Tuesday, January 20, 2009

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December 2008
December 04, 2008
by Carolyn Horowitz Amacher
With the cut of a ribbon, the elders who built the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington revealed a new Jewish neighborhood which would shelter and enrich the generations of Jews who were to soon pass through its shiny revolving doors. It was 1969 in
Marylandand the JCC was immediately a crossroads of the new and the old, bridging the ‘shtettle’ of Silver Spring with its Kosher delis and butcher shops, the District with its classic Congregations , and the outskirts like Olney and
Potomacwith its sprawling subdivisions and newfangled malls.
The JCC sat stark against the still rural landscape, foreshadowing the suburban sprawl which was soon to come and jumpstarting the Jewish village which would be built along
Montrose Road.
Clutching the hands of my parents on that day in 1969, I sunk into the upholstery of the atrium, soon to become my extended living room, with its fixtures and sculpture as familiar as my Donny Osmond posters. In the ensuing days, months, and years, I made this place my home, traversing its hallways as freely as I roller skated along my suburban streets. In this Jewish village the JCC shopkeeper dispensed Kosher bubblegum like any mom and pop shop, the librarian nurtured her book collection like a mother hen, and the ‘ladies’ at the front desk barked out commands to us unwieldy children, and we understood that they did this out of love and that we were part of an extended family.
Everyone was welcome at the JCC, young and old, first generation American or fourth. Its doorways mirrored the ancient tents of Abraham, open at all sides. The earliest of visitors came in search of a safe place to shed their accents and Yiddishkeit, and the later generations came looking for these relics and reclaimed their heritage among collections of Jewish literature and art.
Later I would come to work for this JCC and would stumble everyday across a piece of my past, be it my own childhood memories of Israeli dancing and ‘ga ga’ matches, or a collective Jewish memory triggered by the perpetual symphony of Yiddish and Hebrew, of song and laughter emanating from every doorway. And every day I would give away and regain a part of my heart there, in the corridors -the crossroads of Jewish life where the young and old danced.
I learned at the JCC that life, even – and especially – Jewish life – was not easy nor simple, but was being repaired at the JCC. This JCC was the first to install devices to help those who were hearing impaired; to post flyers listing resources for Jews experiencing abuse or alcoholism; and to install a lift in the swimming pool for those in wheelchairs.
I understood through my supervisors and social work field instructors that Juan, the manager of the JCC print shop manager who I befriended as I learned to master the ominous folding machine, should be known as ‘hearing impaired’ rather than ‘deaf’ and why; I learned through teachers like Danny Siegel that Jewish women could indeed experience abuse contrary to popular belief; and I learned through my supervisors like Sara Milner that people in wheelchairs were merely in wheelchairs, not ‘wheelchair-bound’, nor ‘handicapped.’ I learned that a boy with Muscular Dystrophy could be pulled through the hallway on a wagon by an energetic camp counselor, unnoticed and unobtrusive in the most beautiful way – his pathway made clear by the compassionate and visionary atmosphere at this JCC. I learned that when I raised my voice with the children I was leading as Children’s Director, that my ‘field instructor’ Sara needed just to raise her head a bit in the most non-judgmental way. I learned and adapted and adjusted my behavior, if for no other reason than to be just like her and all of the other role models who surrounded me.
When I was a child my family spent many hours in the JCC swimming pool, where I learned to swim, communing there in the warm water. I found this to be a safe place, a place where I could practice strokes unselfconsciously, and learn how to take risks.
One afternoon as an early swimmer, I found myself in water over my head and realized I could not keep myself afloat. My mother was facing in the other direction and I knew she would not be turning back around. I figured I just had to float down to the bottom and bounce back up to get a needed breath, which I did, bobbing up and down. The only way one can do this is to be relaxed as I knew if I panicked I would loose these vital breaths. It was because I felt so safe, so nurtured in those waters and in that place – that JCC – that I kept going, trusting that I would be rescued. I soon heard a splash behind me, felt strong arms pulling me upward and out of the water, and a soft reassuring voice telling me I would be alright, and I was.
My memory of that JCC is sensory and visceral, above all. I remember the smell of the paper mache in the art studio where I attended every drop-in arts and craft session, which was of great benefit to my working mother who found solace that her children had a safe haven just ten minutes from home. I still remember the stench of chlorine, so intense at the indoor pool, and the sound of the remarkable new microwave oven of the early 70’s warming my bagel in the snack bar, with its aroma of instantly-heated shrink-wrapped kosher meals, and the sound of the “Doors” and “Three Dog Night” blaring from the youth lounge where I wandered freely, playing bumper pool – always a couple of tables away from my older brother, who had found his own constellation of friends, and of community, at the JCC.
Growing up in the 70’s in Washington, D.C., I found myself immersed in the civil rights activities emulated by my parents, my rabbis and my teachers, and the JCC was often the staging place for sojourns down to the Soviet Embassy, where we stood vigil even in the dead of winter, and rallies to inspire us to continue to rescue those held captive in Jewish communities we knew nothing about, in places like Iran and Ethiopia. The JCC served as a launch pad for social justice. As the gates of the
Soviet Unionrelaxed, I would later, as a worker, include and sometimes inject Russian children among the Americans, who soon found a common language embedded in their baseball cards and soccer balls.
The places of the JCC that were the most meaningful were often the most mundane, corridors and passageways which offered unbridled safety where a teenager could lurk among peers, where we were felt virtually unsupervised yet knew a grown up was not far if needed. One of those places was the gymnasium, where I practiced and performed as the co-captain of the JCC cheerleaders, and where we played host to basketball teams from
Boston, cadres of teens spending Saturday nights competing and then communing. The banners of the two championships won by the JCC of Greater Washington Maccabi Basketball Team still hang in that gym, testament to the reverence for which we hold our cherished memories. A recent reunion elicited laughter and wistfulness as we reflected and reveled in the past.
While the JCC’s Nautilis and squash gave way to Cybex and Spinning, the bumper pool gave way to Play Station, and the print shop gave way to Pagemaker, the co-mingling of sports, culture and education has never stopped. The sound of Seniors tap dancing above my youth department office in the mornings was followed by the blaring of drums next door in the afternoons – once an annoyance and now music to the ears of my memory. It is this music I remember the most.
The 300-seat theatre was a laboratory for creativity, and when its lights dimmed, anything could happen. A cacophony of sound spilled out of the theatre doors – from Klezmer to classical – nearly everyday – and the most beautiful sound was that of violin bows guided along strings by students gaining mastery of Mozart, some alone and some part of a grand symphony.
In that theatre magic was made - somehow Ronald Reagan appeared, after being airlifted to the JCC roof, as did Simon Wiesenthal, miles of stantions corralling the throngs that came to hear him.
Sitting next to my father in that theatre so many years ago, I was stunned by images flashing across a screen of children my own age and their poetry and paintings, children who were ripped from the world just two decades before I was born. As I watched “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” I saw my father’s tears in the darkened room and knew that he was grateful I was learning in such a sensitive way the stories and the horror he could not bring himself to tell me about.
It was on the stage of that theatre that I gained grandeur, glory and thus self esteem as part of the cast of ‘Oklahoma’, frolicking through an entirely Hebrew script of songs – the memory of the words to ‘Poor Jud is Dead’ in Hebrew lingering much longer than algebra equations and much more relevant to my future life than the manipulation of the slide rule.
I literally danced and sang through the JCC, which was a meeting place for all things Jewish. In the JCC spaces my Midrasha Hebrew High choir belted out ‘Machar’ – singing of a hopeful tomorrow in Israel; my synagogue confirmation class rehearsed ‘Shalom Rav’ over and over again, and my Israeli dance instructor Rocky Korr barked out commands and cat calls to us – ‘Yeminite right! Yeminite left.’
When I came to work at the JCC, I merely knocked on the door and found my way home, never looking back again to my newspaper career I left behind. The post-college years of political advocacy and journalistic quests were quite provocative and seemed at the time to be earth-shaking, but by no means gave me the real tools to shape the world. What I found was that the world is shaped by certain tools that I already held in my hand and in my repertoire, tools I had learned to use in the living spaces of the JCC. Those tools were paint brushes, soccer balls and rolling pins.
Those tools and the skills I had learned at the JCC were the only tools that worked and it was Sara’s insights that I reached for when, during my post-college year in Israel, I found myself resettling Ethiopian refugees with whom I had no common language, when I wanted to connect to my chevre from South Africa, India, England and France, and when I wanted to break through to a girl in a foster children’s village. It was only when I baked spongy and bitter bread with my new Ethiopian friends, kicked a soccer ball around with my international Ulpan peers, and sculpted a vase with the girl who would trust no one, that I began to connect with people in a meaningful way.
I became a master of those tools at the JCC of Greater Washington, which connected people of all walks of life together in the most jubilant and meaningful ways, with the most inspiring of teachers and the most meaningful of relationships, from the colleagues who encamped with me to produce endless Chanukah and Purim festivals, to the youth leaders with whom I engaged to help produce the next generation of Jewish leaders of Young Judaea, Tzofim, Habonim, USY, BBYO – all coming together for mutual purposes and forming a powerful and eclectic Jewish collective.
Some 37 years after the groundbreaking, my life continues to be enriched by these memories, sustaining me now as I know they will sustain me in the future as I continue my Jewish journey. For it is these memories that illuminate the future for me and offer me the vision for the days and years to come. Perhaps it is because I have hit mid-life that I can understand that my vision of the future is in many ways a reflection of my past. My future Jewish Journey seems like an insurmountable quest to project into the future those values of the past and the wisdom and spirit which emanated from that sacred place – the JCC of Greater Washington. I will try to forge the way and to emulate as a role model, or dugma, everything I learned about Jewish community – which I learned from my teachers like Sara and in the corridors of that sacred space – the JCC of Greater Washington.
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Monday, January 19, 2009

Xena the Warrior Princess

For my women friends~
I was sorting our my address book and realized as I was making updates how many wonderful women I have the good fortune to know. In one of my (typical) moments of unbridled inspiration, I wrote this short piece for you:

When my five-year-old son Sam was an infant he needed to sleep on my stomach - for at least the first four months, which meant I literally did not sleep for four months. Which made it quite challenging and exhausting to go back to work 8 weeks after he was born, where after a triple latte each morning I began my work day managing/supervising Early Childhood, Adult Services, Marketing and Sports & Fitness at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. When I was up all night I used to watch "ABC World News Now" and I was very well informed, as well as "Zena the Warrior Princess", which came on at 3 a.m. After several months of watching Zena do stunts and flips to knock out all of the bad guys I became convinced, in my sleep deprived haze, that Zena was All Powerful, certainly more powerful than the Male Warriors. And I decided that that was what I would become, a Warrior Princess. That if I continued with my tai-chi (zen) like defensive posturing, keeping up my guard but leveling blows when necessary, all the while maintaining my spirit and zest, I would indeed be just as Powerful as the Men. And this methodology has served me well.

Just now Sam was watching the Power Rangers, and I was fascinated by the latest episode where the Male Ranger who is very attractive did not succeed in taking down the Female Monster with his charm. He was actually afraid to fight her. Then the Girl Ranger fought and won. Sam said he thought the Girl Ranger was much more powerful because she was just better at the stunts and sometimes smarter (just as smart) and certainly directive in her actions.

While I was the Chief Operating Officer of the JCC of Orange County I offered to help my Children's Director one day by taking over the mini-camp/doing direct service. I took the children into the gym and while the boys shot baskets, I did a cheerleading clinic with the girls, reclaiming some of my old cheerleading moves. Then the girls decided they wanted to be Princesses and began to do make believe/costume dress up/make up. But one of the little girls refused to do the make-believe/dress up but insisted she was indeed a Princess, a Most Powerful Princess. She was very petite and feminine and at 8 years old had a real sense of herself. Her name was Zena.

I said to her, "Zena, you are a Warrior Princess. You should always walk with your head up like you are doing now, look people squarely in the eyes, and be yourself." When her dad came to get her I told him how special I thought Zena was, and he acknowledged that he was indeed proud to be father of such a luminous and self-assured girl.

Sometimes I think about Zena. I hope that when she turns 14, and 21, and 31, and 40, when she faces the exciting and sometimes excruciating challenges that happen in Life during those stages when one is being honest, bold and themselves, that she conquers all of the obstacles, roadblocks and sometimes even demons that stand in her path, all the while maintaining her youthful luminescence and indomitable spirit. It is girls like Zena I remember when I myself get tired and feel like stopping. I think about all of the Zenas of the world who I have met, who are already on a path, who are teaching the world about unique feminine leadership, employing boldness, determination and inspiration, and maintaining their own sense of self as they emerge as Women in Leadership. For their sake alone I myself will never stop as I continue down the road, sometimes weary and sometimes energized, always holding the torch for the Zenas who follow close behind. Sometimes I do stop on the path but only to turn around and look for Zena for inspiration. And I recognize her - I see her and know that the day will come that I will hand her my own torch. And this makes the journey bearable, meaningful and even exhilarating.

With love to all of the Zenas who I know and will meet,


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Trust - children

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