Community is an important part of people’s identity, and the same is true for members of the Jewish Community. Join Jordan Levin as he talks to the Assistant Executive Director of the Jewish Community Center of Metro Detroit, Heidi Budaj. Jordan and Heidi talk about fitness activities and how they can be used to foster a sense of community, as well as the importance of reaching out. Heidi also talks about her previous work with the Anti-Defamation League and explains why they remain important to this day. A discussion on the effects of isolation due to COVID is also a critical piece of the conversation in this episode.
Listen to the podcast here:
Heidi Budaj – Assist. Dir. JCC Of Metro Detroit
I’m here with Heidi Budaj from The JCC of Metro Detroit. Thank you so much for being on the show, Heidi.
Jordan, thank you so much for inviting me. I’m happy to be here with you.
It has been a long time. We’ve known each other for quite a number of years. I was talking to my wife about it, and she suggested, “Let’s get Heidi.” I thought, “Why not?” She’s well-known in the community. I wanted everyone to know to get a better perspective on what she does and how well she does the work. Thank you. Heidi, let’s tell everybody what you’re
CrossFit is more than just a workout place that people go to; it has become a community.
I am an Assistant Executive Director at the Jewish Community Center. It’s work that I absolutely love. The JCC is in my heart and soul. While I left there for five years to be the Regional Director of the ADL, I came back to the JCC. One of the reasons that I came back to the JCC is our CEO, Brian Siegel, has an incredible vision for the future of The JCC, and I wanted to be a part of that.
Let’s dig a little deeper. For years, you were working with The JCC. I’m assuming you had an opportunity to go work for the ADL. You have a special passion for being part of the community of working with the nonprofits but also working with the volunteers. How do you navigate through that? Do you have a lot of stuff going on? How do you balance that?
The work that I do and certainly the work that I did at the ADL can be overwhelming. It can completely take over your life if you let it. I’m going to give a couple of hints about some of the things that I’ve done to take back control of my life and not have it be all work and no play. First of all, at The JCC, I am not 100% full-time. While that doesn’t mean I don’t work full-time, it does mean that I don’t mind if I take off a few hours here or there to either have some fun with my grandchildren or to be with my friends.
Before COVID started, I started a little routine with my closest girlfriends. What I decided was lacking in my life between work and taking care of the family was my time with my friends. We would talk on the phone all the time, but we rarely saw one another. We instituted the Friday lunch munch. Hopefully, we’ll get back to this again as soon as it’s safe for us to be out and about. We would meet at noon on Friday at a different restaurant. Whoever can come, comes. Whoever can’t make it, can’t make it. We all look forward to those times together where we can see one another and catch up as a group. It has brought a lot of joy into our lives.
As we get older, we get smarter because we look back at our previous experiences and we say, “Something is missing.” As you said, “It’s time to make that change.” You realized that’s what became important to you and you were you able to navigate and change that aspect. That’s a powerful thing that people need to understand that life is not always about work. Work is about making money, but making money should not always be at the forefront of the mind. It should be well-balanced of everything.
I’m lucky because the work that I do is something that I’m passionate about. I love the work that I do with The JCC. When we’re there and we’re able to be in person, I feel like I’m skipping into the building every day. I love our JCC family and the people that I work with. We have an incredible staff of dedicated professionals and volunteers because your mom is one of them and Hillary’s mom has been one of them. You know what a joy it is for us to work with the people that we work with. I also know that from your professional side outside of this show, being one of the principal owners of CrossFit, especially during stressful times like this, it’s important to work out and have some kind of a stress buster. I was happy to hear that CrossFit is still open because I know, for example, that CrossFit is more than a workout place for the people who go. It has become a community.
For The JCC, that is our number one mission, to build a Jewish community. We do that through our programs. In 2021, we made the heartbreaking decision to close our fitness center as it stands. We are doing that so that we can consolidate our operations in the building, come out of this a fiscally healthy agency and have a bright future. We did create a community through our workouts as well. That community is still standing by The JCC. We’re lucky and blessed. Many of them are waiting with bated breath for our next wellness iteration. I’m happy to announce that we’re going to open our track. We’ll strictly, after that, follow with pickleball and ping-pong. After that, we’ll be able to institute our personal training as well as our classes. Some of our most popular classes will be coming back. They won’t be in the same location that they were. They’re going to be in other places in The JCC, particularly in our Rosenberg Recreational Complex.
With that, there have been some silver linings throughout this pandemic. One of them is that people have found that the workouts they can do with others are precious. Places like yours that have been able to maintain a safe way to work out have been a godsend for people. People have also discovered wonderful online workout places. I know that the CrossFit exercises build a lot of strength, and it’s a wonderful workout. I know a lot of people have turned to Peloton and places like that. For our JCC constituents, many of whom are athletic and who are able to do all kinds of high-impact things. There’s also that element of our particular community where they’re not comfortable exercising in that way. I have to give a shout-out to an online program called ZoomCrew. If you don’t want the highest impact and if you want a wonderful community to exercise with virtually, they’re a great avenue.
People have discovered interesting ways to build community. We were able to at The JCC pivot and have most of our programs be virtual. Our entire book fair and film festival were virtual. We have been doing all of our JLearn adult learning classes virtually. Our cultural arts and IRP are also virtual. In both IRP and JLearn, we’ve had people who are over 100 participating in online discussion groups. It’s absolutely incredible. Our J-family and J-baby programs have continued, and that’s the younger generation. That’s my kids’ generation, and they’re comfortable with technology. It’s interesting to see how well my parents’ generation was able to pivot into technology.
With that, one of the other silver linings is that my entire family lives in Atlanta, except for me and my kids. We’re here in Michigan. My children are scattered in Chicago and Dallas. We have some here as well. We don’t get together that often with my parents. I try to visit as much as I can. During this time, it hasn’t been safe to fly and visit them. We have instituted a once-a-month all-family Zoom. We get together with my kids, all of my nieces and nephews, my siblings and my parents. It’s a highlight of the month for all of us. We get to see one another. We get to catch up in a way that we hadn’t been doing previously. It has brought us closer together in some ways.
I absolutely agree with that as traumatic as this pandemic has been. Hopefully, everybody has been safe and everybody got different things going on. The hardest part is never in our lifetime did we ever think that something like this would ever happen. Like you guys, it was the same thing I did when we got the shutdown. Immediately, the next day, we were online. I gave out all of my equipment to my members who bought them. I have workout programs going. We have five hours a day of classes going. Hillary and I are coaching classes and my other coaches, too. I remember on the first day of that shut down, I was mortified because I was like, “What is going on here?” Being business owners, being in the position that you’re in, you have to take that switch and say to yourself, “What do we get to do?” For you, it’s a much larger scale and there are so many moving parts to that. I commend you in The JCC for understanding and saying, “What can we do to help keep the community?” I agree community and family are promoting everyone.
People have found that the workouts that they can do with others are very, very precious.
It’s not only that what we’re seeing throughout everything that we do. We also have special needs programs at the JCC. We have a special needs camp, which we’ll be running this summer, as well as our regular camp with all kinds of COVID precautions, including keeping the kids in isolated pods. We also have an arm that helps students who are in Jewish schools, either in Jewish day schools, after-school Hebrew schools and Jewish preschools. We have seen an enormous uptick in the anxiety levels in our students, whether they are in school or learning virtually. Our coaches in our shadows are still working with these kids, whether they’re learning virtually or in the classroom. Even our youngest kids, we’re seeing anxiety and acting out in ways that we’ve never ever seen before. This is extremely stressful for them.
I see what the isolation has done even for my grandchildren. I have one who is eight months old and he has only seen family. He hasn’t seen other babies. Although now he started The JCC, so he’s seeing the other babies. The teacher report is that whenever he catches sight of one of the other babies, he smiles and grins. For the other kids, being isolated from their friends has been a difficult time. For kids of all ages, that is extremely stressful. It’s stressful for the parents, many of whom were working from home, who were trying to help their kids learn virtually, keep food on the table and do all the things to keep the home running, in addition to their pressures at work.
The amount of pressure that people are under now is incredible. Add to that financial pressures because many people have either been furloughed, laid off temporarily or even laid off permanently. The stress levels in our community and our country have skyrocketed. In addition to building a community, doing anything we can to lower that stress level, distract people and offer high-quality programs that people can participate in. They miss learning, going out, doing things and seeing their friends. In any way that we can fill that void, we’re trying to do so.
That’s about the best thing you could ask for because people don’t know what they don’t know. You have to be able to push out as much information as you can, whether it’s online, in person, on social media, emails and whatnot. You don’t know that one email or text what that could do to somebody.
For those people who are reading, reach out to somebody. Call them and see how they’re doing. Even by text, it makes a difference when you’re hearing from people. Don’t forget to reach out to old friends, new friends and loved ones. Let’s not forget the new parents out there who are getting no sleep and who can’t rely on their families in the same way that in non-COVID times we can. These are difficult times. Anything that we can do to help one another, I know is greatly appreciated during this time and can reduce the stress levels for both those people who are doing the giving and those people who are doing the receiving. Those little touches during this time make an enormous difference.
The other thing that we can obviously learn from the pandemic, people have to realize that everything we do in life is always going to be a living experience. As you said, reach out to people. Before the pandemic, I want to call it the hamster wheel, which is the hamster wheel of just, “Keep going.” Now, we think it’s a little bit more settled, but it’s not. It’s in a different way. I 100% agree with your point of reaching out to people. What I’m curious about is we’ve talked about before all this nonprofit stuff. Who or what instilled in you this whole philanthropic spirit?
It was my grandfather. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and then moved to Houston, Texas, for junior high and high school. We’re a close-knit large family back in Atlanta and consider that my home. My grandfather grew up in Atlanta, was born in Atlanta and was not a well-behaved child. He was a little hoodlum running the streets. He could have gone either way. He could have become abandoned or he could have turned into a fine upstanding citizen.
He found his way through what was called there the Jewish Alliance. He went to the Jewish Alliance. He played basketball on a team there and that turned his life around. He became one of the finest human beings. All of us, grandchildren of his children and most people who ever met him, would agree with me when we say one of the finest human beings we have ever met. He’s incredibly moral, always knowing how to do the right thing. He’s incredibly caring and caring about the community, understanding that we have a responsibility to give back to our community. I’ll tell a couple of stories about that.
One is, he lived until the age of 95. My children were fortunate enough to know him and have a relationship with him. When my son was growing up, he must have been about 7 or 8 years old and he said, “Mommy, sometimes I don’t know what the right thing to do is. I don’t understand which way I should go.” I’ll stop and think to myself, “What would papa do?” He was one of the founders of the Jewish Community Center Movement in Atlanta, giving back because the alliance had saved him. He became a successful businessman.
Throughout his life, he gave to the entire Jewish community with his time and with any resources at his fingertips. He encouraged his friends to give. He had a group of men that he used to have lunch with. We used to call them The Sunshine Boys. They would solve any problem in the community. They would say, “We heard that the Jewish home for the aged needs a new bus.” By the end of lunch, they had figured out which one of them was going to donate a bus in honor of their wife’s birthday. Whatever the problems were in the community, this group of men could solve them. If they couldn’t solve it themselves, they knew who to go to. They understood how to build a community.
All of us admired my grandfather greatly. All of his children and great-grandchildren have that drive to make the world and their community a better place. Because of his many years being the President of the JCC in Atlanta and being one of the forces behind it, that’s one of the reasons why I have such heart for the JCC and that’s why it feels like home to me. I’m proud of the legacy that he left behind. All of us work every day to try to honor that legacy and honor what he taught us.
In my head, I’m trying to picture that. I’m assuming this is the case. When you were younger, you went to the area at the JCC. You hung out with him at the JCC, observing and seeing how things were run. As you got older, you started to appreciate that.
I’ll tell a funny story. In addition to being involved in the JCC, he was involved in the Jewish home for the aged. My grandparents used to sit down at 5:00 and have a cocktail every single day. They both lived until 95. I recommend that. I don’t necessarily follow that path, but it seemed to work for them. As a young adult, I used to call them a lot of times at 5:00. I used to talk to them almost every day and that was a good time to catch them. They’re winding down and having their cocktail. We could talk and visit.
I remember calling one day and papa wasn’t home yet. It was about 5:30. Finally, he came home at about 6:00. They called me back. He was 90. He was on his way home from work because he worked until he was 94. I said, “Where were you?” He said, “I had to stop by the home and sign the birthday cards for the old people.” The old people were twenty years younger than him. We have a lot of fond memories. I have memories of going to gospel meetings, sitting in the corner, and coloring while my mom attended the meeting. I remember my parents having meetings at their homes for The Jewish Federation. All of that was ingrained in all of us.
That’s one of the reasons why I’m doing this show because our lives are made of stories. You need to be able to experience those stories and share those stories because people would relate to those stories. You never know who’s reading and how you can impact somebody.
I want to add one other thing. When I was growing up, we always had Shabbat dinner every Friday night. When I was younger, we went to my grandparents’ house. When we moved to Houston and didn’t have a lot of family around, we had it at our house. I would bring my friends and my brothers would bring their friends. When my children were growing up, we did the same thing. Our kids would invite their friends over. Even now, there are some Friday nights when it’s my husband and me because of COVID. Still lighting those candles and ushering in Shabbat brings us that sense of peace.
We may not be Shomer Shabbat. We may not give up that rat race of our lives completely on Shabbat, but especially after our grandchildren were born, we found a different rhythm on Shabbat. As soon as our grandchildren can sleep through the night, we have them spend the night with us after Shabbat dinner. They usually stay with us all day on Saturday. Rather than my life being along with my rhythms, running to the store or rushing to get this email out, I’m playing with my grandchildren. It calms you in a way that is different.
If there are people out there who have not experienced any of the beauty of Shabbat, try adding one thing. Either light the candles or if your routine is to order in pizza, order in a cheese pizza instead of a pepperoni pizza and call it Shabbat dinner. It’s about being together with family and recognizing the things that are important in life. The people around the table are what’s more important than what’s on the table. Taking that moment to be grateful for what we have is something that’s important in my life as well.
The people around the table are what’s more important than what’s on the table.
I completely empathize with that. Growing up with my grandparents, my grandfather was the nicest man ever. Every Sunday, my parents, brother and cousin would always go to the gym first. After the gym, we would go to my grandparents for lunch. We did that every single Sunday. It didn’t matter what was going on. If somebody was sick, they would stay home. To me, those are my memories of my grandparents of that part of it. Now that we’re talking about this, I realize now with me being in the moment at that time, observing what was going on.
It’s about building those memories for that next generation, which your grandparents did a beautiful job of.
What was your most significant and meaningful experience with the ADL?
I know that when I look back on my life and career, as much as I love the JCC, it’s different. The JCC I consider to be food for the soul of the Jewish community. I consider my work at the ADL to have been a fight for the survival and the soul of The Jewish Community. In the times that we’re living in, where hate is truly on the rise, it’s such an important organization. It’s the only organization out there that is dedicated that its mission is to fight against anti-Semitism, which is clearly on the rise for a number of reasons. I know that people like to get political about it. It’s not a political thing. Whatever the circumstances that allowed that to happen, it’s something that we have to address as a community.
It was fascinating. I learned so much every day. The people at the ADL locally and nationally are some of the smartest people focused on this problem that I’ve ever met. Their center on extremism is incredible, the research that they do and how deeply they dive into these people, from lone wolves on the computer who are spewing hate to people who are becoming organized. The amount of data that they amass is incredible. The methods that they have to share that important data with law enforcement are also incredible. The trainings that they have for teachers, students and law enforcement truly make our world a better place. They have incredible training programs. That was one of the things I was most proud of when I worked at the ADL.
In fact, our Detroit community has a unique organization that people on the outside don’t know about. It’s called ALPACT, Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust. ADL is an important part of ALPACT, as are many other civil rights organizations. I chaired the ALPACT for two years when I was the Regional Director of ADL. What it does is brings together every month high-level law enforcement together with civil rights organizations to talk about concerns from both sides. You would have the special agent in charge of the FBI. You have the US attorney. You have the police chiefs from almost every municipality in the Detroit area. You have Homeland Security there. Even the CIA would join us to talk about what concerns the communities are having.
It was well-represented from both sides, from law enforcement and those in law enforcement who could make a difference and look at making changes, and have a dialogue with these important law enforcement agencies in order to bring concerns to our law enforcement partners. Some of the outgrowths of that are that you create great relationships. I’ll give you an example. There was a basketball game where a local Jewish high school had a basketball game against a parochial school in the Dearborn area. A fight broke out on the basketball court. The visiting Jewish high school went into the locker room and then ended up leaving. I at the ADL started to get calls from aunts, uncles, grandparents and maybe 1 or 2 parents. The scuttlebutt in the community was that there had been something anti-Semitic that had happened on the basketball court and our kids had to leave.
Because of our ALPACT relationships, I was able to pick up the phone and immediately get in touch with the Chief of Police of Dearborn and say, “There’s a lot of concern in our community. Can you tell me what happened at the basketball game the other day?” He said, “This is what happened. A fight broke out on the basketball court.” It was between one of the players from Dearborn High School and somebody who was observing the game and it was over a girl. It had absolutely nothing to do with anti-Semitism. I was able to put out that fire and fear in our community that’s what had prompted that altercation.
Those relationships made a big difference. There were times when there would be protests or people marching in communities. Because we’re ALPACT, we would talk about it together as a group. We would work hand in hand with law enforcement to make sure that everybody was protected, the business in that town and the people who were marching. It created a lot of incredible relationships. That’s something that most people don’t understand about the behind-the-scene activities of the ADL. It’s building those relationships so that when there is a problem, we know exactly who to call.
I remember when there were phone threats that were happening throughout the United States, including in our community. We were immediately able to get to the special agent in charge of the FBI for the state of Michigan and immediately get the FBI involved because ADL has those connections. It’s not the knowledge that they have and the trainings that they do in order to make people aware of what anti-Semitism is, what racism is, how to combat that and how to combat bullying. Also, on the law enforcement side of making sure that the concerns for our community are going to be met with seriousness from law enforcement. The ADL, as well as our Jewish Federation, has relationships with every single chief of police in our metro area and can pick up the phone in a drop of a hat and say, “There seems to have been some vandalism at a Jewish institution.” They take it seriously to the nth degree. It’s important work. I hope that everybody who’s reading will take a few moments to go to the website and take a look at the work that the ADL does.
I honestly had no idea that there was that much involvement. The power of networking and the people like yourself, taking their time in educating not the law enforcement but educating all of us on that is such an impactful thing. I’m going to do some more research on this because I’m impressed by that.
Carolyn Normandin is my successor there. She’s doing an incredible job. Sometimes I’ll call her when I know that things are heating up. I’ll apologize to her, “I’m sorry that I put you in this position because I know that you’re totally swamped right now with everything that’s coming in.” It’s a stressful job because you have a great responsibility. Whenever there’s an incident anywhere in the state of Michigan, our regional office based here in the Detroit area is responsible for it. There have been many instances of anti-Semitism in Michigan, most of which we do not publicize. Especially when it happens in a school, you will not hear the ADL publicizing that. We like to be a resource to help solve the problem.
The ADL is not in the business of going out there to the media and saying, “Look how wonderful we are because we saw this or this.” We like to solve it quietly behind the scenes. Sometimes things do come out. At that point, usually, they will comment. The public needs to understand that if you make a complaint to the ADL, it’s confidential. It’s treated with the same amount of confidentiality as if you’re going to the doctor or attorney-client privilege. The public or anybody else will not hear about that. It will not come from the ADL.
Also, the ADL, as they’re navigating solutions to whatever problem is brought to us, we work with the people who brought the complaint to us so that we’re not putting them in any kind of harm’s way or we’re not making them uncomfortable. When a family comes to us, for example, with something that may have happened in a school, we don’t want to act in a way that will make a child, student or young adult more of a target. We’re careful in how they respond as well. You don’t hear about many of the incidents that happen, but you can go onto the website. They do track how many incidents there were and what type they were.
That’s an important point because there’s going to be some fear. It could be the fear of making their calls go by. By expressing that, I appreciate that. Let’s wrap this up. We talked about some of the things about being present. Is there anything that you do on a daily basis as a ritual to keep yourself grounded within the moment?
There are a couple of things. One is I do try to take a little break in the middle of the day. My husband and I are both working from home now and check in with each other. We didn’t have that. We would check-in by phone when we’re both working in our own offices, but it’s nice to get that hug or be able to see each other and be in the moment for a few minutes together. We try to do that. Another silver lining of the pandemic and us working at home, on many days, we take a walk outside together. That’s a new routine for us. We usually work out separately. That has brought a nice daily moment in our lives when we can be present with each other. The other thing that I have been doing and I do this almost daily now, is Restorative Yoga. With everything on our shoulders now and with all of the fear and anxiety that’s going around that’s in the air that we absorb, I find that to be comforting. In fact, I have a daughter who’s a therapist. I called her one day and said, “I think I’m becoming addicted to Restorative Yoga. Is that problematic?” She’s like, “As well as addictions go, I think that’s a pretty good one.”
Hillary would do the same thing. She has been doing some Restorative Yoga about every day. Every time she gets out of it, she feels so much better.
Reach out to somebody, call them, and see how they’re doing even by text. It makes a difference when you’re hearing from people.
What I recommend is to meditate. Even if you only meditate for two minutes, it’s still better than nothing. Even during the pandemic, we’re on that treadmill and hamster wheel, if you can take a few minutes to remember to take care of yourself and refill your bucket. If your bucket is empty, you can’t be there for other people. Make sure that you’re doing something, whatever that means for you. If it’s a nice long shower, reading a book, watching a TV show, checking in with friends or whatever it is, don’t forget to do that to feed your own soul.
At the end of the day, what brings you joy? When you go to sleep, when you look back at that day, what do you think of yourself?
For me, that can be answered in one word, family. It’s the most important thing to me. It brings me joy. My husband and I are blessed. Between us, we have five children, which means we have ten children, including spouses and significant others. We’re blessed to have three grandchildren. Even when we can’t be with our grandchildren, we try to FaceTime with them each day. I’m thankful that my parents were alive and healthy. I check in with them every day. I speak to my children every day. That’s before I close my eyes at night and I’m thinking about my day and the blessings that I have. That’s what brings me the most joy.
That’s exactly the trend that I’m seeing with all the shows that I’ve been doing. It always comes down to family. People need to always come back to that at the end of the day and that’s what keeps everybody grounded. Thank you very much for coming on. I’ve had a wonderful time. I hope you do, too.
Thank you, Jordan. I appreciated you inviting me. I had so much fun being here. It was good to spend time with you. Thank you so much.
Thank you, too. We’ll talk to you soon.
About Heidi Budaj
Heidi Budaj, Assistant Executive Director of the Jewish Community Center of MetropolitanDetroit since March, 2018, specializes in community relations both external and internal. Prior to re-joining the JCC, Ms. Budaj served as Michigan Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League for five years.
Before her time at the ADL, she worked at the JCC as Program Director and Director of Arts, Culture and Education; and prior to that she was an active volunteer in the Detroit community.