Rabbi Joy Levitt announced plans to retire as CEO of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, a job she’s held for 14 years.
A fixture on the Upper West Side — one of the most densely populated Jewish neighborhoods in the world — the JCC has grown into the country’s largest since she joined the staff in 1997 as program director.
Before COVID closed down the building from last April until August, and the JCC laid off or furloughed 35 percent of its employees, the JCC operated on a budget of $34 million.
“Why now?” Rabbi Levitt said in an interview with The Jewish Week. “The JCC is poised for greatness in its next chapter. We learned so much this year. I’ve been here almost 25 years, and in this job for 14. I’ve done what I wanted to do to strengthen this community, and it is time for new leadership and new energy.”
The JCC’s announcement Tuesday of her plan to step down in December noted that her tenure included the completion of the 14-story JCC building at 76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Outfitted with a swimming pool and a fitness center, like most JCCs, the center also expanded to sites at JCC Harlem and Camp Settoga in Pomona, NY, and became home under her leadership to film festivals focusing on people with disabilities and highlighting Israel’s underrepresented populations, including its Arab citizens and Palestinians.
Rabbi Levitt cited the disabilities film festival and the center’s programming around Israel as examples of the difference she brought as a rabbi to a profession that had been dominated by social workers and nonprofit administrators.
After earning ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she served for 20 years as a congregational rabbi on Long Island and in New Jersey before coming to the JCC.
Reflecting the “complexity of the American Jewish relationship to Israel has been a major focus” of her tenure, said Rabbi Levitt, who said she was criticized early on for bringing lay leaders to Israel in the summers for seminars at the pluralistic Shalom Hartman Institute. The JCC has since launched the Israel Forum, a series of programs meant to bridge the ideological divides among American Jews. “Israel Forum was born out of a desire to help people engage with opinions and people with whom they do not necessarily agree,” she said.
She also saw the launch of Jewish Journeys, an alternative Hebrew school focusing on project work and offering families various options for engaging Jewishly. “It’s not an accident that I became executive director [in 2003] and CEO [in 2006] as a rabbi, and that the rabbinate was central to my work,” she said. “How people can engage in Jewish life on their own terms is a big and central question to me.”
Levitt said she saw the JCC’s role as engaging with people during “disruptive” stages of their lives: moving to the city for their first jobs, having their first children, staying busy in retirement. During the pandemic, the JCC launched the Wechsler Center for Modern Aging for older adults. With help from UJA-Federation of New York and The Apthorp Pharmacy, the JCC has been be running a COVID vaccine clinic in its lobby.
Levitt is confident that the JCC will bounce back after a year of virtual programming. The building has been opening gradually since last fall. She also expects that some of the innovations forced on the institution, including virtual programming, will outlast the pandemic.
The whole point of a JCC is how do you make a village out of a big city.
“The whole point of a JCC is how do you make a village out of a big city. I do believe we are going to come back,” she said. “We’ll need to strengthen our small businesses, shop local and remind people that we are here. But do I think everyone is moving to Florida? No, I don’t. It’s up to us to help revitalize these neighborhoods.”
In a letter to JCC members and staff Tuesday, Sheryl Kaye,
chair of its board of directors, said, “There is no question that Joy has been the primary reason for the JCC’s incredible growth and success over the past two decades, and we are eternally grateful for her efforts.”
The board said it has brought on DRG Talent Advisory Group, a nonprofit headhunter, to facilitate the search for Rabbi Levitt’s successor.