New CEO Stephanie Levin sees Nola JCC as a center of inclusion

Stephanie Levin blows the shofar with preschoolers at the New Orleans JCC

After working in the Jewish Community Center world in California for over two decades, Stephanie Levin wants to see the New Orleans JCC become even more open and welcoming to all.

Levin became the CEO of the New Orleans JCC in late June, succeeding Leslie Fischman, who retired after being executive director since 2011. The lead position at the JCC has been renamed with Levin’s arrival.

Levin grew up in San Diego, and was active at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. She started working in the day camp, which had an inclusion program for children with special needs. “Working with that population has been a passion since childhood,” she said.

In third grade, she changed schools, to a school that had a special needs program. As a newcomer who hadn’t made friends with anyone yet, “I felt a connection to these students… I felt I made a special friendship with these children and it stuck with me.” She would find opportunities to volunteer in programs that assisted those students.

Part of her sensitivity to special needs comes from her being hearing impaired. But she says it is an “invisible disability,” though she has worn hearing aids since she was a teenager.

While at Mills College in the San Francisco area, she was contacted by the Peninsula JCC to be a summer staff member, and though she did not know that part of the city and wasn’t familiar with that JCC, she started as assistant day camp director in 1999.

Except for a handful of years, that’s where she was until she came to New Orleans this summer. She was camp director, youth director, program director, and most recently the chief engagement and innovation officer, “which is a role similar to a chief operating officer — adults, youth, Jewish life, security, emergency preparedness.”

She said it is “unusual to be able to grow with the same Center for so long,” but it was “a wonderful community to be part of.”

In the time she was not at the Peninsula JCC, she taught at an integrated therapeutic special education school for children with severe communication disorders including autism. She also managed operations at Berkeley Hillel, served as camp director for Camp Kochav at the JCC of San Francisco, and worked for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Levin is a participant in the fourth class of the Wexner Field Fellowship, a prestigious national fellowship for Jewish professional leaders. She served on the advisory board of JResponse, a signature program of the JCC Association, and the board of Shalom Bayit, the Bay Area Jewish community’s center for domestic violence prevention and response.

A graduate of the Tikea Fellowship for Educators of Jewish Teens, she was awarded the prestigious Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Informal Jewish Education in 2009.

Levin said it was time for a change in her life, and a JCC colleague told her about the New Orleans position, “and had a sense it would be a good match for me.”

Levin noted that she is the fourth female executive at the New Orleans JCC. “As far as I know, this is the only JCC with that length of history with a female executive.”

The JCC, as well as the New Orleans Jewish community overall, has a history of social action. As an example, she said, the JCC is built on the site of the former Jewish Children’s Home. “This city lives its Jewish values.”

Coming from the Bay Area, “I knew I would not be comfortable in a community without significant diversity,” and she was also intrigued by the “resilience” of the New Orleans community.

She encountered that need in California, with nearby devastating wildfires and other disasters, and spent time in Pittsburgh after the Tree of Life shooting. She notes the juxtaposition of communities being “irrevocably changed and simultaneously extraordinarily vibrant and welcoming,” saying “there’s something about the resiliency here, the ability to live in both those places at the same time.”

She saw that first-hand, leading a couple of teen volunteer groups from the Bay Area after Katrina.

The willingness to be available to anyone was also a factor. “I want any place I’m at to be a place where all types of learners, all types of families can be supported.”

Being around people with disabilities as a child “changed my mindset about the world.” She said children want to know what something is, but otherwise “they don’t care, they just want to be friends,” and that exposure “helps us grow better humans.”

She asked, “How do we make the classroom more accessible for children who have different sensory needs or developmental needs.” And supporting those families is also an important component.

When it is discovered that a child has special needs, “It’s very frightening and overwhelming for families, especially with a first child… you have a set of expectations in your mind and when it doesn’t happen that way, there is a lot of grief and fear.”

Levin said that coming back from the Covid years, “the Center has weathered that storm remarkably well,” and “We’re at the precipice of saying we’re back to where we were.” Now, the question is “how else can we serve.”

Levin is still getting to know the community, including other organizations in the general community, where she sees “tremendous opportunities for partnership.”

She said the JCC has a “dedicated staff… they love what they do and are excited to try new things.” They “want to make a difference in the community.”

Levin added, “I want to make sure we are a good neighbor to our Uptown community and Metairie, and the wider community.”

The JCC is unique in that it serves all different faiths, she said, and it is a “special gift” for non-Jews to be able to learn about the Jewish community, especially during a time when antisemitism is on the rise.

Moving forward, she wants to explore “whatever we can do to widen our doors and let people know this is a place for everyone.”