A pluralistic and interfaith rabbinate — that’s how I would sum up to colleagues in a few words my professional role these days. As Director of Jewish Family Life of the Mayerson Jewish Community Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, I have the privilege to work each day with people from a variety of backgrounds and across the spectrum of Jewish tradition. The JCC has nearly 10,000 members and many more patrons who come through its doors — many are Jewish, and many are not. The JCC also partners outside its walls with local Jewish and city institutions.
A typical day this Fall may start in a JCC Early Childhood School classroom blowing the shofar with toddlers who are pretending to be asleep. As the shofar is sounded, the children jump to their feet laughing, because the shofar has helped them ‘wake up their hearts’ for the new year.
Then, I’ll head to a planning meeting with the JCC Program Team and the Jewish Federation’s Shlicha. We’ll discuss possible themes and potential performers to incorporate in next Spring’s Yom HaZikaron ceremony and Yom HaAtzmaut celebration produced by our organizations for the entire Cincinnati community. We will contemplate budget and fundraising needs and how to authentically educate and engage our community in conversations about Israel leading up to these days.
Next, I’ll go back to my office to make some followup calls to local public and parochial school teachers about their upcoming visits to the JCC Sukkah. More than 250 school children from Catholic, Jewish, and Public schools will come through the Sukkah. I welcome each group as we learn about the Fall Harvest festival — including our shared biblical heritage as well as what is unique to Jewish customs and traditions.
By now, it’s lunchtime. I will visit with members of our Senior Department who are eating together as part of the Congregate Meal program. If it’s a Friday, I’ll sing Shabbat blessings with them. The JCC provides daily transportation to and from their homes to the J. For many of our Senior adults, English is their second, third, or fourth language. It is fascinating to hear about how and when they arrived in the US. For many, they arrived here in their late 50s or 60s. The JCC now gives them a home to spend their days with lectures, movies, meals, and social time with others.
On my way out the door to pick up my daughters from school, I may see a fellow mom bringing her children in for swim lessons. As we stop to chat, she asks me if I know of any synagogue that has a family service for Rosh HaShanah. I love these questions! It gives me the chance to share the names of some of my colleagues and encourage her to call. Then, I circle back with my colleagues to try to make a synagogue shiddoch.
Later that evening, I’ll go back to the J for a meeting with Adult Learners for our upcoming Global Day of Jewish Learning. In November, the JCC will convene a dozen rabbis from across Jewish tradition to engage in teaching our community about Psalm 104 from a variety of perspectives. In partnership with HUC-JIR, we will bring learning to our community in a way that is different from what each synagogue offers on its own — it will include yoga and meditation, and it will juxtapose rabbis from different traditions in conversation with adult learners and with one another.
I am so grateful to be a rabbi. It allows such mobility of experience. From Hillel, to the congregational rabbinate to HUC admissions, each role I have played has impacted me. For the past six years at the JCC, I have used my experience to find that nexus where Jewish pluralism meets interfaith, meets Jewish identity. I hope that the 28,000 people that pass through the J’s doors each month find ways through our programming to deepen their Jewish identities. For our patrons of other backgrounds, I hope they gain an appreciation for Jewish culture, religion, and values. And for those whose own families include members who are Jewish and from other backgrounds, the hope is that they find the JCC to be a comfortable intersection — a place where they can be deeply proud of their Judaism and have the ability to share it with those who are closest to them.
Rabbi Shena Potter Jaffee serves as the Director of Jewish Family Life at the Mayerson JCC in Cincinnati, Ohio. Previous positions include Assistant Director of the University of Michigan Hillel, Associate Rabbi of Temple Sinai in Washington, DC, and Regional Admissions Director of HUC-JIR, Cincinnati. Her role at the JCC, among other wonderful opportunities, allows her to spend many Shabbat evenings at home with her two daughters and husband.