenandoah Country Club and Chaldean Cultural Center and Joel Smith on the Jewish Community Center and Holocaust Memorial Center “created another layer of understanding, not only on a personal level but on the architecture of the buildings to understand the importance of the culture and heritage of these two communities and how it’s baked into the actual architectural drawings of both communities,” explains Horwitz.

Other events included a medical meeting, a teen forum, an entrepreneurial program at Tech Town, and a scientific meeting at Lawrence Technological University.

“As the committees got together they realized that they lived in the same neighborhoods, faith and family is so important in both communities, the traditions are almost identical,” says Manna. “People are breaking down stereotypes and are able to create dialogue to talk about their differences, then realizing that they have much more in common.”

Horwitz and Manna believe their communities reflect the promise of immigrant entrepreneurship in the region. However, they point to an unlikely immigrant group as possessing the greatest promise — their children who left the area to pursue opportunity elsewhere.

“For our community, the most important wave of immigration that we need to stimulate is to bring our children back to Detroit,” says Horwitz. “The real hope is that if there are more opportunities, more people to partner with who have good ideas, and not just the people they go to church with or synagogue and if they both, collectively, have access to capital, the net effect should be and hopefully will be creation of businesses and jobs and the kind of things that will keep our younger people here. And, for our younger people who have moved away to other cities that tend to attract younger people…that they may take a second look at their home town and see that there is more here than they thought.”

The Chaldean community, which is a generation or two younger than the Jewish community in Detroit, is just beginning to see their young people leave, “which is alarming to us,” says Manna. “We understand the importance of making sure our younger generation gets more involved in our community.”

The experience of “Building Community” is more universal than it may seem. “I think there are lessons that can be shared and are not, or shouldn’t be unique to our respective communities,” says Horwitz. “For Southeast Michigan to have the kind of revitalization/ reinvention that we all know it needs, it requires immigrant groups, it requires people who are not that far removed from being immigrants once, because the very nature of being immigrant is entrepreneurial – you leave behind something, you come, and you work extremely hard to try to create something.”

“Perhaps one of the take-aways for this collaboration is not that it is unique to the Jewish and Chaldean communities – while they may have entrepreneurial instincts that go back thousands of years – rather that if you bring people together, provide them with opportunities for creativity, provide access to capital and resources, the opportunity is there to create and build businesses. In the course of doing that, barriers, real or imagined, that often separate communities, come down.”

Dennis Archambault is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Metromode, Model D and Concentrate. His previous article was “Embracing Change: A Q&A with Marcie Brogan”.

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Photos by David Lewinski Photography

A version of this story previously appeared in Metromode.