a group jews sitting around a circular table talking
Participants listen and learn from each other at the Osher Marin JCC on April 19. (Photo/Liz Harris)

Israeli JCCs bring community-building strategies to Bay Area

Jewish Community Centers in the U.S. offer swim lessons and challah-braiding demonstrations. They’re great places to grab a latte while the kids are in a ceramics class or to shmooze after a lecture.

In Israel, similar centers focus on community building and on catering to the population of the surrounding neighborhood — from Orthodox Jews to Bedouins.

Those very different philosophies were on display the past week as two dozen Israeli community center leaders visited the Bay Area to learn from each other as well as local Jewish leaders and to share ideas on community building. More than 300 Northern California rabbis, JCC officials and administrators from other Jewish organizations attended the sessions.

The weeklong visit was part of an effort to introduce local Jewish organizations to community-building skills that began with a trip to Israel in March 2016 and will be a multiyear process.

The project, including last year’s 11-day Irving Rabin Community-Building Mission to Israel by 45 Bay Area Jewish leaders — with representatives from groups such as Urban Adamah, Camp Tawonga and Wilderness Torah, and including J. — is funded by Tiburon philanthropist Varda Rabin through the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

“We are a religion of community. God’s covenant is not with us as individuals, it is with us as a community,” said Rabin, 72. “This is the beginning; this is increasing the appetite of the community to move in this direction. It is changing the whole view of how we’re looking at it.”

The Israeli directors held five sessions, including an event at the Osher Marin JCC where the room was packed with more than 50 people. At that session, visiting delegation member Ran Juhl said the Israel Association of Community Centers runs a network of 170 community centers with 700 branches throughout Israel, serving a third of Israel’s population.

“All the colors of Israel, the society, comes through our doors,” he said. “We came here to learn about ourselves, we came here to learn from you … and hopefully it won’t end here.”

At the closing session at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City, Sara Shadmi-Wortman explained that building community is based on mutual trust and creating a sense of belonging.

Shadmi-Wortman, head of the community building department at Oranim College in Israel, has led the effort to instill community values throughout the IACC system and has taught her approach in places ranging from Nepal to Burundi. She said the S.F.-based Federation was the first in the U.S. to focus on this approach.

We came here to learn about ourselves, we came here to learn from you … and hopefully it won’t end here.

The process of community building is like a series of waves that build and multiply as people connect with each other, she said, adding that the key is to value members of the community and to make them feel welcome at Jewish institutions.

“When we talk about community building, what do we actually build? One is creating a set of common, collective values of the group and the second thing we build around is communal relationships. The big thing we have to do is think what will make this synagogue, this school, a home for these people,” she said.

“There are no bad people in the world, just people who feel bad. And it is our job to make them feel good.”

Wendy Verba, senior program officer with the S.F.-based Federation, said in an interview at the Foster City session that Jewish groups need to think about how they can expand their mission beyond providing services such as cycling classes and day care, and learn to solve problems by using community-building methods.

“Organizations that care for the vulnerable should view them not as people who need something, but as people who have something to contribute,” she said.

Fourteen Israeli IACC directors attended the final session with about an equal number of representatives from Bay Area Jewish organizations, including Rabbi Corey Helfand of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City.

“It was a great and informative session. It was quite affirming for me in the work that our community is already doing,” Helfand said. “We are developing a community that is built on meaning, belonging, commitment and mutual trust.

“I think this way of thinking is incredibly valuable to the next generation of synagogues and Jewish organizations, and my only hope is that more people will have the chance, leaders and lay leaders, to learn these tools.”

Rabin, who came to the Bay Area from Israel as a college student, said she has always wanted to duplicate her native country’s “environment of collaboration.” Such a grassroots approach, in which group members connect with each other instead of simply following instructions from leaders, will help Jewish organizations thrive in the future, she said.

“We have less and less people connecting to our organizations. The reason for people not participating is not so much [about] Judaism, it’s just life, so what can we do to make it more connected?” she said.

“We need to answer the question: ‘If I am not religious, what about me is Jewish?’ People in Israel have created all kinds of communities, connecting people together.”

Liz Harris contributed to this report.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.