The moment she walked into the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, Caryn Viterbi liked what she saw: the Judaica shop, the art exhibits, the tzedakah well and the banners adorned with Jewish texts.
It all served to send a message: This is a Jewish place.
Viterbi is on the board of the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla, as well as its sister entity, the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture. The only JCC in the San Diego area is an impressive 97,000-square-foot edifice, with a fitness center, pool, kosher café and smoothie bar.
But Viterbi and the JCC leadership have been striving to take Jewish learning there to the next level.
So they looked north.
Viterbi was part of a contingent of five LFJCC leaders who spent two days last week visiting Bay Area Jewish institutions studying best practices. The entourage visited Lehrhaus Judaica (Jewish education for adults), Jewish LearningWorks (all forms of Jewish learning), The Kitchen (indie Jewish community in San Francisco), and the Osher Marin and Peninsula JCCs.
These were chosen because, according to Viterbi, they are considered models of excellence.
“We’re going through a strategic planning process for Jewish learning,” she said. “We came to a crossroads, where we could take Jewish life and learning to the next level. To do that, we had to see who is doing Jewish education in transformational ways. We talked to a number of national organizations, and several pointed us to the Bay Area.”
Though the two Jewish communities are not exactly alike, there is overlap. In San Diego there is a network of institutions — from synagogues, Hillels, social services and a solid federation — serving the 100,000-member community.
Viterbi saw much she felt her institution could emulate.
“The two JCCs clearly had leadership that saw the role of the JCC as a hub for Jewish continuity, a sense of community and belonging,” she said. “This leadership strives to create a low barrier to enter into the Jewish experience.”
Judy Wolff-Bolton, the executive director of the Osher Marin JCC, said she tried to show her San Diego peers “a way to have a more integrated approach to Jewish life through the JCC.”
Of the Marin JCC, the former director of the old Berkeley-Richmond JCC said, “We operate in many ways unlike a lot of JCCs — how we come across as a deeply Jewish institution in a holistic, broad-based way, and not just through one programming arm. They were very intrigued with how we went about doing this.”
The group also visited Jewish LearningWorks (formerly the Bureau of Jewish Education) in San Francisco.
“They see their challenges in ways similar to how many of us see the challenges in the Bay Area,” said David Waksberg, executive director, noting that 80 percent of San Diego’s Jewish population is unaffiliated, and JCC leaders there feel they are not reaching enough people. “In the past, we thought of outreach as getting people to do stuff we’re already doing, as opposed to [asking] what are they looking for that’s of critical importance to their lives, and where does that intersect with what we offer?”
Viterbi noted some differences between the two communities. San Diego’s equivalent of Jewish LearningWorks was absorbed into the JCC several years ago. And unlike the greater Bay Area, which has seven JCCs, San Diego has only the one.
She said the visitors were impressed by the many partnerships formed between Bay Area Jewish organizations and constituencies, from interfaith families to the LGBT community.
“They look for ways to reach into the community and achieve community-wide learning,” Viterbi said. “They spend a lot of time developing trusting partnerships, to have programming and messaging throughout the community, the message being that Jewish learning is a central part of Jewish identity.”