Rachel Brodie at JCC Hanukkah event in December (Photo/Katrina Lee)
Rachel Brodie at JCC Hanukkah event in December (Photo/Katrina Lee)

She’s opening doors as JCC East Bay ‘looks for its Jewish soul’

For Rachel Brodie, the current Jewish educator-in-residence at the JCC of the East Bay, the trick is in being accessible.

“I’m not a scary rabbi person,” she said.

And that’s good, because the new Shamash Residency program at the Berkeley-based JCC is about opening doors, not scaring people off, as the institution “looks for its Jewish soul,” in the words of Amy Tobin, the center’s CEO. “That looks a lot of ways, but it has to be inclusive.”

Brodie is the first person in the new three- to four-month revolving residency, a program that aims to give a diverse range of rabbis and scholars a temporary home while also being a way for the only JCC in the East Bay with a campus to help its staff and community connect with Jewish learning.

Not only will the resident scholar, rabbi or educator change every three months, their role will look different each time, Tobin said. That reflects the community that JCC serves as well as the spread of interesting Jewish perspectives available. “Our community can get to know different voices,” she said.

For Brodie, a longtime educator, her tenure, which started in November and runs through March 1, has meant running staff development meetings that delve into the meaning behind the holidays of Hanukkah, Tu B’Shevat and Purim. That’s important, because many staff members at the JCC — which runs a large preschool and afterschool program — aren’t Jewish. “I’ve heard from staff that they are really grateful to be doing the learning,” Tobin said.

Even for staff doing specifically Jewish programming, having Brodie as a resource has helped. Rachel Whittom, director of adult and community programs, felt that working on Purim festivities with Brodie helped her bring out new ideas and themes for the holiday.

Based on those meetings, the JCC has planned “Purim: Through the Looking Glass,” a Feb. 25 event that will emphasize the themes of upside down, confusion and blurred lines through which kids and adults can approach the chaotic nature of the holiday. It’s all about keeping things fresh.

Brodie is also going hands-on interaction with the JCC community, as she did in December at the public Hanukkah celebration, where she showed children that a menorah could be made of anything — even raw potatoes.

Brodie, previously the chief Jewish officer at the JCC of San Francisco, likes to point out that a JCC is different from a synagogue: While not as explicit in its Jewish nature, JCC activities are based in Jewish values and touch a wider community than most synagogues, she said, adding, ““Everything we do here has to be at least implicitly Jewish.”

That makes the presence of a Jewish learning “go-to” person both valuable and stimulating, according to Tobin. Brodie was picked to inaugurate the residency and help shape it. But Tobin already has a pile of applications for the next two sessions, which are part of the initial session funded by the Maryland-based Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation.

“There are so many brilliant Jewish minds who aren’t pulpit rabbis,” Tobin said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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