By Laura Porter
Emily Rosenbaum grew up in western Connecticut, where “half are Yankee fans and half are Red Sox fans,” she says with just the right diplomatic touch, but the new executive director of the Worcester Jewish Community Center is hardly a newcomer to Central Massachusetts.
With a strong family connection to the North Shore, she has lived and worked in Leominster for twenty years. For the past four, she and her husband have been active members of Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, where their youngest daughter attends religious school.
Rosenbaum brings to the JCC a deep understanding of community based on her career in community development and organizing as well as resident empowerment and resident leadership work.
Most recently, she was the CEO of Akshaya Patra Foundation USA, a Boston-based nonprofit that supports a midday meal program for children in India. Prior to that, she served as the executive director of two community development corporations: the Coalition for a Better Acre in Lowell and The Twin Cities Community Development Corporation in Fitchburg and Leominster.
“I was so excited to see the opening [at the JCC],” she says. “I’ve dedicated my 30-year career to community-building and bridging, and education and empowerment.”
Those concepts are “key components of any healthy community,” she says. They are “the three-legged stool that we have here as a Jewish Community Center.”
Today, “no matter where you are in your politics,” such emphasis is critical, Rosenbaum says. She cites a general sense of unease and the resurgence in incidents of antisemitism that have marked the past year.
“The best anecdote that I know is getting people together in relation to one another and in community,” she says.
Since she arrived in January, Rosenbaum has been listening to the members of this community, recognizing that the Worcester JCC represents not only the Jewish community but greater Central Massachusetts as well.
From the early childhood center to senior programs, summer camp to the Fitness Center, the JCC space and its programs are enjoyed by Jews and non-Jews, children and older adults, families of all shapes and sizes.
On Sundays in the gym, at the basketball league that Physical Education Director Bob Berman has run for years, “you see a complete microcosm of people who live in Worcester,” says Rosenbaum. “Every hour on the hour you see a whole new group come in. Bob believes in bringing together children of all backgrounds and all abilities and so that everyone can participate. That’s another way of living out your Judaism or your core values from whatever faith you embrace – or even humanism.”
She has recently returned from the national meeting of the JCC Association of North America, where its new head, Doron Krakow, noted that JCCs, with a million of their 1.5 million members identifying as Jewish, constitute the largest movement of Jewish-identified members in North America.
Moreover, “where sometimes we break ourselves down by our affiliations and the type of Jews that we are, at the JCC there’s no breakdown,” says Rosenbaum. “Last night [for Purim], the Torah Center of Worcester was here, plus members of Congregation Beth Israel. Rabbi Valerie [Cohen of Temple Emanual Sinai] leads educational programs here throughout the year. Rabbi Aviva Fellman [of Beth Israel] was here this morning leading Torah study.”
Such openness and diversity gives JCC members an opportunity to connect to their Jewishness in a myriad different ways – or not at all.
From infants to seniors who themselves once brought their children here, the membership reflects a panoply of Jewish associations, from every denomination to those who choose not to affiliate. At the same time, many members are not Jewish, and 115 scholarships go to families who need financial support. That includes the preschool, where all of the children, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, get a chance to bring home a Shabbat on Wheels.
“The other day we had 90 people for Purim in the auditorium – 140 children of all faiths and backgrounds, some Jewish, some other faiths, some unaffiliated, all marching around wearing their Purim costumes,” Rosenbaum said. “On the Friday of Chinese New Year, we danced around for Shabbat and then the Chinese dragon came out. Kids don’t make distinctions the way adults do – we’re always putting ourselves in categories.”
Rosenbaum received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Vassar College and a master’s in public administration from the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU. Though she chose to follow a public policy path, her exposure to anthropology gave her an early avenue into understanding “how to participate and observe, to be part of a group but also able to be analytical in that group setting,” she says.
She credits field work in Barbados, where she stayed with the poorest family in the village and experienced life with them, for helping “me move forward in how I wanted to operate as a human being in the world.”
At the Worcester JCC, she wants to make outreach into the community “a very productive part of everything we do.” That means connecting to Greater Worcester.
JCC Cares, a pilot program now in the works, will serve as a volunteer clearinghouse for those who want to give back to the community. The program will help to connect people to volunteer opportunities; an educational component will bring volunteers together regularly to share their different experiences of voluntarism as well as their talents. Teens might show older adults how to use hashtag social media, while seniors might talk about phone banking.
“I really believe in both social action through community engagement and also as a way to build an organization and community,” says Rosenbaum. “I think that as Jews and as a Jewish institution, it’s not only our obligation but also our pleasure to go out and do this work.”
In terms of future endeavors, Rosenbaum and the Board have visions for additional physical improvements in the building, following last year’s renovation of the preschool playgrounds, front lobby and courtyard. She would also love to put together an interfaith teen trip to Israel.
Closer to home, her stepdaughter is urging her to create a mom’s group, and “it would be a lot of fun to have my granddaughters here,” she says.
Rosenbaum and her husband both had children when they met. His are in their early thirties and the eldest has two young children; her son and daughter are in their early 20s. Together they have a nine-year-old daughter who just picked her electives for summer camp at the JCC: “A little sports, a little outdoor, science and experimentation and cooking,” says her mother. “One of everything.”
“It’s a very happy bunch,” she continues. “Most of my weekend is usually spent with my five-year-old granddaughter and my nine-year-old daughter.”
At the JCC, summer camp registration is ongoing, with 10 percent off for those who sign up in March and 5 percent during the first two weeks of April. It is also a good time to tour the NAEYC-accredited preschool and put down a deposit for the fall; there is a preschool summer camp for families who might want to give their children a JCC experience before the school year begins.
“They swim, they cook, they have music,” says Emily Rosenbaum. “Everything is geared toward their experience of the world, exploring and enabling them to learn and to grow.”
It’s an apt description of the JCC itself. “We’re the type of organization that some people belong to from cradle to grave; other people come when they need it or to learn, and we introduce them to a new community and a new family. We’re a welcoming, diverse and very family-oriented community, and we want to have all kinds of members.”