While we're in Corona Land, the JCC's Director of Institutional Programs, Sarah-Kay Lacks, sits herself down to record her thoughts on a variety of subjects, which were sent out under the name "The Great Indoors" from March 18-July 15, and, starting August 5, under the name "Mission: Possible." Enjoy.
Mission: Possible / March 10, 2021
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 22: Explore New Ideas.
Of the many gifts I have received from the JCC, the most unexpectedly beautiful one is Shavuot, the multiday blowout that celebrates the ecstasy of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. When I came to the JCC, everything about Shavuot was new to me. I grew up passionately Reform, Jewishly literate-ish, marking Shabbat, dancing on Simchat Torah. Yet it wasn’t until I began working at the JCC that I even remember hearing people discuss Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. Much of this was due to the fact that the JCC goes all out for the occasion—during our annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot (at least through 2019), we would stay up all night; feast on cheesecake/chocolate-covered espresso beans/coffee; hang spontaneously at 2 am in the lobby; cheerfully take the stairs; and host 75 programs in a seven-hour gallop. Even last year, two months into the collective nightmare of COVID-19, we Tikkun-ed our faces off, 7,000 of us beaming into Zoom rooms in the middle of the night.
Tikkun is my absolute favorite JCC program—virtual or in the flesh. It’s maximalist; it's brainy; it attracts our most diverse crowds; and it’s the kind of scene where you run into everyone from your fourth grade Hebrew school teacher to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Idan Raichel.
But this Mission: Possible is not about Tikkun. It’s not even about Shavuot. It’s about exploring new ideas (which both the holiday and the celebration are a part of), and the exploration begins earlier, in the approach. You can really traverse a new idea when the idea has the longest, widest runway possible. Shavuot is like that. Tikkun is magnificent, but the celebration begins 49 days before that, on the second night of Passover, when we begin counting the Omer.
We count up to precious occasions, marking days on a calendar before a milestone or a vacation. I wanted to tell you about the revelations of Shavuot and our Tikkun, so you could have an inkling why a shared timer, like the counting of the Omer, might feel worthwhile. There are seven weeks between the sapphire dusk of Passover’s second night and erev (the night before) Shavuot, and to truly explore the biblical journey from Pharaoh's court to the majesty of Sinai, we have decided to take on a new practice as a sacred collective. We are going to explore something new—a communitywide practice of Counting the Omer.
Working with the immersive Jewish educator-artists at Gold Herring, we are using their stunning Omer Workbook as our field guide to Jewish wisdom, personal accountability, communal exploration, and wellness. Sign up to have a copy of the gorgeous Omer workbook delivered to your home, an invite to a WhatsApp group of fellow Omer counters, and a front row (Zoom) seat at our three Omer touchpoint events: a seder on April 1; a Shabbat event on April 30; and a culminating circle at this year’s Tikkun, coming to laptops everywhere on May 16. We welcome everyone—adults, teens, families with young children (I’m doing the workbook with my young daughters), busy seniors, and couples—no Jewish background required. It’s a 49-day exploration of being a part of something, lessening isolation, and connecting to new folks through journaling, art, movement, and self-care. And thanks to a generous donor committed to exploring new ideas, we can offer you the entire Omer Project experience for just $36.
Say yes! Click here to start the adventure. I'm exhilarated to explore with you.
Mission: Possible / February 26, 2021
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 11: Connections for People with Different Abilities.
Seventeen years ago, when I began working at the JCC, Rabbi Joy Levitt told me that our job was to make the city feel smaller. How do you shrink New York, a place celebrated for its enormity? With almost two decades of community building under my belt, I will venture that the JCC makes the city feel smaller by connecting us to one another. It’s the anonymity that makes New York’s size feel lonely. When you build bonds between us, New York becomes manageable—filled with familiar faces, routines that matter, and interesting commonalities. People say “it’s all about connections,” though they generally mean it’s about who you know; at the JCC, being connected means having the good fortune to be known at all.
If you haven’t already had a touchpoint with The Jack and Shirley Silver Center for Special Needs (CSN), run by Allison Kleinman, gifted clinical social worker and my very best friend, I recommend you do so. February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), so it's a perfect opportunity to participate in their public programs. As I discussed some mission possibilities (see what I did there) with CSN staff, all roads seemed to lead to Max Beede, program leader and all-around connection facilitator.
Max was introduced to Jewish Special Needs programming through the Camp Ramah Tikvah program. He was mentored by legendary Jewish inclusion king, Howard Blas, who helped Max discover his next adventure—a live-in position supporting an adult with disabilities. In 2017, Max found his way to the JCC, working first in our CSN summer camp, then in Boost (our CSN afterschool program) and Transitions (our teen inclusion program).
Talking to Max is a master class in social skills, an area in which we could all use some fine-tuning as we approach one year in Terra Pandemica. He describes his work as a vaccine against isolation. Max explains inclusion work as a kind of empathetic user test. He says you have to project yourself into each person’s body and examine how they will approach an activity. Once you design for each user, you can then focus on growth and success, knowing that no one will begin the program at a disadvantage.
Max is a bank of goodwill. He assumes best intentions and creates an environment based on who is in the room, Zoom or actual. He’s a community engineer who sets up participants to learn something new and make a friend. He creates opportunities to share and gives diverse strengths a time to shine, building trust and helping people feel seen, which connects them to each other. He switches modalities within a single program, giving the artists, writers, and musicians a chance to participate using their creations as an entry point. Max thinks that despite COVID-19’s slash-and-burn approach to everything we formerly cared about, virtual programming allows us a universal language. Zoom rooms are accessible in a way that real rooms aren’t always.
Interested in how Max builds these connections? Join us this Sunday, February 28, for an all-abilities JDAIM cooking class. Click here to sign up.
Because Max Beede is a mensch (good guy), he asked that I thank three amazing women on his behalf: Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, innovative architect behind our Jewish Journeys program; Michelle Wexler, the gifted CSN director who recommended Max for Mission: Possible; and finally his mother, Rabbi Debra Cantor, who taught him how to connect and teach through her words and deeds.
Grateful to be connected to you. Happy Purim/Chag Purim Sameach!
Mission: Possible / January 28, 2021
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 6: Innovative Programs.
At the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, our approach to Jewish living pinballs between the pillars of tradition and innovation. Stroll through Tevye’s most famous barn-raiser and pay attention—tradition gives us a kind of existential photo album, a place to store our rituals, memories, and beliefs. With tradition as our goal, we preserve and conserve Jewish life, keeping it safe, creating connections with tribesmen far away. No one would argue against tradition. But who could ignore Innovation? That shiny, head-turner of newness and improvement. Innovation offers the excitement of creation; let’s build something that has never existed before. It’s the exquisite bliss of watching an empty space give birth to a combination of chords new to our ears, or witnessing Amanda Gorman take the same 26 letters and describe a hill where we can be “bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.”
In October we had a joyful launch of our Wechsler Center for Modern Aging. Pioneering a new Center of Excellence during a pandemic wasn’t the red carpet welcome we had intended. But this center’s importance felt critical. Not only are those aged 60 and up most at risk for complications from COVID-19; they are also likely the most isolated. Without in-person family holidays to celebrate, reunions and weddings to attend, grandchildren to watch, generations have been separated in a manner reminiscent of a war, or the immigration patterns of yesteryear.
How can we innovate a solution that might brighten this year for those 60+, while also fanning the sparks of their magnificence? How can we innovate on the traditions of top 10 lists and 36 Under 36 gatherings? COVID-19 might favor the young, but Jewish tradition has a giant soft spot for a 99-year-old who excitedly hosts a trio of strangers. Welcome to 16 Over 61, a project we are thrilled to present in partnership with The Forward. What if two iconic, values-driven Jewish institutions came together to acknowledge the contribution of influencers half a century older than the TikTok stars? The 16 Over 61 Awards will spotlight the creativity, leadership, and initiative of 16 adults over 61, transcending the traditional societal obsession with youth and bearing witness to the Talmudic decree that the age of strength is 80. By valuing the experience and wisdom of our community’s most mature members, we elevate a chapter of life that is still full of possibility. We honor them for who they continue to be: resilient, creative, and bursting with life.
We ask you to take this opportunity to nominate a Modern Ager. Who among us embodies the idea set forward in Proverbs, that “gray hair is a crown of glory; It is attained by the way of righteousness”? Do you have a favorite volunteer, neighbor, or best friend 61 or older who continues to offer life-changing and age-defying contributions to our world? Nominate them HERE. We are accepting nominations until February 15. Honorees will be chosen by a committee of peers, lay leaders, and Jewish professionals and notified mid-March. A virtual celebration will follow. Questions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COVID-19 has cast a long shadow over our lives. But the 16 we will acclaim in March have a much longer shadow. Looking forward to introducing you to our mighty cohort, and toasting them with the fountain, not of youth, but of experience.
Mission: Possible / January 13, 2021
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 15: Commitment to a Better World.
Last Wednesday, in the aftermath of a frozen nation watching a coup play out on live television, glued to the news, replays, checking in with friends and family, I caught myself wondering how we managed to be surprised yet again. Shouldn't we be more prepared for shared misery by now?
As the footage of the attack on the Capitol spooled and looped in our living room, I struggled to describe to my children what exactly was happening, and felt uselessly unable to convert the grief into something worthwhile. Luckily, I work for this powerhouse of an institution with a visionary for a CEO, and by 5 pm Wednesday, Rabbi Joy Levitt had activated a task force of JCC staff, local politicians, and gifted spiritual leaders from multiple faith traditions to create a healing service called We the People. This vigil, planned in less than a day, Zoomed into people’s homes and weary hearts on Friday afternoon right before Shabbat.
My gratitude to be part of this remarkable live event was both global and self-centered. Global because we birthed a free experience in 24 hours better than anything created with endless dollars and months to plan; global because we worked collectively and without shame to use our beliefs and rituals to offer relief in a moment of communal agony. And self-centered because it gave me something productive to do in a moment of profound inertia. Every partner, house of worship, and leader offered generously of their time and resources. By the time we opened our Zoom doors at 3 pm Friday, over 2,000 people had signed up for our offering, a 45-minute spiritual grab bag of hope, prayer, and soul salve. One of many highlights was Mandy Patinkin singing “God Bless America” in Yiddish. Click here to experience the humanity.
Soon into the frenzied, all-hands-on-deck planning, we realized that we wanted to focus the crowd’s energy toward activism. This set off a mostly fruitless deep comb of Twitter and frantic Googling. What did we want to ask the community to do? Reach out to their local representatives? Educate themselves? Donate money? All useful interventions but none a slam dunk given the specifics of what was unfolding. Eventually we realized an elegant solution. We could point people toward the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday and the United States’ only day of service, a tremendous focused stream of energy to honor a legacy of action and thought.
For the second year in a row, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan will host our Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival over MLK Weekend, this year from January 14–18. We will use film as our immersive medium, providing opportunities for discussion, empathic curiosity, and acts of service.
Cinematters presents documentaries and narrative films, engaging the community toward a more democratic, inclusive, and just society. Our movies inspire social responsibility and tell compelling stories about the environment, LGBTQIA+ issues, race, food insecurity, and women’s rights. Our festival goal’s include educating our already compassionate and connected audience as well as providing clear pathways for action and activism. In addition to the film screenings, we take the films “off the screen” with insightful conversations with directors, writers, and actors; as well as workshops and special events designed to help our community create collective change.
To begin your journey, click here.
Hope is a currency. So is action. I know we can be rich in both together.
Mission: Possible / December 24, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 2: Well-Being of Everyone.
This installment of Mission: Possible will be our last of 2020. It feels buoyant to play you off the stage with such a well-rounded element. Well-Being of Everyone is holistic; rather than a niche program serving a narrow cohort with an attainable goal, this one goes grand, stretching out luxuriously in all directions. We love the phrase “everyBODY” at the JCC, but this takes an additional step. It’s not just the body, not just fitness; this is about wellness, our scaffolded term that makes room for the whole self: your mental health, your body, and your spiritual self—the whole 360 degrees of you.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day have long played up their liminality. Existing in the fluid transition between one year and the next, here is a truly ambivalent holiday that says “hello” and “good-bye” simultaneously. It’s practically a cliche to discuss 2020 as a guest we are eager to send packing. It was a year that wasn’t, where everything memorable was cancelled, and one we probably will have no difficulty remembering. This year, we learned both shocking and glorious truths about ourselves and our world.
We deserve the upcoming New Year’s celebration and the chance to have an infinitesimal pinch of retrospect, to organize this past year, and set some intentions for 2021.
New Year’s Day has always been our well-being for EveryBODY ticker tape parade. People make resolutions about their health and their bodies on New Year’s Eve. Hope and Fear are the twins born on December 31. It’s our job to give you something to wake up to on January 1 that helps you celebrate (and achieve) the promises you made the night before, when anything felt possible.
For nearly two decades, we have held our annual New Year’s Day Fitness Fair, welcoming thousands into our building on January 1 for a free day of wholeness and wellness for everyone. This year we will gather online, bookended by a morning keynote by neuroscientist Wendy A. Suzuki, Ph.D. on Exercise and Mental Health, and an afternoon panel exploring the film Aulcie. We will present 18 (Chai! Life!) programs with on-ramps suitable for everyone. Our easily navigated event, accessed by a single registration, will work for fitness super-users as well as newbies interested in nutrition for skin care, therapeutic doodling, core strength, Nia dance, and more. For those who spend January 1 hung over, we welcome you in our positive psychology and vision board sessions. For those who want to sweat out the toxins of 2020, we have some cardio that feels tres tres 2021.
We are in the waiting room of a new year. My incandescent colleague, Caroline Kohles, reminded me of a Victor Frankl quote: “Between the stimulus and the response, there is a space, and in this space lies our power and our freedom.” New Year’s is that space between the stimulus of 2020 and the response of 2021, and our power is choosing to invest in our wellness. In other words, this is an opportunity for us. What we do on January 1 sets the tone for our next solar journey.
Hello, 2021! You aren’t here yet, but I see your headlights through the dark night, winding your way up to us. We are standing in the doorway. We are ready.
Mission: Possible / December 16, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 14: Redefining Jewish Life.
As my children remind me by chanting their daily countdown, “Chanukah is here.” In a different year, I might work harder to help them place Chanukah towards the bottom of the Jewish holiday hierarchy. Appearing nowhere in the Bible, based on a midrash (ancient commentary) of the Book of Maccabees (which aren’t even considered to be Jewish scripture), Chanukah requires no synagogue service and has no restrictions on work or action, like Shabbat or other holidays. As many a cynic is fond of repeating, its proximity to Christmas created the urgency around gift-giving, and although its message regarding miracles is lovely, its themes around the horrors of assimilation feel wrist-slappy and provincial. But for my children, given their hothouse flower, indoor-cat existence, I see no problem elevating Chanukah to the major leagues for 2020. It’s already a home-based holiday, so the COVID-deprivation factor is played down. Unlike the pivoted masterpiece that was the High Holidays, Chanukah in COVID looks similar to other years. Only for this go-round, I’m upping the magical elements to reinforce their natural reserves of awe. I don’t have the stomach to manage their expectations regarding the relative unimportance of Chanukah. It’s got oily food, miracles, and fire!
As a Jewish Community Center, we infuse Judaism in everything we do—the sublime and the ridiculous, the macro and the miniscule—and it gives us myriad blueprints for celebration and conversation. Our approach to Jewish life at the JCC is a broad one. We know some people experience Shabbat from the “sanctuary” of our fitness center. We know that others value our experiential approach, celebrating the calendar through cook-alongs with gastronomes, film screenings capturing the holiday zeitgeist, and concerts that synthesize liturgical music and storytelling. When Chanukah Pandemica came around, we worked together as a program team to explore the values, themes, and rituals of the holiday in a more expansive way.
As an institution, we have spent much of the past 10 months thinking about Jewish life. We often discuss the difference between a Jewish life—namely, a life that a Jewish person leads, and Jewish Life—an umbrella that encompasses the sum total of our traditions, history, wisdom, and practices. I’m equally excited about both aspects because they are mirrors facing each other. If enough people identifying as Jewish take on a new practice, or a way of studying or celebrating, it becomes reflected in the larger Jewish culture and codified experience. And if Jewish leaders, historians, and ritualists work together to disseminate traditions and innovations, it’s then mirrored in the practice we each follow at home.
Chanukah became an ideal laboratory for these Jewish Life/life explorations. Working collaboratively with our Centers for Film, Special Needs, Arts + Ideas, Family Life, Modern Aging, Social Responsibility, and Health + Wellness, we crafted 30 programs that allowed people to encounter Jewish Living/living while also experiencing community, combating isolation, and celebrating our shared humanity. From a film about a Cambodian donut entrepreneur to a workshop designing Winter rituals using Jewish tools to our upcoming latke draw-along as part of our Last Night celebration for families, we know that you want a big tent that reflects the personal and communal practices and reassures you that, yes, this is all part of Jewish Life/life. If you haven’t already, take a look at our Chanukah webpage. And if you missed a program, email me for a recording of the session.
Mission: Possible / December 4, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 10: Spiritual Growth.
It should come as a surprise to no one that attendance is up in our Makom: Meditation + Mindfulness classes. The ability to observe your circumstances, release stress, and increase self-acceptance sounds heavenly right about now. How do you stay in the present when the present is a gut-churning blend of uncertainty and shifting realities? In March, we accepted our conditions, thinking they were temporary. We got into it: baked bread, binged TV, and indulged in comfort eating, figuring we would break our bad habits when we were liberated from our homes. Then the temporary became the semi-permanent. Taking things one day at a time led to us becoming feral, scurrying around our apartments in survival mode, allowing our COVID-19 weirdness to solidify like quarantine beards and undyed roots. Eventually, we had to create routines, treat this like a marathon, not a sprint, and find more sophisticated coping mechanisms than stress cleaning and aromatherapy.
People reached out for what was beautiful and holy and found themselves on new paths. Temporary spiritual communities popped up in Zoom rooms and on Facebook Live. Our undomesticated hearts transformed into vulnerable souls; virtual services filled up and so did our meditation classes.
I had the opportunity to connect with Sheila and Sheldon Lewis, two extraordinary spiritual practitioners, longtime Upper West Siders and JCC contemplative educators. What they described during our conversation was a fascinating oral history of COVID-19 through the lens of anxiety and salvation. Sheila and Sheldon first noticed in April and May that even long-time meditators and normally relaxed students were suffering. They began to cultivate a rhythm in their daily drop-in meditation sessions that spoke directly to the moment. Classes needed to be chatty and welcoming at the onset, followed by a deep dive into the practices. With an entire world living through trauma simultaneously, they needed to offer their students 1) tools to gain insights beyond the elaborate stories we tell ourselves, and 2) the use of mindfulness modalities to connect deeply to values and reserves of self-compassion. And perhaps most importantly, Sheila and Sheldon want meditation’s impact to be cumulative, meaning that once you leave the meditation space, the feeling of grounding doesn’t evaporate with every minute that passes.
What I realized as a nonmeditator during my conversation with these spiritual dignity restorers is that they take all these deep, dark stances that people bring with them into the Zoom room—reactivity, loneliness, despair, rage, sorrow—and they don’t expect anyone to transcend them. They ask them to sink in, to send a blessing to oneself, to accept and forgive. Much of it comes down to breathing. Within the deprivation of lockdowns and quarantines, the generosity of treating your own breath as nourishment feels revelatory. We are rich in breath. Inhale and exhale. In-breath. Out-breath. It helps create a shift and brings us back into our bodies. It’s a vaccine for panic and dread.
After our talk, Sheldon emailed me a phrase by Jack Kornfield that he had been using in sessions. It's sweet and full like water in the middle of the night.
May you be held in compassion.
May your pain and sorrow be eased.
May your heart be at peace.
A tip of the hat to my colleague and thought partner Rachel Kunstadt for connecting me to (in her words) the Makom Power Couple and for her dedicated work with the teachers and students of this program area.
Mission: Possible / November 4, 2020
In Mission: Possible, we stand in front of you with a pointer and a bulletin board full of photographs, newspaper clippings, and red string connecting everything, while we gesticulate wildly and explain the plot. We try to take you a little deeper, to show you the why. This week feels different and I want to acknowledge each of you, spread out like stars in a crushed lapis sky. What do we do in liminal moments? In transitional spaces? We set intentions for ourselves. We create stability based on our core truths. We explore Element 17: Daily Practice of Our Values.
With less than a week until election day, and during a moment in human history in which we consider others every time we put on our masks, our ideas about collective responsibility have belly-crawled to the front of our consciousness. What are our obligations to one another? How can we be so hyper-aware of our personal burdens and COVID-19 troubles and simultaneously share the weight of the world on our non-Atlas-sized shoulders?
A daily practice is a holy thing. We stumble toward expertise and enlightenment with our rituals and routines, the goals we chip away at every afternoon. Here’s the short list of what we can’t control: A presidential election. Now check out the marquee of what you can control: what you do each day and what you value. What are the values we will practice at this moment? There are no wrong answers.
Our Center for Health and Wellness has shepherded positive psychology into the JCC lexicon. The science of human flourishing feels essential. How do we cultivate the good stuff—compassion, authenticity, resilience, and fulfillment? A lot of it comes down to gratitude. We begin this month with an election, and end it with Thanksgiving. How lucky are we to have a tangible date waiting for us, requiring us to count our blessings?
The word “Jew” comes from Judah (Yehuda), from the Hebrew hoda’ah—giving thanks. The root of our entire system of blessings and prayers is recognizing the ordinary and extraordinary miracles of our lives. Perhaps the most salient way we commit to Thanksgiving is through the mealtime blessings. Before we break bread, we acknowledge the path the food took to our plates. When you’re hungry and anticipating the meal, gratitude comes easy. What gives me goosebumps is saying grace after the meal. And not the one sentence blessing we say in advance. Birkat Hamazon is a four-part table-banger and we really put our backs into it.
The research on gratitude is pretty undeniable. Studies demonstrate that when people are reminded on a regular basis to articulate gratefulness, they’re more optimistic about the future, more likely to exercise, feel a greater sense of well-being, and have increased levels of dopamine and serotonin. You may be thinking, “Great, I get it. Gratitude is better than staring out the window wondering if we’ll wear masks for the rest of our lives. But how?” I’m glad you asked.
We’re kickstarting a 14-Day Gratitude Challenge leading into Thanksgiving. Each day you’ll receive a daily prompt inviting you to evoke gratitude through simple activities and calls to action. We practice gratitude in order to fuel our energy and build the resources we need to go forth with grace and grit. Yaroslav Aristeiguieta (pictured), Positive Psychology Coach from the Wholebeing Institute and founder of Humanly Positive, created this online challenge to help us foster a practice of appreciation while retraining our neural pathways and nurturing joy. The challenge begins Wed, Nov 11 and is absolutely free (and totally priceless). Join us here.
My family keeps a dry erase board in our kitchen. In my wonky handwriting, it says “Gratitude and Blessings” on the top. This is a COVID-19 practice. I write what I have to be grateful for. I read it when I feel small and angry. I recite it when gratitude feels far. I treat it as a talisman to keep away the evil eye. It’s not a life raft, but it is an eternal flame.
Mission: Possible / October 29, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into our mission, vision, and values. Today we explore Element 34: Sense of Shared Responsibility.
With less than a week until election day, and during a moment in human history in which we consider others every time we put on our masks, our ideas about collective responsibility have belly-crawled to the front of our consciousness. What are our obligations to one another? How can we be so hyper-aware of our personal burdens and COVID-19 troubles and simultaneously share the weight of the world on our non-Atlas-sized shoulders?
Judaism asks us to take responsibility for our individual behavior but also places emphasis on the collective. During Yom Kippur, we recite the viddui, a prayer of confession. As we knock on our hearts with each offense, we use the plural “we” to describe our actions. We have given harmful advice. We have mocked. We have rebelled. We confess in plural, in aggregate, in tandem, because our destinies are intertwined. We go together or we don’t go.
In 2016, we founded The Joseph Stern Center for Social Responsibility. The name is an acknowledgement of the impact we make when we act in lockstep. Part of our work is encouraging enhanced perception—creating opportunities for the community to investigate issues. Part of our role is to help determined folks take action. We are civic students and actors. We believe in the three matriarchs of social responsibility: learning, volunteering, and activism. We are also a pack, a flock, and a pride. Our job is to instill sparks of activism, customized to each of you, but designed for implementation by the collective. Your job is to be a part of the community while discovering your path to engagement.
COVID-19 amplified our feelings of helplessness. Confined to our homes, we sought meaning—through hobbies; nightly clapping; and for many, through service. We created Justice in Action, a virtual, weekly session hosted by JCC Social Justice Activist-in-Residence Ruth Messinger and NYC City Council Member Brad Lander. Justice in Action began as a COVID-19-centric space to engage as a cohort of leaders and citizens. It’s a place to examine police reform, educational inequities, worker's rights, and other relevant issues, all through the lens of a pandemic that has taken so much from the most vulnerable among us. With a broken world all around, having a weekly structured discussion to study the policy of an issue and the realities in NYC neighborhoods empowered us. Being on a call with 200 other people committed to learning about food insecurity, immigrant communities, and voting rights empowered us. We stare up at the mountain of change and transcend our helplessness when we share the work.
Now a monthly program, Justice in Action continues to tackle issues at hand. Join us tonight for a free conversation about the spread of COVID-19 in New York’s Orthodox Jewish Neighborhoods. How can religious freedoms, public safety, and social norms live in harmony during a pandemic? Journalist Jacob Kornbluh, national reporter for Jewish Insider, joins Ruth and Brad for this profoundly topical evening.
We are our brother’s keeper. Our shared responsibility is an inheritance and a passport to greater humanity. Take a tour of our Center for Social Responsibility and find your path today. We can’t create a just world without you.
Mission: Possible / September 3, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into each element of our mission, vision, and values. Today we will explore element 4: Inclusive View of Jewish Life.
Show us a Jewish life. Sketch us the contours. Is it shaped like a house with a mezuzah and a drawer of Jewish debris? Can you see the bookcase with the social justice tomes, the hardcover copy of Exodus, and old Philip Roth paperbacks? Are we living Jewishly when we buy kosher meat, when we march in a protest, when we exercise? Yes. Definitely. Yes. Ask us how we know.
In 2001, we took a gas station at Amsterdam Avenue and 76th Street and built a vertical neighborhood. We designed it so you could live Jewishly on every floor. Take a class, see a film, throw a pot, meditate, talk in an elevator. Take a bus uptown. Stop at JCC Harlem. Check out the In[HEIR]itance project. Shabbat in the Lot. Get an earful on the census. Are we living Jewishly? Yes. Ask us how we know.
We know because you told us. You said this is a Jewish life. That’s how we know. It’s Big Tent. As Dorothy murmured, sleep-drunk and thrilled at the end of The Wizard of Oz, “And you and you and you...and you were there.” All of it counts as a Jewish life, and we were all there.
We birthed JCC Harlem in January 2017 as a collaboration between the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and UJA-Federation of New York, after an eight-year project to locate emerging and re-emerging Jewish areas. We joined Harlem Minyan, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Kehillat Harlem, and other wonderful, grassroots Jewish organizations already doing deep work in the neighborhood. We also found a network of welcoming, thoughtful community partners serving Black and Brown Harlemites through a variety of other lenses. The idea, from JCC Harlem’s inception, was to create an open center with an enormous welcome mat. Instead of unilaterally developing programming, we would be hosts, filling up our dance card with presenters from the neighborhood who appealed to an inclusive list of potential attendees.
To create expansive Jewish offerings, we invited Chabad, secular Israelis, independent minyanim, established synagogues, and religious organizations like Lab/Shul and Beineinu to create an integrated landscape of Jewish experiences. As we say in our JCC Harlem minhag (Hebrew for “custom”) document: “You are welcome to experiment with these customs, ignore them completely, or do whatever you feel comfortable with. But we ask everyone to be open-minded and generous when interacting with one another. There are NO RULES—just opportunities for growth, reflection, and meaning.”
JCC Harlem generally reminds me of the incredible breadth of Jewish life. It’s not Jewish because we say so, or because every time you make a friend we call it Jewish life. Nope. JCC Harlem demonstrates the breadth of Jewish life because it takes the best of Jewish living and offers a giant on-ramp from every angle. An open door. Not everyone we serve is Jewish. And we aren’t a synagogue. But then the staff starts talking and it’s unmistakably something Jewish. As it says on the JCC Harlem website, “this is your place.” We have invited literal strangers off the street to folk dance with us; we have pressed olives to make oil on Chanukah; we have given people a space to watch an Israeli film on a Tuesday; and then borne witness to Vy Higginsen’s Sing Harlem Choir the next night. And you shouted while listening, while dancing, while thinking, moving, exercising, volunteering, and praying. “This is a Jewish Life.” And we said "Amen."
Mission: Possible / August 27, 2020
What does it mean to live in community? Is it about proximity? For many, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and JCC Harlem are “local haunts”—convenient, walkable sources of fitness, education, and culture. Running into our center directors in the supermarket or waving to an orange-clad Camp Settoga kid across Columbus Avenue are divine echoes of what we create together in the buildings. “We belong...long...long...long.”
For others, community is more existential: “I came all the way from Westchester,” many a proud attendee will announce at check-in. For those of us who aren’t Upper West Side or Harlem residents, we “live” in the JCC community in equally meaningful but completely different ways. Commuting an hour requires kavanah, the Hebrew word for intention. One doesn’t accidentally travel that far for work, exercise, or Jewish life unless there’s some kind of reward awaiting them.
Our vision of community celebrates geographic diversity. We’ve always been a meeting spot for friends and families coming from multiple directions. We see this in Shabbat and holiday programs, where grandparents drive in from the suburbs to celebrate with parents and grandchildren. But when our lives went virtual, we held our breaths for a moment. Would families and friends still “meet” at programs if they couldn’t sit down next to each other and whisper until they got shushed? How would we create spontaneous momets that make one feel alive, fulfilled by the program and also connected to those in the room?
Community life is about concentric circles. At the center is a precious heart, and the circle surrounding that is a relationship. In Jewish life, we love pairing off. We even classically learn in dyads known as chavruta (Aramaic for friendship).
Mother-daughter duo Judy and Susan Greenfield are one of those incredible chavrutas. Judy (age 85) and Susan (age 60) are separated by a pandemic, by a park (Judy lives on the East Side), by a quarter of a century, and by the concerns and helplessness we all have felt since March. Despite their different needs and life stages, they each crave connection, a way of checking in, and a focused practice to quiet their minds. Enter our free, nightly, virtual meditation. Every evening at 5:45, this crosstown mother-daughter pair logs on to share a mindfulness port in the storm. They can connect with each other, create a ritual all their own, and receive the incredible benefits of a meditation practice. These beloveds have been isolated for months and yet, in Susan’s own words, “The JCC became our main point of contact, our touchstone. Knowing I would see my mother there...I can’t even describe how precious that is.”
We live modern lives and have access to many forms of communication, but when you live in (virtual) community simultaneously, you feel your humanity restored. “It’s more than just knowing she’s OK,” Susan says. “It’s the connection we have by doing something together.”
Susan and Judy embody multiple ways of living in community. Their connection enriches their lives, and those in their nightly class love their familiar dynamic. Their story is at the epicenter of how we create meaning in the modern world, and we feel deep gratitude to them for sharing their story with us and their spirits with our meditation class. Tip of my hat to my talented colleague Sherri Lerner for bringing their story to light.
Mission: Possible / August 19, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into each element of our vision and values. Today we will explore element 23: Engage with the Arts.
At the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, we tend to move forward at a frenzied pace. In a given year, we run 3,600 programs (200 chai for those of you that are into that kind of thing). And the life cycle of each of these programs is a complex, rhythmic sequence involving program creation, marketing, fundraising, and registration, all leading to that intense moment when you open the door and watch excited people walk in, ready to experience something. It’s a live taping of the award-winning Israel Story. It’s the Vertigo Dance Company. It’s a book talk with literary agent extraordinaire Julie Barer. It’s 3,600 opportunities to create a tabernacle or temporary community in our hallowed spaces, in a box, on a Zoom call. We all work together to make that moment feel like butterflies being released—hopeful, expectant, fulfilling, cathartic. There’s even a word in Hebrew for this particular kind of joy, semachim, which captures the anticipatory feeling one gets when waiting for something to happen.
And then, a heartbeat later, it’s over. The lobby empties, the 76th Street exit is closed for the night, the Zoom participant numbers begin to dwindle. It’s a relief. It’s a grief. The program is over. You get maybe 24 hours to be proud, to post-game with your colleagues, to write back to the emails you receive from participants saying they learned or felt something. Something incredible happened, and then the next night, something else incredible will happen. It’s a real ‘carousel of time’ kind of existence.
At our JCC, we talk a lot about engagement. How to engage cohorts, how to engage with Israel, how to engage with the arts. There’s no one path. And part of being a JCC, rather than a traditional cinema, or theater, is providing scaffolding for these experiences. Artist talkbacks, the Conversations series, gallery guides, podcasts—all are ways we seek to capture our programs (fleeting as they may be) in butterfly nets for further discussion, analysis, and savoring. It’s a kind of artistic preservation, and it reminds me of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says about the Hebrew Bible, that it is “preserved not as a historical document, but as a living memory.”
Two years ago we debuted 76West, our first foray into the episodic world of podcasts. Using the best of our Conversation series, we created these artsy engagement tools; part public archive, part artistic experience in and of itself. In our maiden voyage, we featured National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead (pictured, below) in conversation with our executive director (and his cousin) Rabbi Joy Levitt. The episode tackles Whitehead's book The Underground Railroad and the legacy of slavery in America today. 76West features original music by Perl Wolfe, formerly of the Bulletproof Stockings, and is edited/produced in-house by the stars of our marketing/Arts + Ideas programming/audio-visual departments. I would say that listening to it now harkens back to a simpler time pre-COVID, but at this point, we could also say that convincingly about old car commercials.
With 24 episodes (so far!) and four seasons under our (borscht) belt, we’ve captured something that otherwise would have been ephemeral. We’ve enabled engagement that goes beyond the 230 people who witnessed this experience live. Each of the 24 parts of this conversational art form contains a piece of someone remarkable—
Alan Alda, Judy Collins, Malcolm Gladwell, Nora Ephron Z”l, Bill T. Jones, Nathan Englander, Abigail Pogrebin, Kathy Griffin, Roxane Gay, Thomas L. Friedman, civil rights attorney Yetta Kurland, and so many more holy souls. This is our scrapbook of 10 years of conversations, taped before a live studio audience. Lend your ears and join us for a listen here. With gratitude and deep curtsies to Zabar's and Zabars.com (shipping to the lower 48!), our 76West sponsors.
King Solomon said: "Life and death are in the hands of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21) and the Torah says that we are separated from all other beings because we are “speaking creatures.” 76West encapsulates some pretty sacred conversations. And it is a way of slowing down, remembering and engaging with an arts program. Magic.
Mission: Possible / August 12, 2020
Welcome to Mission: Possible, a deep dive into each element of our vision and values. Today we will explore element 26: Support Each Other.
We live transactional lives. If we look at the apps on our smartphones, some are designed for social connection (texting, email, Facebook, Instagram); and some were created to help us purchase books or groceries, find someone to build a complicated Ikea dresser, or give us directions. There is little overlap between these two kinds of apps. The people I love and need for emotional connection are not the people I ask for food deliveries, rides to various places, or errand-running. In fact, even as a communally driven human who loves to be a part of groups that take care of one another, I find (like many) I lack the finesse required to ask a loved one for a favor. Hence the mechitza between my phone apps—half for love, half for transactions. And never the twain shall meet.
Because I have promised to take each word of our mission as gospel, I have to assume every word is our destiny. So why might we promise to support each other? How does this language capture the reciprocity fostered when we choose to sustain one another? The fact is, there is no pecking order between helper and helped. We are all as valuable and as vulnerable as one another; it just depends where the great wheel of fate has found you at a particular moment.
At the JCC, we have founded an extraordinary community of 185 active adults aged 60+ to break down the walls between social connection and life’s transactions. Living Well Together is a cohort of astonishing humans that has created a kind of covenant between them, where they take turns helping each other as needs arise. Members of the program share requests and generous offers of help, assisting one another with escorts to doctor appointments, referrals for specialists, trips to the grocery store, and more. Even the Living Well Together workshops like How to Ask for Help and How to Communicate with your Doctor are led by members.
Sharing needs, volunteering precious free time, witnessing others at their most exposed and being exposed yourself is a generous, courageous freefall into a different kind of society, one in which Atticus Finch gets repaid for legal counsel to the Cunninghams with a load of stovewood, a crate of holly, and a sack of turnip greens. It’s charming because it uses a pre-industrial solution to a decidedly modern problem, but it’s also innovative and elegant.
Living Well Together is a kind of kibbutz without walls, a celebration of mutual support, and a blending of the social and transactional into a new kind of flattened leadership model, where we take turns, destigmatizing having needs and democratizing leadership. Take that, loneliness! For more information on how you can participate in Living Well Together (the next introductory session is Thu, Sep 10), please email Rabbi Brian Fink.
There’s a groovy little bit of text in the Talmud that came to me as I wrote to you:
Guard me, guard me,
help me, help me,
support me, support me,
wait for me, wait for me until I enter and come out, as this is the way.
Mission: Possible / August 5, 2020
In its ideal form, a mission statement tells you why an organization exists, what its shared goals are, and how it intends to achieve those goals. Crafting an effective mission statement requires art and science, humility and pride. A good one is universal enough to appeal to a diverse cohort, while capturing a particular vision that helps individuals understand exactly what one stands for. Easy peasy? Not so much.
COVID life has profoundly changed our realities. Our perception of equity, of childcare, of the composition of a weekend, have all shifted and become dismantled by the pandemic. But the most resilient among us—gritty individuals, communities, and organizations—see COVID-19 as an opportunity for mission, not intermission. We could treat this like a great interlude and throw our vision and values up in the air. Or we can double down on our mission, and assume that every word, like our most sacred books, is intentional and matters. That second choice sounds more like us.
The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan's mission, vision, and values statement can be found here. Like the best Jewish texts, it provides an ethical blueprint, a clarification of enlightened values, and an annotated scrapbook of our past, present, and future.
In college, as a religion major, I studied biblical analysis. As a discipline, it requires patience and faith. You have to believe that every word has a purpose and is rich in meaning. For the next…period of time, we will treat the JCC's mission, vision, and values statements with the same reverence and attention reserved for holy documents. We have taken a kind of spiritual centrifuge to our mission, distilling it into its most foundational elements. We have created a periodic table of these elements and I invite you to take a deep dive into the 34 purest substances that form the work that we do every day—in quarantine and beyond. This is an odyssey through the organization we have promised to be, and the most tangible explorations of each of these elements. Week after week, we’ll highlight life, communal experience, and our mission’s building blocks. Adam, meet Atom.
Join us, push us, engage with us. Write back and opt in. Give us a mountain, and we'll figure out how to climb it together. This is Mission: Possible.