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Manhattan JCC, emerging from COVID-era struggles, announces new head

Rabbi Joanna Samuels is set to become the new chief executive director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan at the beginning of next year, marking a significant transition at one of the largest Jewish community centers in the world.

Samuels will replace Rabbi Joy Levitt, who announced her plans to retire last April. Levitt has led the Upper West Side institution since 2006.

“The JCC is a vital, healthy, and dynamic institution, and it is a privilege to lead it,” said Samuels, currently executive director of the Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center in the Lower East Side.

The announcement comes at a pivotal time in the history of the JCC. Last summer, the organization was forced to lay off or furlough 35% of its employees amidst decreased revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (“The biggest lesson that I’ve learned from COVID is just how important our staff are to everything we do,” said Levitt, who called the layoffs one of the hardest moments of the pandemic.)

The JCC shifted to virtual programming, which included over 3,000 virtual classes and programs at peak. But its community felt the lack of in-person contact deeply.

In recent months, the JCC has been able to hire back some staff members, and they hope to bring back more by the time Samuels takes over in January. That re-hiring effort has corresponded with a slow resumption of in-person activities — a needed boost, Samuels said, to community solidarity and connection in a charged cultural and political environment.

“The Jewish community has a unique role to play in how we manage the hyperpartisanship of this moment,” she said.

The JCC’s 14-story building first opened its doors in September 2001, two days after 9/11, at a time when Levitt says the Upper West Side Jewish community desperately needed a space for belonging — and a place to send their kids to school. This moment, she said, requires a similar sense of responsibility and mutual care.

“We have a set of values and a determination and a tradition that makes music out of what remains,” said Levitt, who will continue to lead the JCC until December.

Under Levitt’s leadership, the JCC expanded dramatically. Before the pandemic, it was providing education, arts and fitness programming to around 3,500 people per day.

“JCCs can be very creative places for Jewish living,” said Samuels, whose children attended preschool at the Meyerson JCC. “You can take activities that people don’t necessarily associate with their Jewish ritual lives, but that are explicitly informed by Jewish values.”

The pandemic disrupted Levitt’s plans for her retirement, which she delayed to help the JCC navigate through uncharted waters.

“As difficult as this year and a half has been, it has been a magnificent opportunity to serve the community,” she said. “We actually expanded in many ways, because we were able to serve so many people virtually.”

“Coming out of the pandemic, the JCC is poised to be an institution that helps bring our community and our city together,” she said. “And Joanna is just the right person to do that.”

Samuels previously served as the rabbi of Congregation Habonim on the Upper West Side, where she occasionally partnered with the Manhattan JCC. As founding executive director of the Manny Cantor Center, she found ways to create community and cross-cultural camaraderie through programming and classes on the Lower East Side.

“There is a beauty and a majesty to bringing people together across the ways in which we’re different,” said Samuels.

Samuels hopes to double down on the JCC’s commitment to honoring diverse viewpoints, while offering a space for belonging and shared experience.

“The exchange of ideas is part of how we move forward,” said Samuels.

“We can agree on some things and disagree on others, while still retaining a sense that we are a people,” she said.


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