By Jessi Malkin
Participating in JCC Association of North America’s JCC Talent offerings has been enriching for me, both professionally and personally. It helps me foster relationships with JCC colleagues, and I love logging on to a Zoom and seeing familiar faces and friends on my screen. Further, the curricula and expertise of colleagues near and far have expanded my knowledge and skills, helping me blossom into a stronger and more grounded professional.
My experience with JCC Talent commenced at the tail-end of 2019 when I applied to be part of the full-week foundational training known as “Hineni,” meaning “Here I am” or “to step up” in Hebrew, for JResponse®, a signature program of JCC Association. I was familiar with JResponse from when it was introduced to JCC professionals at the 2019 JCCs of North America Professional Conference (ProCon) and also because a former colleague participated in a JResponse deployment to Pittsburgh in the fall of 2018, after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. Always drawn to help others, I struggle to sit idly by when I see suffering. With this JCC Talent offering, I can take the next logical step in my JCC professional journey. Like many others in my cohort, I couldn’t wait to arrive in Houston in late March 2020 for training. Sadly, with only two weeks to go, Hineni shifted to Zoom as COVID-19 spread and the world began to shut down.
I fondly remember bonding closely with others in our breakout rooms as we all faced the uncertainty of the developing COVID situation. Some were worried about their jobs and their families. I returned to my computer from a lunch break, still in shock from the announcement that the governor of Virginia had closed the schools for the remainder of the year. Despite the challenges around us, the members of the cohort, initially distant colleagues, became friends and confidants. Though all of us were working for our own JCCs and communities, JCC Talent allowed us to share, vent, and support each other when we needed to lighten our mental burdens.
Thank goodness for lessons shared during that formative week on Zoom, particularly the skills introducing psychological and mental health first aid. This knowledge would become essential for me in subsequent months, both at work and at home. During that time, my work shifted to phone calls and Zoom check-ins with our members, both young and old. With this knowledge, I could go into hard conversations with a better understanding of what to say and, more importantly, what not to say.
For example, when a teenage staff member shaved their head suddenly, I knew how to listen to their fears and frustrations about their senior year being cut short and help address their feeling that things were out of control. I could recognize that cutting their hair was done out of frustration and the need to feel control during so much chaos and was not a larger call for help. Similarly, my then 7-year-old social butterfly suddenly couldn’t fly and became more and more agitated and angry instead of sweet and silly. Although I couldn’t promise an end to any of the solitude or a return to normalcy, I could validate both their feelings. It was a blessing to know how to engage and to recognize when the situation required outside assistance. Later, also through JCC Talent, I would become certified in mental health first aid.
In the fall of 2020, JCC Talent launched a partnership with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which brought Awareness in Action: Jewish Mindfulness and Middot Practice to hundreds of JCC professionals. When the JCC Talent cohort offering was announced, I eagerly registered for the classes and soon became an Awareness in Action facilitator, leading a JCC Talent experience for many of my fellow JCC professional colleagues.
It felt indulgent at the beginning to be able to focus on myself instead of others but taking time each week to reflect on my actions made me a kinder, more patient colleague, mother, and friend. Later, I returned these gifts to my community by passing along what I’d learned—as a facilitator and in our Mindful Monday program—by facilitating a second and third cohort of Awareness in Action for JCC employees with offices down the hall and across the country. I loved getting to know so many of my talented JCC professional colleagues during those sessions—and sharing some of my own talents with them.
I hope these JCC Talent experiences are only the beginning. Each one has elevated my skills, connections, and motivations to best serve the Jewish community. I look forward to participating further in JCC Talent offerings and the new relationships that will be built in the process.
Jessi Malkin is the program director at United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula in Newport News, Virginia.