Melissa Chapman comes to Berkeley by way of San Diego
Melissa Chapman comes to Berkeley by way of San Diego

East Bay JCC’s new CEO is a ‘lifer’

For Melissa Chapman, who starts today as CEO of the JCC of the East Bay, this is familiar ground.

“I am a lifer when it comes to being a Jewish professional,” she said. “This is my 22nd year.”

That love for the nuts and bolts of organized Jewish communal life will come in handy at the JCC. She replaces interim CEO Samantha Kelman, the JCC’s chief operating officer, who stepped in a year ago when Amy Tobin left the post after nearly five years at the helm.

The JCC, which was founded in 1978, has its main site in North Berkeley along with a satellite Oakland location. It’s known for its children’s programs, Jewish education and lively offerings of music, lectures and events. During Tobin’s run, the JCC doubled its annual operating budget to $6.5 million, increased its donor base, expanded its number of after-school sites and completed a long-term strategic vision process.

This is a remarkable comeback for an institution that was on the brink of collapse 10 years ago. At the time, a $500,000 shortfall triggered layoffs of seven full-time staff, programming cuts and desperate public appeals for funds. But 18 months later the JCC had righted the ship and has flourished ever since.

Julie Elis, a longtime board member who co-chaired the search committee, said the JCC was looking for someone who had passion but also the practical skills to grow the center and put it on firm financial footing.

The JCC really is a place of happiness and joy.

“Our programs are full,” Elis said. “We’re busting at the seams of our Berkeley site.”

Chapman has a background in development and fundraising as well as management. She comes to the East Bay from the Jewish Federation of San Diego County, where she was chief development officer. Before that, she was CEO of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, where she helped the organization eliminate its deficit, buy a building and revive social services.  And back when Barack Obama was an Illinois senator, Chapman, a Chicago native, planned the future president’s first trip to Israel in her position as assistant vice president of campaigns for the city’s Jewish Community Federation.

Chapman is used to serving Jewish institutions, but this is her first time working at a JCC, and she’s excited.

“We really get to focus on all the wonderful, powerful moments,” she said. “The JCC really is a place of happiness and joy.”

Given Chapman’s background, one of her goals is to familiarize herself with how the JCC is funded. Right now, its revenue comes largely from its popular preschool and after-school programs, which are filled to capacity. “It’s not going to be a sustainable model,” Chapman said. “Especially if the space itself limits how much service you can provide.”

But she’s not going to make big changes right away. Instead, Chapman said she will first get to know the JCC community and the larger Bay Area Jewish community. “I can’t even begin to fundraise until I understand what the community needs are,” she said.

Elis said the board was won over by her enthusiasm, skills and commitment. “She has found her life calling,” Elis said. “And that was so clear to the entire committee.”

Chapman loves her profession so much that she even called it a “beshert moment” when she graduated from college and first applied for a job at a Federation. Something clicked for her, and since then she’s been firm in her desire to help her community through organizational work.

“This is my Jewish identity,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.