Meet Rabbi Joanna Samuels

Meet Rabbi Joanna Samuels

Rabbi Joanna Samuels officially became the CEO of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on January 1, 2022. Prior to joining the MMJCCM, she was the founding executive director of Educational Alliance's Manny Cantor Center, where she redefined the Jewish Community Center and the Settlement House for a new era. Her work at the Manny Cantor Center was written about in The New York Times, The Daily News, and The Jewish Daily Forward. Following rabbinic ordination in 2002, Joanna served as the Rabbi of Congregation Habonim in New York City, where her leadership helped to revitalize the synagogue’s community. She also worked as an advocate, strategist, and mentor for women’s advancement and gender equity in the Jewish community at Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community. Joanna has written for local and national publications and taught at many institutions throughout New York City. Rabbi Samuels graduated magna cum laude from Barnard College and received Rabbinic Ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She serves on the advisory board of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger and lives on the Upper West SIde with her husband and two children, alumni of the Saul and Carole Zabar Nursery School.

The following interview between Chief Marketing Officer Eric Winick and Rabbi Samuels took place in December 2021.

Eric Winick: Did you grow up at a JCC, or attend programs at a community center?

Rabbi Joanna Samuels: Some of my earliest memories are taking theater classes at the Mid-Westchester JCC and doing all kinds of performing arts projects and performances and workshops there. So it certainly was part of my life as a child.

Eric: Take me back to your earliest encounters with this JCC. Was it as a parent, or earlier than that? What feeling did you get from the place?

Joanna: In the mid to late ‘90s, I was in rabbinical school and was doing some interesting work on feminism and Judaism and working with Ma’yan, which at that time was in the Jewish Guild for the Blind. So I have memories of meetings there and really thinking about what it means for a Jewish community center to have a program that is so much about mission and values—not just a place where certain things happen that happen in many JCCs, but programs that actually elevate the mission of the JCC.

I was the rabbi at Congregation Habonim, beginning in 2002. After I had my first child and it came time for us to enroll her in nursery school. I was in my office at Habonim one day and Joy came to see me about something related to the JCC. She asked me where we planned to send our daughter to preschool and she made a strong case for the JCC. I’m so delighted that she did, that this is where both of my children went to pre-school. When you have children and they begin school, it’s an inflection point. You are in community with other parents who are hitting reset in their lives in lots of ways, and that may mean resetting a relationship with Jewish community. It may mean prioritizing family in a way that perhaps it hadn’t been before. I found it wonderful to be in a community of parents who were all thinking, “Okay, what do I want to be now that I have children, now that my family looks different from how it looked before?”

Eric: What do you think it is about this neighborhood that makes it right for a community center like the JCC?

Joanna: I think the Upper West Side is probably the most exciting, wonderful place to be Jewish outside of Israel. And raising a family here has a particular appeal. This neighborhood is made up of many, many different communities—Jewish communities, communities that aren’t Jewish—and the JCC can be a place where they all come together, where we live in each other’s orbit. In so doing, we gain a deeper sense of Jewish peoplehood, a sense that there are Jews in our community who may practice differently from us, who may believe differently from us, who may have different opinions from us, yet we are part of the same people. Also, that we’re a part of a diverse, dynamic, wonderfully vibrant city, where people may be from different backgrounds than us, but together we are contributing to creating this vibrant place. The JCC can be that meeting place, where we learn in an embodied sense that we are part of a whole: a whole people, a whole city, a whole community with all of the resources that it has.

Eric: What are the main lessons you've learned about leadership?

Joanna: One thing that is most important to me and is at the core of my leadership, both in the synagogue context and in a community center context, is that these are places that afford us the ability to create the world that we want to see. And so we may have all kinds of disappointments and disagreements and anxieties about the larger world in which we live. We a may feel that there’s not a lot we can do about those kinds of anxieties and challenges and problems, but a community center is a place where we build the world that we want to live in. If we’re concerned that we live in a world where people can’t find community with people with whom they disagree, then this can become a place where we bring people together across a diversity of opinion. If we feel concerned that the world is a place where people so often feel alone, then we can make this a place where people feel the embrace of community in those times of vulnerability. If we feel concerned that the world is a place where Jewish culture, Jewish people, Jewish belonging is hard to talk about, then this can be the place where all of those conversations happen.

Eric: What are the most challenging and most rewarding things about being an executive director?

Joanna: The hardest thing about being an executive director is when one’s ambition for the work outstrips the number of hours in the day with which to do it. The most wonderful part is the flip side of that, to have ambition for the work, to believe that we are creating the world that we want to live in, and to have the ability to work with staff and with the community to make that vision a reality.

Eric: Understanding that you are just getting started, do you have some general hopes, dreams, thoughts about the direction in which you'd like to take the JCC?

Joanna: We’re emerging from what, hopefully, is a once-in-a-lifetime event, a global pandemic that shut the world down essentially for close to a year. None of us had ever lived through an experience like that before, and none of us have lived through the experience of emerging from that before. This institution has a critical role to play in rebuilding the civic fabric of the city, rebuilding the connections in our neighborhood, and helping people to find themselves again, on the other side of this. It’s been an enormously difficult time for people at all stages of life. The good news is that the JCC is a place that welcomes and serves and partners with people at all stages of their lives. I look forward to figuring out how we emerge together, how we build back programming that existed before, and how we use what we’ve learned over these difficult months to build toward the future.