Royal Salute: Noted attorney and his wife to be honored at Annual Dinner for HMC

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Years before the mention of the Holocaust became part of the everyday vernacular, Detroit area attorney Michael Serling and his his wife, Elaine, a retired nurse and music educator, were planting the seeds of their future philanthropic efforts by connecting with those who were affected by the genocide that claimed the lives of more than 6 million Jews.

On November 11, the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) in Farmington Hills will honor the Serlings’ continued work to bring Holocaust education to the forefront of academia and to the public at-large at its 34th Annual Anniversary Dinner at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.

“Their passion for Holocaust and tolerance education is evident through their many actions, including establishing the MSU Holocaust Studies Chair, funding the Visiting Israeli Scholars Fund at MSU, and Michael serving as chair of the MSU Jewish Studies Advisory Board where he helped create professor positions in Holocaust Studies and American Jewish History,” noted Rabbi Eli Mayerfield, CEO of the Holocaust Memorial Center.

The Serlings dedication to Holocaust education arose from childhoods infused with an awareness of the price humanity pays for genocide.

“Elaine’s father was a veteran, a medic, who had liberated a death camp near Dachau while he was in the U.S. Army and my mother belonged to the first group of docents at the Holocaust Memorial Center. That had a tremendous impact on me,” Serling said.

Early in their marriage the Serlings forged a lifelong connection with an Israeli family who made it out of Eastern Europe before they were swept up by the purges on Jewish neighborhoods.

“In the ‘60s, we connected with an Israeli family, on my side, who just barely got out of Europe and escaped to Israel in the ‘30s. My family came to America in the 1890s from Belarus and Poland,” Serling said. “After I graduated from Detroit College of Law, I worked as a legal aid attorney. Then we moved to Israel for a year. In fact, I still have asbestos cases I collaborate on in Israel,” said Serling, who handles Mesothelioma cases in his Birmingham law practice.

Motivated by the personal accounts they heard from their families, in Israel and the U.S., the Serlings became actively involved in philanthropic work in the Jewish community.

“The American story was so great, how they came as immigrants with nothing and achieved and sent their kids to school. It’s was a wonderful story, while the European story was a disaster,” Serling said.

As they became increasingly involved in Jewish education, the Serlings never forgot the Holocaust survivors they met here and in Israel.

“My formal involvement in Holocaust education started in the ‘90s with my alma mater, Michigan State University, where I became very active in their Jewish studies program. When I was asked if I would do a reception for visitors from Israel because I spoke a little Hebrew, I did,” Serling said. “It was at that reception that I met Ken Waltzer, the director of MSU’s Jewish studies curriculum, who was trying to build the program. He asked if I would help and I said, ‘I would try.’”

From there, the university asked Serling to organize an advisory board, an effort that he undertook not knowing if it would be successful.

“I didn’t know if anyone would take part in it, so I asked 20 people and 19 said yes. That was the beginning of my work at MSU. I chaired the advisory board and helped them raise funds,” Serling said. “Together we were able to build a program with five core positions, full time professors, some endowed by the Jewish community and some covered by MSU.”

When Waltzer retired in 2014, Serling began a search to fund a permanent chair for the program.

“I felt that it was imperative to have someone to replace him to teach the Holocaust,” Serling said. “I went out to the community with the help of Rabbi Harold Loss, (of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield) and found funding through the Farber family. They agreed to fund the biggest part of the gift to create a chair in Holocaust Studies. Elaine and I, and several other people locally, invested heavily in the program and we were able to establish a chair, which means it is in perpetuity.”

Like her husband, Elaine Serling, is passionate about keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive.

“It was really thrilling to me when the HMC was built here. Michael and I had the same point of view. We asked ourselves, ‘Who was going to carry the torch?’ Because the farther away from anything – not that 50 years is far – we get, the less it is remembered,” Elaine said.

An accomplished singer, Elaine often meets with Holocaust survivors to share her love of music, a collaboration that inspires her to see her commitment through a wider lens.

“Meeting survivors and seeing the positive life they’ve led while being able to communicate that we should never forget, that we must go on, are two thoughts that collide with me, “Elaine said. “We sing Broadway and some Yiddish songs. It is such a joy to be with them. I think when you are involved you look at it in many ways.”

Their involvement gave the Serlings an opportunity to meet the late author and renowned activist, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who in his many books and lectures recounted his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

“We met Elie Wiesel in 1999 at MSU when he gave the commencement address. It was very timely because it was during the Kosovo war in the former Yugoslavia. Wiesel talked about how we had to stand up to what was happening there,” Michael Serling said. “After his address, he spent an hour-and-a-half to meet with us and give advice on developing a first class Jewish studies program.”

The Serlings, who have two adult daughters and four grandchildren, said the recognition they are about to receive from the HMC came as a complete surprise.

“This was totally unexpected. You do things because you have a passion for it, because you think it’s right and you want to make a difference in the world. It’s wonderful to receive this recognition. It’s something we never thought or knew was having such a big impact,” Serling said. “Every day you want to fight for justice – to do things that many people didn’t do in Europe, things that might have made a difference.”

For more information about the anniversary dinner, which will feature as its keynote speaker George Takei, who was imprisoned in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II and starred as Lieutenant Sulu on “Star Trek,” visit https://www.holocaustcenter.org/dinner

 

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