The Power of Community Service
For a self-described “homebody at heart,” Sarah Allyn certainly knows her way around the neighborhoods in the city. Sarah is making her mark as a charismatic leader, an energetic organizer, a community builder, an innovative educator, a teen mentor and volunteer recruiter.
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
January 1, 2019
With a resumé that included teaching pre-schoolers in Chicago with Teach for America, and then a stint as an early childhood educator in the Chicago Public Schools, it was only a matter of time until Sarah Allyn moved back to Detroit in 2013. “Chicago is a great city. I loved teaching early learners, but I have no regrets about leaving,” she says. Though Sarah’s strong family ties (not to mention her boyfriend /now husband, Conor Mendenhall) were the factors that brought her home, it didn’t take long for her to find her place with Temple Shir Shalom as Director of Education. There she flourished as an inspiring youth leader, bringing new programs to life and engaging families in temple activities.
Sarah was not looking to leave Shir Shalom until those working with her took notice that she would be a good fit as Director of Repair the World when the position opened up in 2017. And the role called to her as the perfect opportunity to “engage her passion” — building community, connecting Jewish Detroit to Greater Detroit and providing meaningful experiences that connect directly with Jewish values.
A NEXTGener “adulting hard,” now at 30, Sarah notes that she has had a remarkably productive year since joining Repair the World. Together with Rabbi Ariana Silverman, Repair the World recently launched Dor Hadash – an affinity group for the new generation of Jewish families living in Detroit. Noting how more and more Jewish organizations and Jewish residents have popped up in the city, Sarah is quick to point out how Repair the World’s workshop space on Bagley Avenue (formerly the Disenos Ornamental Ironworks) has grown into a hub of communal activity. In June 2018, Repair the World hosted Detroit’s first “ELI Talks” (a filmed production of TED-style Jewish inspired talks presented before a live audience) in two nights that brought more than 1,000 in attendance. Thanks to $25,000 grant from the Davidson Foundation, Repair the World plans to develop the gated gazebo area next door into a public park space opening in April 2019.
Beyond their busy work lives, Conor (a musician and software developer with Quicken Loans) and Sarah were married this past September. They are proud residents of Southwest Detroit, new home owners in Hubbard Farms. When not working on a home project, they can be found pedaling MoGo’s to the Riverwalk or ordering gallaba at the Yemen Café in Hamtramck.
Q&A with Sarah Allyn
Five words that describe you:
I had to ask my staff and here’s what I got: Organized, passionate, effective/doer, creative, problem-solver.
Five words that describe Repair the World:
Jewish, connectors, engaging, service-oriented, meaningful
Sarah: on early influences, teaching and religious school
I grew up in a beautifully blended family in Huntington Woods. (Together, my husband and I count seven parents, so you might imagine we had a crowded wedding.) My mom is Shelly Podolsky, married to Arnold – in Huntington Woods; my dad is Jeff Allyn married to Maureen in Del Ray, Florida.
It’s not surprising that I first became a teacher. My mom was a lifelong educator who claimed that she knew she wanted to be a teacher from the time she was in first grade. The value of an education – and those who teach – were always a big part of my childhood.
Entering my senior year at U of M – a Psychology major in 2009 – I had no idea what field I wanted to go into. Back then, everyone was freaking out about employment after college – and Teach for America looked like a great opportunity. I applied at a recruitment session and accepted a role with the Chicago Corps. Through Teach for America, I also earned a Master’s in Early Education at Dominican University.
My teaching experience as a Corps Member with Head Start and then with preschoolers in the Chicago Public Schools was transformational. I can say with absolute conviction that teachers are the most underappreciated, undercompensated, and undervalued human beings on the planet. Teaching is the hardest thing in the world, and one of the most important jobs. I never worked harder in my life than with my students in Chicago. But as much as I loved the work, I knew teaching wasn’t going to be a lifelong career choice for me.
In 2012, I was ready to be home. It was a time when exciting things were going on in Detroit, and I wanted to take part. When I got the call from Rabbi Daniel Schwartz at Temple Shir Shalom — asking if I would come in for an interview for the position of Associate Director of Religious Education, I admit to being a bit skeptical. (Nothing against Temple Shir Tikvah where I grew up, but if you ask most adults my age and up, religious school was torture.)
To my surprise, by the time I finished the interview with Rabbi Schwartz, Rabbi Moskowitz and Marsha Mitnick, Pre-School Director, I was sold and, without question, wanted the job.
On the work at Repair the World
When did Repair the World get onto your radar?
Through my work at Shir Shalom, we started sending our B’nai Mitzvah kids to PeerCorps – an amazing teen service program run by Repair the World. Beyond that, we did some joint programming and I hired a few Fellows at the Religious School – so the stage was set.
Leaving was a hard decision, because I loved every minute at Shir Shalom. My Shir Shalom family – Rabbi Moskowitz, Rabbi Schwartz, Marsha – these were my mentors, my cheerleaders and they continue to this day to be dear friends, ever encouraging my career steps.
What fueled your decision to join Repair the World?
What really drew me was the greater opportunity to draw strength from the Jewish community – both within the city and out in the suburbs – and build the connections with the organizations and communities here in Detroit – all pulling together doing deep, meaningful work to make Detroit a better city for everyone involved.
At our Workshop – in offices we share with the Build Institute – we have a work space we call the Shark Tank. One of my favorite elements in that space is a hand-painted, wall-sized map of Detroit, which I use as a powerful teaching tool for visitors. I like to ask the questions, “Where is your Detroit, and where do you spend your time when you come into the city?”
The majority of answers point to downtown and midtown. So when I circle that small four-mile radius on the map, I like to identify our partners located in neighborhoods all across the city.
Who are some of your partners in the neighborhoods?
We do a lot of programming with PeerCorps in the area of urban gardening and food justice in partnership with Coleman A. Young Elementary School, Hazon Detroit, Yad Ezra, Gleaners, Keep Growing Detroit, Voices for Earth Justice, Kibbutz Detropia and others.
Other strong partners working to develop neighborhood hubs and family educational programming include:
- Brilliant Detroit – an innovative educational program- “Creating Kid Success Neighborhoods” launched three years ago by Jim and Carolyn Bellinson. To date, four houses in high-need neighborhoods are in use for community programming, with plans for expansion to eight by the end of 2019.
- Project Healthy Community – A volunteer-driven, multi-faith and inter-racial nonprofit enterprise to benefit the families of Northwest Detroit, founded by father daughter team, Melvyn and Karen Rubenfire
- Georgia Street Community Collective – a small, but growing community center, founded by Mark Covington, working to transform land into farm and garden and a neighborhood hub for educational activities.
What programs have you introduced in your inaugural year?
One of the pieces of our program that we started about a year ago was to intentionally partner with existing Jewish organizations that work with young adults, and who have an interest or mission or value around doing service engaging in social justice and social action.
A little background: we have Fellows who come to us for an 11-month program. They are tasked with recruiting people to volunteer with us and our partner organizations. Our Fellows are young adults, just out of college. Many are not from the area, have no network to speak of, and we bring them here and say, “Go! Recruit! Build a network and do it all in 11 months (minus the two we take for training).” So when I came in as Director, I started thinking about the ways we might better support our Fellows in doing their work and have them partner directly with organizations already engaging young Jewish adults.
So, about a year ago, we started matching our Fellows in a more formal partnership – one fellow to each of five organizations networking across the city: Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit, The Well, the Downtown Synagogue, Hillel of Metro Detroit and Jews for Justice. Year one was a learning year; now we’ve ramped up our programming for year two, thanks to the hard work and skills of our current Fellows: Mara Steinitz, Zach Hebert, Celena Ritchey, Rae Oleshansky and Abby Waldorf.
As a result of these intentional partnerships, more people in our community not only know us by name, but can articulate what it is we do and support our work, and that’s something we plan to continue developing.
What programs do you hope to implement next?
More family programming! Two of our Repair the World cities have launched a micro community called Family Service Corps. We’re in the process of developing a Detroit cohort along the same model, engaging Jewish families who are dedicated to doing service together.
What’s next on your calendar?
One of our biggest programs of the year is our Martin Luther King Weekend of Service – coming up January 18-21. That’s something that Repair the World does on a national scale, with a huge push for community service and learning. We have a full schedule of activities for all ages starting with a Shabbat Dinner called Turn the Tables and continuing throughout the weekend with hands-on field work with our partners. Our hope is that everyone finds an opportunity to engage.
Describe the process of recruiting Fellows for Repair the World?
Repair the World recruitment takes place primarily on a national level through a team that travels to college campuses around the country. We also recruit locally through our work with Hillels on campus around the state. Our Fellows represent a mix of young people – locals from the city and the suburbs, and those not from Michigan at all. There’s tremendous value in maintaining the diversity of the program by recruiting fellows in and out of town. For those interested, there’s an open application online now with the first round of selection closing January 31. There are rolling admissions after that.
What do you tell young people considering returning to Detroit, or moving to the city for the first time?
I encourage people to explore and get a little outside of their comfort zone. And, when moving to the city, look for housing outside that four-mile radius downtown, because there are incredibly vibrant communities all over the city.
I also like to share a poem entitled Just Say Hi (The Gentrification Blues) by Marsha Music. I think that should be required reading. Say hi and Detroiters who have lived here for decades will respond. The importance of being open and saying hi to people in our city can’t be overstated.
Restaurants: We have an incredible food scene here: Yemen Café, Imma (for udon noodles) Cutters Bar and Grille (my fave burgers) and El Ray for tacos (bring cash).
Buildings in the Detroit skyline: McGregor Memorial Conference Center, the Yamasaki-designed building on the Wayne State University campus and the Beth El Community Transformation Center, where they do awesome work.
Places to take kids or visitors: I love having my nephews, aged 6 and 2, with me in the city. Favorite places include Riverwalk, Outdoor Adventure Center, Clark Court, Dequindre Cut. For visitors, it’s the DIA, the Wright Museum, Jazz Fest, Belle Isle, Eastern Market and the Ford Drive-In in Dearborn.
Jewish holiday: Passover! Love to cook. We got a sous vide for our wedding, we’re having a great time sous vide cooking everything.
Favorite Jewish food: My grandmother’s matzoh ball soup; and a bagel and lox.
Guilty pleasures: I’m a nonstop coffee drinker.
Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination, by Herb Boyd
Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward
Words to live by:
“Start with a Yes.” (borrowed from Tina Fey’s Rules of Improvisation)