Good and Important Work
When I took my position three years ago, I was excited about the good and important work that was ahead. Over the past 18 months, “good and important work” took on a whole new meaning. While myself and our leadership team dug in for what I now refer to as “saving the J,” our staff dug deeper to ensure JCC Chicago’s essential services continued…and then they did even more. Much more.
I am both in awe and inspired by our team here at the J. Our early childhood educators donned their masks and welcomed children back to their classrooms way back in June 2020. They were the first to step up and have continued to not only be present but, even more important, embrace the brilliance of discovery-based, emergent learning to ensure children develop life’s most critical skills. What’s more, they have continued to deepen their practice through their own learning and development opportunities. Indeed, they are our community’s heroes.
Similarly, our J at School team showed up every day for Chicago Public School’s most disadvantaged children last year, staffing half of the district’s learning pods. When schools opened in a hybrid format, the team was there again to staff lunch and recess at nine partner schools. Today, at this very moment, our staff is with their students across 18 Chicago Public Schools and counting—reading, teaching, playing, and bringing peace of mind to working parents who rely on JCC Chicago for essential childcare needs.
In 2020, our day camp heroes made possible what most thought was impossible, launching day camp at nine locations while the world was closed around them. This past summer, Apachi Day Camps were back to full strength and taking on the yeoman’s challenge of welcoming children and teens back to community. Those essential skills learned in early childhood—coping, patience, problem-solving, acceptance—became a key focus of the summer following so many months of separation for our community’s youth. Never have I been more grateful for JCC Chicago’s deep commitment to social-emotional well-being and our team of social workers who go the extra mile for JCC kids.
In fact, Director of Social Services Rachel Schwartz spent half of her summer at Camp Chi, providing boots-on-the-ground support for children, teens and young adults facing the same struggles as our day camp community. Ensuring a wonderful overnight camp experience for every camper was even more in focus this year as Camp Chi celebrated its centennial. I was fortunate to visit Camp Chi several times this summer, including for the culminating Chi Burning experience that caps every session. Sitting in the quiet dark at the Cove, surrounded by hundreds of campers and staff, mesmerized by the moment, living 10 for 2 and knowing Camp Chi is the home away from home for so many really hit home.
100 summers is no small feat. And the same goes for 118 years, JCC Chicago’s 2021 milestone birthday. Over the past seven plus years of my service to the agency, I have witnessed the incredible rise of community programming—low-barrier, low- to no-cost offerings designed to connect Jewish Chicago, provide positive Jewish experiences, and instill a desire to live Jewishly. The some 15,000 community members who joined arts and ideas programming over the past year found their lives enriched through film, architecture, literature and more. The thousands more who turn to the J for Shabbat and holiday experiences, teen leadership opportunities, Hebrew language learning, wellness and connection, and so much more, are evidence of JCC Chicago’s relevance and need across Chicagoland.
Celebrating Camp Chi’s 100th summer and JCC Chicago’s 118th birthday in the same year, in the midst of a global pandemic that could have stopped the agency in its tracks, is remarkable. In addition to the JCC staff who make all we do all that is it, we are fortunate to have the support of an unwavering Board of Directors.
Marisa, thank you for being my partner in both survival and strength over the past two years—we set out to make a difference and we certainly did!
Ed, thank you for your ongoing leadership and support—Camp Chi’s 100th summer was especially magical because of you.
David, welcome to your new role—we are fortunate to have you at the helm in this next phase of the agency’s growth and impact.
Indeed, our leadership has demonstrated time and again their commitment to the J and, more so, their commitment to JCC Chicago’s essential community impact. Thank you.
The Jewish Federation of Chicago/Jewish United Fund was steadfast in their support of JCC Chicago over the past year, infusing critical dollars for personal protective equipment to safely run all early childhood centers, camps and facilities, providing essential relief funds for Camp Chi, boosting early childhood scholarship funds, and enabling the hire of both a fourth, full-time Social Services team member and a cadre of part-time social workers for Apachi Day Camps. Their generosity is joined by innumerous foundation partners and individual donors who collectively fueled the agency’s fiscal recovery and then did more—their message was loud and clear, “JCC Chicago is essential.”
As many know, the J holds a deeply personal place in my heart. I met my husband at the Bernard Horwich JCC when I was a lifeguard during college summers. Our daughter first swam in the Horwich pool, our oldest son had his bris at Horwich, ballet lessons, preschool, camp, volunteerism and more followed for each out our kids. Over the weekend, reflecting on how summer 2022 will be our youngest’s SIT summer, Charlie said to me, “Thank you for giving me Camp Chi. It has changed my life in so many ways and I am who I am because of Chi.” And this is the promise of the J.
Looking ahead, I am both energized and inspired. We have come so far and, of course, there is always much more to do. With the fullest of hearts, thank you to our staff, our lay leadership, our partners and the more than 60,000 community members who find their way to the J every year. 118 years strong and most definitely counting!