When she attended a Jewish day school in Los Angeles as a youth, Dana Sheanin had two role models: the rabbi and the school librarian. Their two-pronged impact definitely made its mark, because Sheanin is now the new executive director of Jewish LearningWorks.
She is the first woman to head the S.F.-based organization in its 166-year history.
Sheanin has replaced David Waksberg, who retired from the post at the end of June after a 15-year tenure.
The mission of Jewish LearningWorks (known as the Bureau of Jewish Education from 1958 to 2012) is to advance the cause and quality of Jewish education in day schools, synagogue Hebrew schools and at home.
Having served since 2016 as the agency’s chief strategy officer, Sheanin, 47, thinks she is well positioned to steer the nonprofit into the future. But first she must navigate the Covid-19 pandemic and the toll it has taken on the economy, school operations and daily life.
“We’ve been hearing since spring that people are overwhelmed,” Sheanin said from her Berkeley home. “Every professional is doing what we’re all doing: learning overnight a new set of skills, homeschooling their children and rebuilding programs for the fall.”
Like teachers across the country, Bay Area Jewish educators are making adjustments, and so is JLW, Sheanin said. “We pivoted and have offered programs in education technology. I see in colleagues this deep desire to offer Jewish content and help Jewish families stay connected, so we developed a whole set of programs for educators on how to meet those needs.
“I’m passionate about professional development,” Sheanin said. “Nothing is more fulfilling than helping educators refine their craft.”
One of her proudest achievements in her four years at JLW has been the program Voices for Good, which she created in 2018. With its goals of advancing “gender equity in Jewish life” and “supporting women in leadership” in the community, the program has offered two-year fellowships and held salons (when in-person gatherings were the norm). Sheanin said she intends to keep the program going, with virtual educational offerings in the months ahead.
She also wants to make sure that JLW remains fiscally healthy, especially in this period of severe economic challenges, one in which several Bay Area JCCs have made painful layoffs. Sheanin has been in touch with JLW’s funders to make sure the agency, which traces its roots back to 1854, can stay strong.
“I want to focus on maintaining the high quality of support for educators that has been the hallmark of Jewish LearningWorks,” she said. “What we’ve learned since finishing our strategic plan in 2016 is that serving the professional educator corps is our core competency, something we can do since we have such longstanding relationships.”
Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Sheanin remembers her love of reading started early. Though she didn’t end up a librarian or a rabbi, she did graduate from the Hebrew Union College’s Zelikow School of Nonprofit Management, and went on to have a fruitful career in the Jewish professional world. She has worked for the UJA-Federation of New York, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Federation of the East Bay. She and her partner, Sue Bodjak, the director of education at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, have four teenagers.
Sheanin said JLW will continue supporting educators with training opportunities, and reaching out to students with its teen and special ed programs (all on Zoom these days). The Jewish Community Library, which is a big part of JLW, remains open, with courtyard pickup of materials. JLW’s many resource guides, kits and other materials for families — on Shabbat, holidays, Israel and other aspects of Jewish life — remain available.
As for taking the reins during a pandemic, Sheanin is still processing the vast nature of the task.
“I was not looking to make a ton of changes,” she said of her initial thoughts once she was named executive director last fall. “Now we’re just making sure we do our work well during these difficult days.”