By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
October 1, 2013
by Vivian Henoch
By any standard of measure or achievement, Alyssa McMillan is a wonder woman.
She dresses with the impeccable taste of a young executive; her resumè reads like a seasoned professional, generous with her time and energy as a community volunteer; her interests range over a broad spectrum of social service organizations, working with young children, teens and older adults; she’s worked as a member of AmeriCorps as a housing support specialist and case manager liaison providing services to the homeless; she’s been a music tutor, a personal trainer, a fitness instructor, a fashion model; she’s earned two prestigious internships and a handful of community and scholastic honors; she’s a board member of Hillel Metro Detroit (HMD); and all that’s only for starters.
Alyssa describes herself as a non-traditional student, what she doesn’t tell you is how exceptional her education has been and how driven she is to help others. For the past three years, Alyssa has worked part-time at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in the position of Administrative Assistant – all the while accelerating her course work at Oakland University to earn her B.A. in Journalism and minor in Judaic studies. With the goal to turn her passion for community work to a professional career, she is now pursuing her Masters of Social Work at Wayne State University, still working full speed ahead at the JCRC.
Alyssa grew up in suburban Detroit and graduated from Berkley High School. Alyssa’s Jewish connections deepened as she became involved with Hillel Metro Detroit, joining the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in May 2008. After Birthright, she was a Hillel Grinspoon Israel Advocacy intern with a focus on Israel’s multicultural dialogue. Most recently, she returned to Israel as JCRC’s representative to the Diplomatic Seminar for Young Jewish Leaders, a study program conducted annually by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs for young Jewish men and women of outstanding leadership potential.
What lights Alyssa’s fire? We recently caught up with her to learn more.
On choosing Judaism
Q: Alyssa, you’ve chosen Judaism and converted as a family. Please share with us how and when you and your parents were drawn to Judaism.
A: Let me start with the fact that we are an extremely close-knit family and basically began our journey to Judaism together.
I can’t wait until my parents renew their wedding vows and have their official Jewish wedding. My parents have been married for 31 years and together for a total of 35 years.
Q: Why Judaism?
A: I can’t say whether we chose Judaism or Judaism chose us, but it’s something that felt right and meaningful to us.
Actually, when you think about the black American experience, Christianity was not the religion we were born to; it was imposed by our slave masters. So you could say in a sense we were originally “Christians by choice.” Choosing instead to be Jewish has given me something to call my own. As a black American Jew, I have a very particular and rich set of values and morals and a tradition to pass down to my kids. Judaism is a religion that makes sense to me and my family. I’m continuing to deepen my commitment to Judaism and study regularly with an Orthodox Rabbi.
Q: Your middle name is Bracha. Tell us about that.
A: I’m my parent’s only child, born two and a half months early, 2 pounds 15 ounces. So my parents always say I was like a miracle baby, a blessing. (Bracha is the Hebrew word for blessing.)
On service to the community
Q: From Altrusa of Greater Birmingham and Gleaners to Focus Hope, from the Multiple Sclerosis Society to the Alzheimer’s Association, from Habitat to Humanity and Maple Grove Substance Abuse Clinic to the Greening of Detroit… you have associated with more than a dozen nonprofits and service organizations over your “short” career as a volunteer. How did you get started?
A: As a family we’ve always been involved in community service. My dad is a recreational therapist for the State of Michigan and Henry Ford Hospital, working in mental and behavioral health with adults and children. In high school, I remember completing over 100 hours of community service, and my mom helping me. I even received an honor cord for graduation rewarding my service.
Q: What brought you to JCRC?
A: I ran into a friend who told me about an opening at the JCRC, and it sounded like a perfect fit for me. Along with Hillel of Metro Detroit, the JCRC has become my family.
Q: Through your involvement with Hillel and JCRC, you’ve been to Israel twice.What have your experiences been?
A: My first trip was overwhelming! Just being away from home for the first time in a different country without my parents, and being someone who was not born Jewish, made me connect in a new and different way — because I really wanted to absorb it all, really live and breathe Israeli culture.
The second time I went was for the Diplomatic Seminar in Jerusalem this past summer — 12 days of intensive work with 36 representatives from all over the world. Our purpose was to connect and take that spark back to the various agencies in the community. It was a transformative experience, nonstop every day – I took mounds of notes and came back with more knowledge as well as a further interest in politics and diplomacy.
Q: What would you tell someone thinking of moving back to Detroit or to the city for the first time?
A: I’d tell them to get in touch with Federation. You couldn’t ask for a better, quicker connection to the Jewish community, its services and resources.
On inspiration, hopes and dreams.
Q: If you could start your own nonprofit someday, what would it be?
A: I have a dream for a nonprofit: to start an organized black community that works like the Jewish community. In the Jewish community, you have Yad Ezra, a food bank; you have Jewish Family Services, Project Chessed; you have classes, schools and tutoring; you have apartments and eldercare; a whole support system with services that are available to help people – and help our community. Whereas in the black community, we’re not close like that, you don’t have those services. So that would be my dream, to see a Federation for black Americans someday.
Q: That’s a big dream and tall order. What keeps you going?
I’ll tell you two of the biggest cheerleaders are my parents, George and Camille. They’re the reason I am who I am. They’re my inspiration and the source of my drive – especially my mom. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1995, but that did not stop her from working as journeyman electrician for General Motors. She was one of the few black females in the trade. Dealing with her MS and working in a male dominated workplace made her even stronger, so she taught me to be strong.
Restaurant. Oak City Grille in Royal Oak. A great place to meet friends for drinks.
Hangout: MGM Casino
Favorite building in the Detroit skyline: Fisher Building
Favorite place to take kids: (No children yet, but when I have kids) The Science Center and Comerica Park
Favorite sport: Football. (My dad used to play college football.)
Favorite Jewish food: Tzimmes and potato kugel.
Favorite Jewish expression: When you choose to be a Jew, you end up absorbing the culture and the expressions, so “Oy” just comes out.
How to Keep a Jewish Household, To Be a Jew, To Pray as a Jew – along with my social work books for school.