The J I’ve Always Wanted to Be Part Of
In early January, long before the Covid-19 pandemic was part of our everyday consciousness, I began to spend a great deal of time reflecting on my career at JCC Chicago. 2020 marks my 25th year as a Jewish communal professional at the J. As the world, the Jewish community as a whole, and JCC Chicago as a microcosm of that community has evolved, reacted, and adapted to the challenges and opportunities presented by societal interrupters, I have experienced the challenges, sorrows and pain, joys, satisfaction and elation at serving our community throughout. It has been a wonderful career and an amazing journey with many lessons along the way.
I have always been grateful for the opportunity to serve the Jewish community. My first paid job as a teen was as an administrative aide in our Hebrew School. I had been profoundly inspired by our congregational rabbi, who was active in the civil rights movement, a subject that strongly resonated for me as a Jew. I was on the path to Rabbinical school until life interfered and I took a different path to that service.
Prior to joining the staff at the J, I had been a full-time homemaker and volunteer in my Jewish community, serving for several years as a board member at the Anita M. Stone JCC where my family had found a second home. I held several positions at the Stone J, everything from running a gift shop, and youth and family programs, to managing adult programs.
Lesson #1: It takes a village. At the small center in Flossmoor, it was imperative that we leveraged resources and that we were stronger when we supported one another working as a team. It allowed us to flourish for many years as the center of the Jewish and the broader community. I am so grateful for having had the opportunity to work with that amazing staff in that small, but mighty community. It gave me strong roots to transplant along my journey and was a wonderful extended family to my own.
Lesson # 2: Be Nimble, Adapt. The recession in 2008 forced many painful and economically driven decisions. For JCC Chicago it meant that to survive we needed to look for strategies to leverage resources, expand our partnerships and set priorities for continuing to provide experiences to enrich lives and build community. For me, personally, it meant taking on a new role in a new place. I was challenged, but so thrilled to expand my role in serving the community. Becoming a director empowered me to step forward with ideas and opinions on how we might expand our reach, build relationships and make a more profound impact. I will never forget the day that the CEO asked me what I thought we should be doing to engage more adults. When I brought forth my thoughts on arts and culture programming, he was right there with me!
Lesson #3: Change can mean opportunity. You only need to look for it.
JCC Chicago survived and thrived beyond the recession. We have evolved into a culture that asks, “How might we?” and with the support of our leadership we move forward! 8 years ago, we initiated the JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival and it has grown into a robust film festival with 18,000 attendees last year. It provides us an opportunity to build community around film which we hope will inspire thought, conversation, connection and action around the human condition.
Which takes us back to Covid-19. When our 2020 festival came to a stop due to the pandemic, we were faced with the challenge of how to continue to engage with our community in a time when in-theater and in-person events were impossible. Back to lesson #2: Be Nimble. I am so grateful for my small but amazing team who worked quickly and strategically to reimagine how we might continue to serve the community. Curating a virtual library of film, talkbacks with filmmakers across the world, with the removal of geographical barriers, we have expanded our community of participants and we have reached many more people than we might ever had in person. This past month 400 people had the opportunity to learn about Tamar Manasseh, a black Jewish rabbinical student who is making a difference for her community on the Chicago’s south side every day. The film was so popular we will rescreen the film in August with an opportunity to meet with Tamar and hear from her in a virtual conversation. We are in the process of planning our first virtual film festival in the fall and we look forward to welcoming audiences from small communities around Illinois.
25 years is a long time and I am so grateful to say that I have come full circle. I am still doing the work that I was inspired and impassioned to do so many years ago, and at a time and within a culture at JCC Chicago when I can dream and ask, “How might we?” with the support of my colleagues around the agency.
Director, Arts & Ideas