Vivian Henoch Special to the Jewish News
Above: Melyn and Karen Rubenfire
Meet the Rubenfires, Detroit activists and founders of Project Healthy Community.
Four days a week at the Fredrick J. Schulze Elementary School in Northwest Detroit, 30 youngsters in grades K-2 (and some of their older siblings, too), stay after school for a light meal, literacy-building activities and some extra tender-loving mentoring — all as part of Project Healthy Community.
A volunteer-driven, multi-faith and interracial nonprofit enterprise to benefit the families of Northwest Detroit, Project Healthy Community was inspired by Rabbi Joshua Bennett of Temple Israel and established in 2012 through the collaboration of longtime congregants Dr. Melvyn Rubenfire, his late wife, Diane, and their daughter, Karen Rubenfire, working in partnership with Hartford Memorial Baptist Church and leadership of the Northwest Activities Center.
For those, like Melvyn, who grew up in Northwest Detroit in the 1950s, the schools with the names Schulze, Bagley, Pasteur and Mumford all evoke fond memories of the “old Jewish neighborhood.” What many remember as the JCC around the corner is now the Northwest Activities Center, a thriving anchor of the neighborhood. Thanks to Melvyn and Karen, the Northwest Activities Center now serves as home base for Project Healthy Community (PHC).
Seeking strategic partnerships to serve the neighborhood, PHC has teamed up with dozens of community funders and organizations, including Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan and Forgotten Harvest. Currently, PHC’s growing roster of projects includes after-school programming, a mobile food pantry, Fundamentals for Nutrition (FUN) pantry for children, Summer in the City camp, an urban garden and the Farber Scholarship Program.
CALL IT BESHERT
It’s a story Melvyn Rubenfire likes to tell; launching Project Healthy Community has been a highlight in his long and distinguished career. A preventive cardiologist in practice for nearly 50 years as Sinai’s Chief of Cardiology, a professor of internal medicine at Wayne State and, since 1991, the director of Preventive Cardiology and professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, Melvyn led the charge to create PHC with Diane and Karen.
“We had the desire and tentative plans to start a fresh food pantry in the city,” Melvyn said, “but we didn’t have a focal point until 2012, when Rabbi Bennett delivered a sermon on Yom Kippur, calling congregants to action through community service, specifically suggesting we partner with the Northwest Activities Center.
“The rabbi’s words resonated with us,” Melvyn continued. “The Northwest Activities Center was in the neighborhood where we grew up, and it was in our soul, too. I went to Mumford High, a block from the Center; my career began in Detroit at Sinai Hospital. Giving back was the right thing to do.”
It was the Monday following Yom Kippur when Melvyn and Diane dropped into the center, just to introduce themselves and to “see what the center was all about.”
What they found was the place in shambles and a volunteer in the lobby with an apology, “Sorry, there’s no one here to help you today and our director is in a meeting with the board.”
At that, Melvyn explained they were from Temple Israel and they just wanted to take a tour.
“Our timing that day couldn’t have been better,” Melvyn said. “I still get chills when I think of our first conversation with the center’s Executive Director Ron Locket, when he stepped out of his meeting, smiled and asked, ‘What can I do for you? Our board is in the next room talking about closing our doors and selling the center.’
“I told him he might want to reconsider that decision, then proceeded to explain that Temple Israel was thinking of making the Northwest Activities Center a partner in an enterprise to promote literacy and nutrition to improve the health of the community in the neighborhood — and that we were two of about 3,500 families, 10,000 members strong, with a legion of volunteers ready to pitch in with their support.
“‘Wow,’ was Ron’s reply: ‘I know Rabbi Bennett. I’ve just walked out of a meeting where I suggested that the Jewish community might be interested in helping us … and just like that, here you are. That’s what we call Divine Providence.’
“And that’s what we call beshert!”
“Where there’s a dream, you can make it happen,” Karen said. Through her years of practice as a social worker, therapist, educator and advocate on behalf of clients of all ages, Karen has developed exceptional networking skills and connections throughout Metro Detroit. As founding secretary on the PHC Board, she has served as an invaluable volunteer. Upon the board’s request in 2016, Karen agreed to leave her social work career to become PHC’s director of Programming and Community Outreach.
According to Karen, Project Healthy Community started with a mobile food pantry held once a month in partnership with Temple Israel, Hartford Memorial Baptist Church and Gleaners. As the food started coming in, the neighborhood followed, and volunteers grew in numbers. In four and a half years, the program has tripled in size, distributing more than 20,000 pounds of food to serve about 400 families.
“We’re here to feed people, but our goal is also to educate them about their health and nutrition,” Melvyn said. “We feel that the educational component to the food pantry program is essential. And that’s also the reason we started the afterschool program at Schulze.”
At Schulze Elementary School, Karen is a driving force and a welcome presence among the students in the afterschool program. “We started with 12 children, and here we are now with 30 kids in our own allocated classroom in the school,” said Karen, noting that the space was recently painted and beautifully appointed by volunteers during JCRC/AJC’s Spring Mitzvah Day in partnership with the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC).
With a waiting list for the Schulze Afterschool Program, a growing community and Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) interest in PHC’s impact, there are plans to expand the FUN Pantry program to Pasteur, Palmer Park Academy and Durfee elementary schools, as well as a Saturday enrichment program.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Karen emphasized that Project Healthy Community is about community-building and not just another charitable cause. “An important part of our mission is to improve the lives of families by promoting volunteerism,” she said. “Our programs represent an incredible blend of people who simply want to give back, and that’s what I find so inspiring and rewarding about everything we do.
“Our volunteer opportunities are really hands-on, particularly with the mobile pantry. When I see the trucks roll in, and volunteers unloading and organizing the food, and families coming through with their smiles, saying thank you and so grateful for what you do … it doesn’t get any better than that.
“This is a labor of love that started with our family and my mom was a big part of it. She was our biggest cheerleader and greatest volunteer; she loved working on Pantry Days. Diane Rubenfire was our visionary to start Project Healthy Community, and though she’s been gone four years, she continues to be our motivation to make it empowering. It’s with her that we carry on.”
Just how far can Project Healthy Community’s collaborative initiatives go? At 78, Melvyn has yet to slow his pace as president of Project Healthy Community and readily shares his vision to open a wellness clinic. “We’re in early talks right now with Life Remodeled, a nonprofit investing in central Detroit in the neighborhood surrounding Central High School. Their current project is to repurpose the historic Durfee school building into a community innovation center focused on business, employment, education and community. Seems like Project Healthy Community may be a natural fit. We shall see.”
Community Is Invited
The Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC will honor Dr. Melvyn Rubenfire and Karen Rubenfire as the recipients of the 2018 Activist Award, 7 p.m. Thursday, May 31, at Adat Shalom Synagogue. Reservations for the main program with featured speaker Hon. Steven Rhodes are $18 per person. A pre-glow strolling dinner will begin at 6 p.m. for sponsors and donors $180+. For sponsor information and reservations, visit jcrcajc.org.
Vivian Henoch is editor of MyJewishDetroit.org, where this story first appeared.