Meg Sullivan '03 is the founding director of the JCC Harlem, since its inception in 2016. She has lived in Hamilton Heights for ten years, spends most of her time north of 100th Street, and is an avid home cook who finds great joy in offering food to others. Here, Meg speaks about her professional role, how MCS shaped her, and how she had no choice but to become an activist!
How did MCS shape your childhood?
I'm an MCS lifer. I was there from the 4-5s through the 8th grade. My parents' best friend sent their daughter Emily Ryan Lerner '93 to MCS so that's how I went. I don't remember anything pre-MCS; it's always been in my consciousness.
Going to [Bronx Science] high school, I realized that the world is not like MCS and I had a lot to contend with. The fact that MCS was a utopia hit me. MCS has always focused on the right thing. I felt seen as a whole child. I don't know if everyone else does. When I started high school, I noticed [racial] segregation. I cut through it over time. MCS kids are equipped to do a power analysis to understand the dynamics of whatever landscape we are in and to make change. The tools are there in a way that is demonstrably different than for other kids.
My older sister has down syndrome. The combination of growing up with my sister Laura and the way MCS raised me - I had no choice but to become an activist. It's in my DNA.
Were there particular experiences, events or pieces of curriculum that you remember from MCS that resonated with you later in life?
I have only the fondest memories of MCS. And I love the parts of the MCS experience that are untraditional. I remember that we got to run outside in the rain because of course we would have to go out for park time. I remember bragging to other kids after school at 92nd street Y about running around the classroom in our socks while our shoes dried!
This is my favorite MCS story: There was a tree in Central Park that was low to the ground and great for climbing when we were little. One day in the 6-7s or 7-8s, the tree was surrounded by a fence. We were inconsolable thinking the tree would be torn down. [Former teacher] Lois Gelernt talked to us and asked us what we wanted to do about it. She taught us the word "petition" and about collecting signatures. We spent school time sitting with Lois who helped us write a petition to the city and we spent hours collecting signatures in Central Park. We collected hundreds of signatures! That was a really formative experience for me. The main lesson was that we have power to make change and Lois took us seriously. She gave us the tools to feel empowered.
How did you end up running the JCC Harlem?
My family had a membership with the JCC on the Upper West Side before it even opened in 2001. I first came to work there by accident. Thanks to a camp friend, I joined in a part time position and then became full time. Early in 2016, the UJA Federation of New York funded the development of the new JCC Harlem, based on demographic studies of where Jewish families live in New York City. I was named the director and the JCC Harlem opened in 2017.
Describe the JCC Harlem and your role as the Director of the Harlem JCC?
The JCC Harlem
is a community space on West 118th Street that is open to all and serves the community through a lens of Jewish values. We are intentionally Jewish and committed to facilitating experiences between those who identify Jewishly and those who identify otherwise — connecting, growing, and learning within an ever-changing Jewish landscape. We appeal to multi-racial and multi-faith families that do not fit in one box and our goal is to serve the needs of the neighborhood. Everyone finds a home here whether you identify as Jewish or not.
We have three main pillars: Judaism, early childhood, and social action/public health. We offer an early childhood program for children under five. It is financially accessible and we aspire to MCS's sliding scale model. We offer rituals in Jewish life and Shabbat services, celebrate the high holy days, and partner with a lot of different folks practicing different flavors of Judaism. We also do a lot in public health and social action, including hosting pop-up vaccine clinics, blood drives, and polling.
We have worked really hard to make this a real community resource. There is tremendous value in the physical space that we have. One of our strategies is that our partnerships don't have to be transactional for us. If someone is doing good work, we see it as one of our responsibilities to support that work as it is.
I have my hands in everything. I oversee the programs and partnerships and a fundraising portfolio to make this sustainable so that we can stay here for the long term. It's beautiful and very affirming work for me. The process has given me some affirmation I didn't know I was looking for - a diverse Jewish practice and spiritual life.
What did you do before working at the JCC?
I was 23 years old when I started my first full time job at the JCC Manhattan. Before then, when I was in college, I co-founded Project Harmony, an English immersion summer camp in Jerusalem, in partnership with Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. From 2010 up until Covid, I was in Jerusalem every summer doing work with Project Harmony Israel
Are there particular ways MCS prepared you for your professional life work?
MCS gives you the best lens through which to see the world though there may be many critics who describe it as a utopia. We are prepared differently and I would argue that we are better prepared to assess the ills in our environment and that we, as individuals, are responsible for making it better.