When Miles Levin first joined the JCC of Sonoma County’s teen program, Chaverim, he anticipated a stereotypical Jewish youth group with a bunch of kids sitting in a circle happily extolling the virtues of religion.
Instead, the Santa Rosa teen found himself in a transformational and supportive environment, engaging in conversations about life and the world.
At the helm was Rick Concoff, an inspiring leader and mentor — and the rare adult who truly connects with teens.
“I was always swamped with homework, and I’d think, ‘I shouldn’t go. It’s not going to be worth it,’ ” said Levin, 19, now a college freshman. “But every time I went it was worth it. Rick provided a space where there’s support for anything and everything. I always left with a new perspective.”
Concoff, the JCC’s director of teen and camp programs, will be honored for 30 years of service to the Sonoma County Jewish community during a March 8 fundraising dinner in Rohnert Park.
With a laundry list of superlatives that people use to describe him — understanding, supportive, universally respected, loved, irreplaceable, virtuous — it’s not hard to see why Concoff, 59, was chosen for the honor.
Beth Goodman, the executive director of the Santa Rosa–based JCC, said there’s no one word that would do Concoff justice. An educator, musician, coach, counselor, camp director and mentor, he’s many things to many people, she said.
“I can honestly say, from my heart, I have never met a parent or a teen or a child that has come into contact with him that hasn’t loved him,” she said. “He’s pretty amazing.”
A resident of Sebastopol, Concoff grew up as part of a vibrant Jewish community in West Los Angeles. He went to UCLA on a full scholarship, but decided to forego it after two years, instead heading to the Bay Area on a whim and landing a job at the Marin JCC (in teen camp programming).
While working there, he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in social and communal programming and counseling. Later he headed to Sonoma County, where he worked with congregations Shomrei Torah and Beth Ami and spearheaded the JCC’s youth and teen programs.
“He has positively impacted thousands of children, teens and their parents,” Goodman said. “There’s always some small child, some teen, some family he is extending himself to.”
A 2006 recipient of a Helen Diller Family Award for excellence in education, Concoff is an accomplished violinist, and the inventor of the Bow-Right, a device that helps students use their bow correctly.
He has performed at more than 3,500 Bay Area simchas with his band, Serenade, and he also teaches a comparative religions and ethics curriculum at Waldorf schools in Sonoma County.
And three years ago, when the Oakland A’s decided to have their first Jewish heritage game, an excited Concoff mobilized local Jews — getting roughly 100 people from the Sonoma County community to buy tickets, and working it out so that eight kids from his teen programs would be singing the national anthem.
“He’s a gregarious guy. You won’t find another Rick,” said Rabbi George Gittleman of Shomrei Torah. “There’s not an aggressive bone in his body. He never does anything to undermine community.”
Gittleman admires the way Concoff flawlessly weaves Jewish themes into his lessons while also relating them back to his students’ lives. He believes Concoff’s exemplary ability to relate to teens is because he’s still a bit of a teen himself.
“Even in his 50s, there’s an element of Rick that’s still a teenager,” Gittleman said, “He’s not jaded by adulthood. He always brings his heart to the table.”
“He goes out of his way to help people,” Levin said. “He’s always willing to sit down and talk, whether it be about relationships or going off to college … and it’s always a super unbiased perspective. He’s an incredibly wise individual.”
“He makes every discussion positive,” added Drew Falstein, a high school junior who lives in Santa Rosa. “Even if it’s a topic that’s not uplifting, it always ends with a good moral. A couple weeks ago, we were talking about death and where you go after you die. It was turning a bit depressing, but he made it positive and helped us find comfort in a dark topic.”
Though the upcoming dinner is meant to honor his many years of leadership, Concoff said he’s already received his just desserts.
“I am drawn to bring young people Jewish values and decision-making skills,” he explained. “When I am teaching young adults, I rarely have a moment void of fulfillment, engagement or zeal.”