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The Mi Shebeirach, the Jewish prayer of healing, heals hearts as well as bodies

Burt, Suzy and our grandkids on the last day of 2019.

15 years ago, recovering from stage 4 cancer, I attended a service at Detroit’s Temple Beth El.  Our son David was speaking that night.  I was there for the singing of the Mi Shebeirach, the Jewish Prayer of Healing.  I’d spent 8 months in treatment and didn’t realize my name had been read every Friday night on the Sabbath, as a member needing healing prayers.  It was a comforting surprise.  As any cancer survivor knows, I was still feeling vulnerable.  Waiting for the next shoe to drop.  And since I hadn’t gone out socially for so long, you can be sure the shoe wasn’t a Louboutin.

15 years later, I’m familiar with the Mi Shebeirach, with its soulful tune and moving lyrics.

Mi shebeirach avoteinu
M’kor Hab’racha l’imoteinu
May the source of strength
Who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage
To make our lives a blessing
And let us say, Amen.
Mi shebeirach imoteinu
M’kor habrachah l’avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing
With r’fuah sh’leimah
The renewal of body,
The renewal of spirit.
And let us say, Amen. 

Now my husband’s the one dealing with a health challenge.  Instead of spending his retirement on the golf course as he intended, Burton has spent way too much time in hospitals.  In those hospitals I sought out chapels where I could weep in private.  There on my cell phone I discovered a beautiful version of a guitarist singing the Mi Shebeirach.  I played it over and over.

Recently, I received a call from Temple Beth El’s Cantor Rachel.  She thought I was in the D and wanted to visit and give me a hug.  I told her I relish every hug I can get these days, but was in Sarasota.   Only God’s arms stretch that far.  I asked if she’d sing a Mi Shebeirach for us.  I took my phone into the family room where Burton sat in his comfy motorized recliner.  I perched on the arm of the chair, held Burton’s hand and said, “Hit it, Cantor.” The voice of an angel wafted through the phone.  Music shoots straight to the heart.  Evidence of my physiological response streamed down my cheeks.  A sacred and painful yet hopeful moment.

I’m grateful to be here.  I’m grateful to be anywhere.  I’m especially grateful to be here for Burton, who  was a better caregiver than I’ll ever be.  Still, I believe in miracles.  I hope our family didn’t use up our entire allotment in my recovery almost 200 full moons ago.  Burton could use a miracle of his own.  The side effects he suffers from brain surgery in 2018 are daunting.  Partial paralysis.  Cognitive impairment.  But so far he’s progressing.  He helps himself (God helps those…) by working hard at PT, staying positive and participating in whatever he can.

Recently I took him to see the new Sarasota Art Museum.  A miracle in itself of hard work, architectural genius, generosity and faith.  Burton patiently listened to me expound on Vik Muniz, whose smart, creative photographs were (still are) on display.  Our morning visit to the SAM wore Burton out.  We returned home soon after.  Later, friends Larry Thompson and Anne Garlington of the Ringling Art & Design College visited.  That night Burton was too pooped to make it to dinner with friends Jill and Scott Levine.  I went without him.  I told the Levines about our Mi Shebeirach solo.  And how often I’d listened to a You Tube video of a woman singing it with a guitar in a chapel.

“Debbie Friedman,” Jill said.

I hadn’t noticed the name of the woman serenading me on You Tube.  The next morning I checked her out on the internet.  Not only did Debbie Friedman perform the song countless times in countless synagogues, but she had composed the tune.  Sadly the power of the song wasn’t enough to heal her.  She died in 2011, at 59, of an undisclosed illness.

According to Debbie’s eulogy by the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Reform worship was once characterized by organs and choirs.  “Debbie taught us to sing… as communities and congregations.  The guitar became a sacred instrument in her hands.”

Surely the angels in heaven are as entranced by Debbie’s singing as I was.  Thanks, Jill, for the heads up.  Debbie, for the hope and consolation.  Cantor Rachel, for the acapella solo.

Thanks, friends, for the prayers and well wishes.  May we all find the courage to make our lives a blessing.

Burt calls Bingo in December; Alexis Farbman (in New Years hat) won. Her name is now engraved on the Annual family Bingo trophy (left) held by Fischer Farbman.

Born in Germany, Rita Dunker creates a happy home for lucky dogs in Detroit

Rita Dunker and her daughters.

Rita grew up in post-war Germany in Weseke, a rural town of under 2,000 on the Dutch border. Her father had been pulled out of school and drafted into the Nazi German army at 16.  “He had no choice,”  his daughter says.  His brother was drafted, too, and died in the war.  “It was a very oppressive time,” Rita says.

During and after the war, famine was rampant.  Even in the 1960s, the country was still recovering from destruction and shortage of supplies.  The family lived on fruits and vegetables from their garden and meat from their own livestock.  In the early 1970s, the Dunkers still lacked a refrigerator and TV.  Nor did they have a pet.  Rita says, “The only animals I knew were farm animals we’d slaughter and eat.”

That would change.  Years later, as an adult living in Birmingham, MI, Rita’s in charge of around 100 dogs.

How this came to be is a saga…

In her teens, Rita loved France and studied French.  After WWII, when France and Germany were adversaries, the governments of both countries introduced a policy of rapprochement, or reconciliation, through youth exchange programs.  Wishing to leave her village, Rita grew interested in international relations.  In 1982, a businessman from Detroit hired her to start and run a division of his company in Germany, dealing in low carbon iron.

Divorced with full custody of 2 young daughters, Rita became romantically involved with her boss, Gary.  They  dated for 2 years “until he convinced me to come to America.”

In 1991, Rita moved to the US with her daughters and applied for a green card, enabling them to stay in the US.  She and Gary married.  Gary was Jewish.  The move proved an adjustment.  Rita says of her  generation, “We were born after the Holocaust but still felt a lot of guilt.”  When she first moved to America and into a Jewish community, she says, “I didn’t know how to address my past.  I felt very uncomfortable.  Still, it was my history.  I had to own it.”

Rita became friends with many Jews; she worked to connect Jewish contacts to the growing German business community.  In 2002, the president of Germany came to the US on his way to the Salt Lake City  Olympics.  He spent 2 days in Detroit.  Rita organized his visit and included a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Center.

Gary had adopted Rita’s girls in 2001.  That same year Rita and her daughters became US citizens.  4 years later, Rita’s marriage to Gary failed.  “Gary wanted a different life,” Rita says.

Rita faced a predicament.   Her daughters were teenagers.  She wanted to put them through college.  She needed an income.   She spent a year researching business ideas on the internet.  Her daughters, Laura and Imke, loved animals.  Laura longed to, and eventually did, become a veterinarian.  (Caregiving’s in the family DNA.  Imke became a nurse.)

Influenced by Laura’s love of animals, Rita adopted a rescue dog from the Michigan Humane Society in 2005. Laura applied to vet school at MSU but was declined.  “She was devastated,” Rita says.  Her daughter’s disappointment put dogs on Rita’s radar.  She looked into creating a facility to board animals.  She realized most such facilities were “dirty, smelly and crowded.”  She decided to create a better mousetrap, or dog house, to be specific.

Rita wanted to create a home away from home for dogs, reflecting the changing dynamics in dog/owner relationships.  “Dogs are members of the family,” Rita says.  “They need appropriate care and attention instead of just being tucked away.”

It was 2010.  The middle of an economic downturn.  Still, she says, “It never dawned on me that I could fail.”  She invested all the money she had and borrowed the rest.  She’s “still friends” with her loan officer from Comerica Bank who “came up with creative ways to finance the project.”  Rita drove many miles investigating locations, eventually deciding on an industrial area in suburban Troy, MI.   She obtained rezoning approval.  The city wanted her to provide more parking spots; she objected, preferring to save square footage for dog play area.  Rita was determined to provide 60sf, inside and out, per animal.  “The main goal was to give dogs room to run around and enjoy their freedom.”

Rita estimates she spent about $1.5 million to get into business, including buying the building.   She opened The Barkshire (love the ritzy name) in 2011.  Despite what she calls “obstacles,” the business has grown steadily.  The Barkshire gains new clients every day.  (As with every good idea, others follow.  There are now at least 10 competitors within 10 miles.)

“We want our dogs to enjoy themselves.  Some play; some just watch others play.  The Barkshire is like a kindergarten or an overnight camp for dogs.”

The Barkshire provides day care and overnight boarding.  One of Rita’s favorite clients was Tommy, a German Shepherd.   Two days a week, Tommy would take his leash in his mouth, stand by the door to the garage in his house and jump into the car.  His owner drove him to the Barkshire where he proceeded straight to his group of doggie pals.

Her first 2 years in business were “really hard” Rita says.  “I placed a lot of trust in some people who didn’t prove trustworthy.”  One tried to sue her, but the judge ruled in Rita’s favor.  It took time to develop her staff, but she now has “a solid team.”  One employee has been with her from the start.  Her staff numbers 18.  She’s “the company mom.”

A tough part of the job is losing clients that don’t live long compared to humans.  “We hug our dogs and lie on the ground with them.  Over 8 years, we’ve lost a lot of them.  Our break room is plastered with their photos.”

Her favorite dog?  “I love pit bulls,” she says.  “Some people train them to be vicious, but those we accept go through a temperament test.  Often they’re rescued from abusive situations, trained for fighting with their ears clipped.  But they’ll roll on their backs in a sign of submission.  Socializing at The Barkshire gives them a chance to become normal.  So many dogs need help.”

Rita’s own pet is Dolfi, a pinscher/Chihuahua mix.  Found in the street with a broken leg, he was brought to a veterinary clinic where he underwent surgery, then waited 3 months to be rescued.  Rita was “drawn to his sad eyes.”

Rita’s parents spent their lives in Weseke.  They died in 2001 and 2003.  Rita’s father didn’t talk about his experiences as a young man in Nazi Germany until 5 years before he died at age 79.  When he finally did, she says, he cried.   “People of that generation weren’t used to showing their emotions.”

Rita appreciates seeing her homeland take responsibility for its past.  “There are monuments to Germany’s shame all over the country, especially in Berlin.  The memorials make me feel like Germany has found its soul again.”

The Barkshire has brought Rita “a nice, happy life,” she says.  “It’s amazing how people can find happiness again.  But the stars have to align.  A lot of people struggle and things never fall into place.  I got lucky.  It worked out.”

100 dogs and dozens of dog owners are glad it did.  Thanks, Rita, for sharing your story.  And for the canine contentment you bring.

After navigating many rough waters, Michelle Brault finds smoother sailing (part 3)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Enjoy all of this 3-part story—Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here—and this is Part 3.

Michelle’s travails weren’t over yet.

The main air conditioning unit of her house died, creating what she terms “my next obstacle.”  For many months her daughter slept with her mom on Michelle’s king-sized bed in a room cooled by a window unit.

Then, another bombshell.  She learned her ex had overextended himself.  He was $1 million in debt, partly due to back taxes. It was 2010.  Michelle was liable for half of her then-husband’s debt.  Her ex filed for bankruptcy, leaving Michelle no option but to do the same.

Michelle was still working at Saks.  “I used the position as a network for meeting people,” she says.  A customer came into the store, looking for a gown.  She had a tracheotomy.  “The other saleswomen freaked,” she says.  “I was fine with it.  I just said: I love spending other peoples’ money.”  The customer’s husband gave her a budget: $1,000.  Michelle found his wife a gown for $500.

The customer’s husband was so impressed that he told Michelle his neighbor, a CEO with a non-profit, was looking for a salesperson.  “I’ll be there in an hour,” Michelle said.  She got the job for $25k a year more plus benefits.

Her luck had begun to turn.

In her second not-for-profit job, Michelle worked on a fund-raising event for a Circus Arts Conservatory organization.  Through that she landed a job as development director with an additional salary hike.

In 2017, Michelle was working on a golf tournament at Laurel Oak Country Club, where Burton and I are members.  Her friend Leslie Cornell, then membership director, mentioned she was leaving.  The salary level was significantly higher.  Leslie cautioned, “They’re looking for someone with membership experience.”

Michelle met with the general manager and 2 board members of LOCC.  They all preferred someone with membership experience.

“I told them if I could learn the term streptococcus pneumonia and what anti-biotics treated it—I could learn membership.”

Long story short.  Michelle was hired.  Generous commission structure.  Full benefits.  4-weeks paid vacation.  On Dec.11, 2019, Michelle celebrated 2 years at LOCC and a record number of new members.

Flashback.  On Labor Day, 2008, Michelle had learned her birth father, John Sweeney, was dying of liver cancer.  His other children were unable to get to the hospital to be with him.  Michelle drove to Ft. Lauderdale and sat by his bed.  He was thin and jaundiced.  He said, “Oh my God, Michelle, you’re the last person I thought would be here.”  She said she’d come to bring love from Kathleen and Kerry, the daughters he’d raised.  When a nurse came in, he said to her, “Have you ever seen a more beautiful girl?”

Michelle kissed his cheek.  He died the next day.

Michelle says, “The first person he brought into this world was the last person to say goodbye.”

A counselor came into the room and asked Michelle if she was okay.  “Yes,” she said.  “It isn’t about me.  I didn’t have a connection with him.  I was just a blood relative.”

Michelle’s on her way back to financial health.  “I have a great product to sell.  Beautiful people are  attracted to Laurel Oak.  I wish I’d known about this industry 20 years ago.  But you can’t live your life in shoulda, woulda, coulda.

“Through hard work I landed a good job and a high credit rating.  I bought a new home and new furniture and nice cars for myself and my daughter.  We even had a vacation.  Last summer Bella went to London and Italy with her father’s family.  I took my sons to Key West.”

2 weeks later, 4 family emergencies wiped out her savings.  But so it goes.  Michelle keeps moving forward.

“I always knew I’d make it.  It was a matter of when, not if.  And I did it myself.  That’s super empowering.  I hope I’ve taught my children a lesson about never, EVER giving up.”

Thanks, Michelle, for sharing your story of hard work, chutzpah and resilience.  Thanks for sharing the highs and lows of your journey.   As for your love life, hope #3’s the charm.  He’ll be one lucky guy.


Michelle Brault buckles down and goes to college (part 2)

THERE WILL BE A HAPPY ENDING … That’s the theme of the life of Michelle Brault. She’s center with the glass in this family photo from Thanksgiving 2019.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Enjoy all of this 3-part story: Part 1 is here; you are now reading Part 2; Part 3 is here.

When she graduated from high school in 1984, Michelle sold cosmetics until she turned 21—old enough to join Continental.  In her 20s, she traveled the world as a flight attendant.

“I never cared about school,” she says.  “Though my whole family was educated, when I was young, all I cared about what boys and fashion.”   At 30, she decided a college degree would improve her prospects.  She went to enroll at Florida’s Eckerd College.  A counselor said, “You have poor grammar skills; weak math skills.  There’s no way you can graduate from Eckerd College.”

Michelle glared back and said, “I will go to this school and I will graduate.”

Her father supported her family while she drove from Tampa to St. Petersburg for classes and tutoring.   “I took triple classes and sat eating humble pie in labs with 18-year olds.”   After 3 years she graduated, age 33, with honors and a 3.8 average.  A panel of professors approved her graduation.  Her birth mother and birth sister Kim came to the ceremony.  “It was one of the proudest days of my life.”

Meanwhile, she’d survived plenty of drama.  Within 1 and 1/2 years, Michelle had divorced a dashing Columbian con man; her mom had gotten cancer; and she’d met her birth family.  At 35, she married an attorney with a 7-year-old son.  Michelle’s sons, Nicholas and Matthew, were 7 and 5.  Together, she and #2 had a daughter, Bella.

“For me, work had been mostly a matter of hunt, kill and feed.  I just wanted to make money and take care of my family.”  She and #2 decided his income could support their family.  She quit her job as a pharmaceutical rep and became a stay-at-home mom.

Two years later, she says, “I realized I was in trouble.  I’d rushed into marriage.  My husband  had no friends.  He didn’t like having people at our house.”  The couple were together for 10 years, married for 9.   She came to see her second husband as a narcissist. The term comes from the Greek myth about Narcissus, a hunter who falls in love with his own image and for whom the daffodil-like flower is named.  The name stems from the Greek word for narcotic.

As a distraction, Michelle joined Mothers Helping Mothers, an all-volunteer not-for-profit providing emotional support, clothes and baby items free of charge to Sarasota area mothers.  It was 2008-9, during the last recession.  “Women were embarrassed to come in to a charity for clothing.  I acted like their personal shopper, advising them about fashion and what looked best on them so they felt more comfortable picking through others’ clothes.”

A young woman named Tammy came to the charity.  She’d been let go from Publix.  She had a teenage daughter with a chronic illness and was on food stamps.  Michelle said, “I think I can help you.”  She met her at the market and paid $225 for a month’s worth of food for Tammy’s family.

When she got home, she told her husband about it.  “He was livid,” she says.

“I said, ‘That’s one hour of your billable fees.’  I knew right then we’d never see the world the same way.  He was trying to make me into a Stepford Wife.”

9 years after they were married, in June, 2010, spouse #2 walked out on Michelle, their 4 children and  4,000-square-foot suburban house.  He agreed to pay her $300 a week and cover the household bills until their divorce came through.  That August, he cut off Michelle’s electric and water services and stipend.

Michelle went to see him.  She asked, “How could you do this?”

The Deuce said, “You need to get a job.”

In September, Michelle marched into the office of Sally Schule, the well-known manager of Saks.  “I said, ‘I really need a job.  You’re going to hire me.  I can sell anything.  Ice to Eskimos. How much can you pay me?”

She got the job, but not for enough to feed her family.

“I had to go on food stamps for a month until my pay kicked in and the divorce was final and I could collect alimony and child support.  I became one of the people I’d been helping.  I drove a Mercedes to Walmart with food stamps.”

She sold her wedding ring and her Rolex watch for $6000.  “That was all I could get.  When that ring  went into a box, I knew my former life was over.”

For a while, Michelle got by with help from her friends.  “Ding dong, the doorbell would ring.  A friend would bring over a meal.  Ding dong, here’s $100.  Ding dong, a gift card from Publix. “  A neighbor sent  her landscaper to mow Michelle’s lawn.

From the volunteer work Michelle had done, she knew lawyers did some pro bono work.  She convinced Carmen Gillett, a respected Sarasota marital attorney, to take her case.  Her divorce from the husband was granted on Nov. 15, 2010.  She now deems it the date of her “Emancipation Proclamation.”  She got alimony for 3 years alimony and child support until her daughter turns 18.

(more about this proud and plucky gal’s saga in Part 3, next week)

Michelle Brault is grateful for the parents who gave her away and the parents who raised her (part1)

Michelle Brault with sons Matthew and Nicolas in the year Michelle’s Mom died and she found her birth family.

Life has knocked Michelle Brault down many times for many reasons.  But nothing keeps her down for long.

Times, attitudes and legal rights have shifted since Michelle was born in 1966.  Although abortion became legal in New York that year, Michelle’s unwed parents, Diane and John, moved from Pittsfield, MA, to Albany, NY, to wait out Diane’s pregnancy.  Both Catholic, they gave birth at Our Lady of Providence to ensure their child’s adoption by a Catholic family.

Their prayers were answered.

Virginia and Joseph Brault had been married 4 years.  Unable to conceive, they approached Our Lady of Providence adoption agency.  Soon after, they brought home a baby girl they named Michelle.  In one of many Godsigns, Michelle’s birth parents had named their baby Michelle, the name the Braults unknowingly chose.  2 years later, the Braults brought home Michelle’s adopted brother, Michael.

Joseph was a pharmaceutical sales manager for Bristol Meyers Squibb.  Virginia, a former pediatric nurse, became a stay-at-home mom.  Michelle says, “I literally grew up with a white picket fence and dinner on the table every night.  My friends all hung out at our house because they could feel the love inside.”

Although adoption was often hushed up in the 60s, Virginia raised Michelle to know she’d been adopted.  She read her books about adopted children.  “She always told me I was special,” Michelle says.  “Thanks to her, I believe in happy endings.”

In that era, birth parents’ identities were kept secret.  But Michelle says, “I grew up with a deep longing to know my birth parents.  Who did I resemble?  What traits did I inherit?  What medical issues?”

At 30, Michelle had a job selling hair products to high end salons.  She was working with a salon owner who was cutting the hair of a male client.  Michelle asked the client if he happened to be a pilot.  He replied no; he was a private investigator.

“Oh good,” Michelle said.  “Will you find my parents?”

The P.I. agreed.

The P.I. discovered that Massachusetts had changed its laws.  For $300, Michelle could learn the identity of her birth parents.

That was a challenge. Michelle had recently divorced the man she had been married to from 1992-97. “I was a single mom with 2 little boys,” she says.  “I didn’t have $300.”  But the P.I. found the information anyway.

Michelle wrote a 4-page letter to Diane, her birth mother, asking to meet her parents.  She was warned they’d probably refuse since they’d married 6 months after Michelle was born, Diane had 2 daughters from a previous marriage and she and John had had 2 children together.   Undeterred, Michelle says, “I thanked them for giving me life.  I said I looked on their giving me up as an act of love, not rejection.  I asked to meet them.  Diane wrote back: yes, of course.”

Diane called that night.  Michelle picked up the phone and said, “Is this who I think it is?”

Diane said, “Yes.  It’s Diane.  Your birth mother.”

Michelle says, “I started to cry.  I was overwhelmed to talk to the person who gave me life and gave me away.”

Michelle Berault and the look-alike sister, Kerry.

Michelle learned her birth mother had been 28 when Michelle was born.  She was half-Italian and half- French.  Her birth father had been 26, college educated and a newscaster. Having a high-profile job, her father felt unable to admit to a child out of wedlock.  Michelle would come to learn she had 2 half sisters who ended up being raised by their father’s sister.  But she was “super excited” to hear she had 2 full sisters.

“It’s rare for an adoptee to get 2 full sisters,” Michelle says.  “But then, I believe in happy endings.”

Michelle arranged to meet her birth family, including Diane, half-sisters Robin and Kim and full sisters Kathleen and Kerry (the latter turned out to look just like Michelle).  Michelle flew from Fort Lauderdale to Providence, RI.  Walking down the jet way was, she says, “the only time in my life I hyperventilated.”  But she settled down with a big group hug.

The weekend she spent with her birth family was a highlight, she says, even though none of the girls knew about her.  “But they weren’t shocked.”  She learned Diane had given her first 2 children to their father, who in turn gave them to their grandmother, to raise.

(More about Michelle’s colorful life in next column)

From Vietnam to Traverse City, an all-American story of embracing diversity, including delicious Pho

Celebration of Soon’s and Tony’s families.

Soon Hagerty has risen to one of my top ten favorite interviews.  It’s not just due to her remarkable story.  It’s also about her divine dumplings.

Soon was born in Saigon in 1975.  Her father fought for the South Vietnamese on the American side during the Vietnam War.  After the war ended, in the mid-70s, Vietnamese citizens who’d fought for the South were “requested to enter re-education camps,” Soon says.  In 1979, the family fled “to pursue a better life.”  Soon was almost 5.  Her dad had $300 in his pocket when the family landed in the U.S..  Soon’s mom left 11 siblings behind.  Her dad, 14.

Soon’s family, including 6 kids and her pregnant mother, spent 40 days on a boat before landing in the Philippines where they stayed for 6 months at a refugee camp.  The family landed in Fresno, CA, sponsored by an uncle who’d also fought for the South.  About 800,000 Vietnamese left their country by boat from 1975-95.  Many perished due to danger from pirates, overcrowded boats and storms.  Soon’s family of 8 were among the lucky ones.  All survived.

Soon says, “Being a refugee taught me a lot about resilience and not looking back.  About the importance of people.  Not things.”

(Personal note.  I grew up with only a vague notion of Vietnam.  In March, ’65, while a junior at the U of M, I heard about an upcoming event called a “teach-in,” the first of many to follow on other campuses.  Professors spent the night lecturing on a war in an obscure place in southeast Asia.  Due not to political savvy but to my innate desire to be part of the action, I decided to attend.  I tried convincing some SDT sorority sisters to join me.  No luck, so I went solo.  I returned better informed about Vietnam but still personally unaffected. 3 years later, my new husband was reclassified 1A.  Now I was affected.  Phlebitis spared Burton from the draft.  My ex-boyfriend in ROTC served in Vietnam and returned emotionally scarred for life.  More than 58,000 American youth came back in caskets.)

Soon’s parents scrambled to support their kids.  They bought a couple of acres at a time, growing fruits and vegetables native to their culture to feed their family and peddle, door to door, to grocery stores.  That business grew  into the Asiana Produce Co., a small firm now run by Soon’s sister.  In elementary school and junior high, Soon says, “I remember hating summers because I had to work on a farm picking and packing vegetables.”

In time, the family adjusted to their new country.  “For everything we had to figure out, including learning to speak English, my siblings and I turned out pretty normal.”  The rest of her family still live in California, mainly in the Bay area, with careers as entrepreneurs or in real estate.

Soon grew up, attended college at Fresno State, and moved to LA seeking a career in PR or broadcast TV.  She landed both.  She joined a firm doing PR for high end automotive and luxury products while moonlighting nights and weekends as a field producer/assignment editor.  At 30, her parents’ entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and Soon launched her own PR agency, Luxe Communications.  One of her mentors and a client of her previous agency , a successful businessman, McKeel Hagerty, from Traverse City, MI, insured classic cars and ran classic car events.  McKeel and Soon fell in love and married 9 years ago.  Together they have one daughter, Ava, 7.

Soon’s been back to Vietnam several times.  She finds the country and its people “awesome.”  Soon’s mom still resents what they endured and hasn’t returned.

Soon and Tony

As a teen, Soon longed to be Caucasian like her friends.  But, she says, “As I’ve gotten older, I realize diversity is cool.”  To express pride in her heritage, Soon decided to open a Vietnamese restaurant.  She realized Traverse City lacked both diversity and good places for carry out meals.  Through networking, Soon learned about and met Tony Vu.  His family were also boat people who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 70s.  Tony was running his own small Vietnamese shop, MaMang, in Flint, MI.

Soon and Tony became partners, starting a restaurant they call The Good Bowl.  To cater to locals, they established it toward the north (less touristy) end of TC’s Front St.  Tony takes care of the kitchen and “creative side.”  Soon handles overall business operations, marketing and the front of the house.  She calls herself “a strategist and people person.”  She sees her job as “supporting the team.  And wiping down tables as needed.”

Soon says, “Many people helped my family along the way.”  The Good Bowl reflects her desire to give back.  Soon and Tony carved out an unusual niche.  $1 of every meal goes to a local, national or international charity.  Guests suggest the recipients; staff vote for their choices.  In its first year of business, The Good Bowl donated over $30,000 to charities including Father Fred, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Doctors Without Borders.  Signage describes the current charity recipients, enhancing customer awareness.

Soon also organized Help in Heels, a group of 12 Traverse City women whose mission is to learn about, assist and donate to different local charities.  They take turns choosing the recipient.  One member decides which charity the group will focus on that month.  In the last 5 years, they’ve helped build homes for Habitat for Humanity, collected school supplies for teachers who’d other wise have spent their own money for classroom needs, made dinner for abused women at the Women’s Resource Center.  Recently they painted 500 stones with inspiring words for Michael’s Place, a counseling center for grieving youth.

Soon’s family, the Nguyens, are so grateful to be in America that every 5 years they mount a celebration honoring their adopted country.  Gatherings are filled with “lots of tears and toasts.”  For the 30th anniversary of the Nguyens’ arrival in America, Soon produced an Apple book featuring photos of the family’s journey.  On the cover: an image of her parents’ wedding day.  She printed 30 copies, one for each family member.

In 2018, Soon arranged a family reunion.  Tony joined in.  Between Soon’s 25 family members and Tony’s 11, the twosome hosted brunch for 37 at The Good Bowl.  The families got along so well that Soon invited the Vus to her house for a lobster fest.

I left the restaurant having devoured all the dumplings Soon put before me.  She sent me home with a delicious concoction called Pho but pronounced fah.  And with dumplings instantly scarfed up by my family.  My tastebuds have never enjoyed an interview more.

Thanks, Soon, for sharing a fascinating and delectable story.  And for reminding us of the blessing of being a nation of immigrants.  I shall return.  Soon!

(Thanks Nadine Farbman and Natalie Victor for introducing me to Soon.)

A delicious bowl of Pho. Perfect for a chilly winter’s day!



His brother Michael’s suicide led Rabbi Danny Syme to work toward suicide prevention

Click on this image to learn more about the documentary Rabbi Syme helped to produce in 2016, called Death Is Not the Answer.

Detroiter Michael Syme was a brilliant musician.  He taught himself to play 20 instruments.  He read in an ad that Frank Zappa was looking for a flutist, borrowed a flute and played so well he was noted in a Detroit Free Press review.    He played guitar with John Lennon.  Was a guitarist with Chairman of the Board.

Wanting to be a concert pianist like his older brother David, Michael borrowed a violin, taught himself to play and, at 20, won a full scholarship to a music academy in the South.  But he  became “disenchanted,” says his brother Danny, and dropped out   He moved to Little Rock to play the fiddle with a country western band as a fiddler.

To hear Michael play, big brother Danny, then a suit-wearing rabbi, attended a performance at a “dive bar” in Little Rock.  The band’s guitarist broke a string and stopped to fix it.  To fill the time, Michael played the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.  “The audience went crazy,” Danny recalls.

A love of music ran in the family.  The boys’ father, Monte, was a cantor at 13; mother Sonia played piano and accompanied Monte in high school.   Danny loved music, too, but fate took him in a different direction.  At 20, he had testicular cancer and wasn’t expected to survive.  When the tumor proved contained and was successfully removed, one of his surgeons said to him, “God saved you for a reason.  In my opinion, you should become a rabbi.”

Though his father was a rabbi for a prominent Detroit congregation, Danny hadn’t wanted to follow in his dad’s hallowed footsteps.   But he found himself saying, “Then I will.”  He applied to rabbinical school and became a rabbi at 26.

At 21, Michael broke up with his girlfriend and moved back to Detroit.  Danny, then a young rabbi in New York, returned to the D to visit.  Michael said to him, “I’m coming back to Detroit to get my head together.”

“That sounds like a mature move,” Danny said.

Michael added, “I’ve never felt worse.”

That day Michael had visited a psychotherapist he’d seen before.  That night, when Michael’s parents returned from services, they found their son dead in the garage, asphyxiated in their car.

“I’d just thought he was looking for attention,” Danny says.  “No one talked about suicide in those days.”  But not taking his brother’s last words more seriously proved “a mistake I’ve never forgiven myself for in 45 years”.

Ever since, Danny has devoted himself to suicide prevention.  He often speaks to youth groups about the need to get help for depressed teens.  “In most cases, kids tell someone they’re in pain and just want the pain to stop.  They usually confide in a friend, almost never a parent or teacher or clergy member.  They swear their friend to secrecy. That friend is usually torn between wanting to help and honoring their vow of silence.”

Danny quotes the Talmud (the body of Jewish law), “for one who saves a single soul, it is  as though they’ve saved the whole world.”

Danny started Reach for Hope, a 3-day program that trains people in techniques for intervening in suicide ideation.  Under the umbrella of Reach for Hope at JFS (Jewish Family Service), Danny’s recent session was the most diverse yet, attended, among others, by 2 psychologists who work with the LGBTQ community.  Danny cites an almost 100% risk of suicide attempts by those who’ve had transgender surgery.  He also says the 2nd leading cause of death among people 10-24 is suicide (the first: car accidents).

Common denominators: depression, chemical imbalance, dysfunctional families.  Someone in the US commits suicide every 13 minutes, he says, including 20 vets a day.

A problem with depressed youth: Most hospitals won’t treat people under 18.  In those cases, he recommends sending a kid to a clinic that prescribes medicine.

Danny says, when dealing with a depressed relative, families are advised “means limitation.”  Locking up pills or guns that might be used “until equilibrium is restored.”   The time in which someone decides to attempt suicide and carries it out: “usually under 10 minutes.”  Danny adds someone with a gun in their house is twice as likely to die by suicide as someone without available pills or weapons.

Reach for Hope training in Detroit is led by Gigi Colombini, a “brilliant clinician” who’s focused her practice on suicide for almost 30 years.  She started the Institute of Hope & Human Flourishing in Birmingham, MI.

In retrospect, what should Danny have done about his brother’s confession 45 years ago?

Having spent most of his adult life asking himself that question, he responds, “I should have called  his therapist and taken him to the hospital.”

For others who hear an admission such as Michael’s, Danny advises the same.   Although their friend might be angry with them, “Underneath they desperately hope someone will care enough to get them help.  They may be angry at first.  Ultimately they’ll be grateful, relieved to know someone is listening.”

Danny doesn’t know how many suicides his efforts have helped prevent.  He only knows one thing: “People say if my brother was determined to end his life, he would have no matter what I did.   But that’s an intellectual, not emotional, argument.  For me, every time I intervene in a teenager’s ideation, it’s as if I’m saving my brother.”

Statistically, Danny says, someone in the U.S. dies by suicide every 11.8 minutes.  “And that doesn’t include so called accidents like falling off a roof or dying in a car crash.”

My favorite Jewish prayer begins, “Grant us peace, your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth.”

Thanks for the insight, Danny, and for all the souls you’ve helped save.   May God grant you, and all of us, that most precious gift.