NEWTON – The path that Lily Rabinoff-Goldman has followed from a teaching career to a major new gig as president and CEO of JCC Greater Boston hasn’t been a traditional one.
Rabinoff-Goldman, who will become the first woman to lead the nearly 75-year-old organization when she takes the helm on July 1, has never worked at a Jewish community center, other than as a lifeguard. She hasn’t run a nonprofit. She’s not a rabbi like Mark Sokoll, who is retiring from the job after 22 years.
Rabinoff-Goldman comes from the arts world, and from a family of artists: Her mother, Anita Rabinoff-Goldman, is a prominent fabric artist, and her younger sister, Davia Mara Rabinoff-Goldman, has a background in apparel design.
“My creative spirit has always taken the form of writing,” said Rabinoff-Goldman, who is currently assistant head of school for teaching and learning at Gann Academy, the Waltham Jewish high school. Her academic credentials include a bachelor’s degree in history from Brown University; master’s degrees in childhood education from the Bank Street College of Education in New York City and in creative writing from UMass Boston; and a doctorate in education from Northeastern University.
“What matters to me professionally is to utilize and activate my creative spirit in the spirit of other missions,” said Rabinoff-Goldman, 40, who lives in Newton. She is married to Rabbi Hillel Greene, an educator at Gann, and they have two young children.
She began her career – with its orientation toward social justice and civic engagement – as a teacher with Teach for America. She spent five years working for education nonprofits, partnering with public schools to tutor and mentor low-income students. A dozen years ago, she went to Gann Academy as an English teacher and coordinator of the school’s writing center, eventually becoming department head and then assistant director of teaching and learning.
Why was she interested in running the JCC, with its 800 full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees and a nearly $24 million budget? It’s considered one of the largest and most successful of the 170 JCCs in North America, according to Doron Krakow, who heads the JCC Association of North America.
“To be honest,” Rabinoff-Goldman said in an interview, “I really led with curiosity.”
She said she “grew up” at the JCC in Albany, starting with baby swim lessons and eventually becoming a lifeguard (the proceeds of which helped her buy her first car, a 1988 Cutlass Sierra). “The deeper I got into the process of interviewing, the more excited I became, partly because Mark has done so much tremendous work, and it’s thriving, and it’s compelling to think about what it means to help lead an organization that means so much to so many different people.”
Although JCC Greater Boston is most closely associated with the bricks-and-mortar Leventhal-Sidman building in Newton, it’s a lot more than that. JCC programs include four preschools, several day camps, early parenting support, a community fitness and aquatics center that serves people with special needs, arts and culture classes, performances and lectures, and Jewish holiday celebrations. “We’re in the Jewish identity business,” said Sokoll.
He likened it to a solar system. “The building is the sun, where we do our creative work and where ideas develop. But it’s a massive enterprise that serves thousands and thousands of people,” he said, constantly adapting to demographic and situational changes. Recently, it stepped up to help in Ukraine, responding to an appeal from the head of JCC Dnipro.
The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated significant shifts in how the JCC engaged families and operated programs. “COVID has helped us reaffirm what a JCC is,” Sokoll said. “We are a regional provider of programs that play a meaningful role in people’s lives. It’s been affirmed as people migrated to virtual platforms [at the JCC] and are now migrating back. Our job is to fill the pipeline for the future of the Jewish community.”
He said a major challenge ahead is how to strategically emerge from the pandemic crisis. But he’s convinced Rabinoff-Goldman is entering her tenure from a position of strength.
“A big part of my task is to think about what’s next, and to ask good questions, and hopefully we will be on the upswing. We’ve all missed community. We’ve missed it so much. So, what are the ways we can take what we’ve learned from the past couple of years, and model a more just and inclusive and vibrant future? I’m so excited to have a seat at the table in thinking about what it means for the Jewish community to keep evolving.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com