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Leaning In, Leaning On: Lessons From the Heart of the South Regional Conference

By Brooke Bowles

My experience at our recent Heart of the South regional conference at the Gordon JCC in Nashville, Tennessee, has led me to reflect on the multiple and varied levels of support available to JCC executive directors and staff across the continent.

I worked in several nonprofits before coming aboard as the assistant director at the Levite JCC in Birmingham, Alabama, in late 2021. I got to acclimatize to our JCC for about a year before I was named interim director in the fall and then director this past February.

So far, the biggest change to my nonprofit psyche has been realizing that from fundraising challenges to membership issues to board relations, the Levite JCC is not unique—and we’re not alone. We’re supported not only by JCC Association, but by 170 sister JCCs (Jewish Community Centers and Jewish Community Camps) around this country and in Canada. I was eager to lean into these layers of resources, including our JCC Association liaison, the JCC Resource Center, and connections with other JCC leaders.

So, with the idea of tapping into as much support as I could get, one of my first actions was to invite JCC Association’s Michael Feinstein, vice president, strategic initiatives, to visit us not once, but twice to conduct workshops and more with our staff and board.

Next, a colleague and I attended JCC Association’s Mifgash Executive Leadership Forum in Atlanta, Georgia, where we met counterparts from around North America. That gathering, in turn, led to an invitation to help plan the regional conference in Nashville—or at least participate in the planning calls since I was still so new.

The two most important things I brought home from Nashville were:

  1. A feeling of encouragement at having met three other JCC directors who, like me, are not Jewish. I am heartened by these connections, because sometimes I feel as though I’m in a country where I am not fully fluent in the language.Prior to the Nashville conference, it sometimes felt like I was on the outside of an exclusive club made up of Jewish executive directors. It was so affirming to meet other directors who have had success despite not being Jewish. They reassured me that not being Jewish can actually be helpful in this role, since so many if not most JCCs—including here in Birmingham—have a majority of non-Jewish members these days. So now I may feel a little less self-conscious while forging ahead—as long as I keep seeking guidance from the Jewish members of my staff.
  1. Knowledge of those JCCs that face opportunities and challenges similar to those we see in Birmingham

In addition, my crew learned that such things as facility enhancements don’t always have to be as difficult as they seem. For example, Gordon JCC seems to have done a masterful job deciding they needed an outdoor camp and event structure and then simply built a beautiful one. Even if it wasn’t simple or easy, we were encouraged to hear about the process and see the results, which made us realize it’s not necessary to overthink things.

Another facilities story: We certainly could relate to the Gordon JCC’s experience renovating its locker rooms only to hear members’ disappointment that since the J had done away with the jacuzzies, the “good old days” of soaking with their friends were over. Such a familiar tale!

One of the ideas we brought home from Nashville is to ask our community partners to create artwork that reflects a Jewish theme. For this inaugural show we will provide materials for them to craft artwork that reflects the Jewish concept of gemilut chasadim, or acts of loving kindness, and display the art as a show in our building. The Nashville visit also sparked a road trip to the Memphis JCC—a networking adventure that provided solid ideas about how to approach a number of issues.

So far, leaning in on our challenges while also leaning on continental and regional resources for support has reassured me not only that my goals as an executive director are viable but also that they’ll help continue our forward momentum here in Birmingham.

Brooke Bowles is the executive director at the Levite Jewish Community Center in Birmingham, Alabama.


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