Becoming part of the community: Non-Jews leading Jewish institutions

Brooke Bowles and Brian Cain

By Richard Friedman

They both are tall, friendly, energetic and passionate. They’ve each spent the bulk of their careers in fields different from what they are doing today. They are admired and valued. And they both have stepped forward to provide leadership for the Jewish community since Oct. 7, guiding and inspiring their constituencies.

Brooke Bowles and Brian Cain also have one other thing in common. They are not Jewish, yet they head two of Birmingham’s major Jewish institutions. Bowles has been executive director of the Levite Jewish Community Center for 15 months and Cain has been head of school at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School for three years.

During their tenure, they have overseen a period of significant growth and prosperity for each of their institutions. The LJCC is more financially healthy today than it has been in recent memory and the NEMJDS is experiencing an influx of students that it has not seen in years. Many give much of the credit to Bowles and Cain for these achievements, pointing to their strong and focused leadership.

They also have skillfully built a vast array of relationships, mostly with people they didn’t even know a few years ago — from Jewish community members to donors to families that use their institutions and staff colleagues within the Jewish community.

Most Jewish agencies, in local communities and nationally, have Jews leading them professionally. Yet, while it is atypical to not only have one director who isn’t Jewish but also to have two, especially in a smaller community, Bowles and Cain said they felt welcomed from day one.

At the same time, they acknowledge there were questions about making them, both of whom started out as interim directors filling vacancies, permanent heads of their agencies. Still, both the LJCC and NEMJDS boards thought it was the right way to go.

Today, many Jewish community members agree that Bowles and Cain have turned out to be great assets and ambassadors for Birmingham’s Jewish community. They literally walk the walk as they often can be found roaming the corridors of their institutions, exuding warmth and creating connections with everyone they encounter.

“Still learning”

Bowles came out of the non-profit sector where, among other things, she started an agency to help people with disabilities prepare for and enter the job market. She first became involved with the LJCC as a volunteer, then joined the staff as development director, then became interim director before becoming permanent director.

“I never imagined myself in this role and have had a lot to learn — and am still learning,” said Bowles. “However, I love the work I am doing, believe that we can have a great LJCC that not only enriches our Jewish community but also serves the broader community and I am so proud of what we are achieving.”

Since coming aboard, the LJCC has expanded its Jewish offerings and its outreach to vulnerable communities in Birmingham, such as adults with autism and inner-city kids who otherwise would not have access to the kind of facilities the LJCC offers. “Even at a young age, I cared about people in need and have quickly learned that my passion for helping people fits perfectly within the Jewish commitment to Tikkun Olam — repairing the world,” said Bowles.

Allison Weil, a past LJCC president, said Bowles “embodies dedication and passion. She is a warm, funny and compassionate leader; one who shows through her actions that she is a true leader. Through her tireless efforts and exceptional work ethic, Brooke quickly rose through the ranks. Her ascent is a testament to her outstanding performance and devotion to our agency’s cause. Brooke’s leadership exemplifies the inclusivity and diversity that the LJCC embraces, showcasing how individuals from all backgrounds can contribute meaningfully to our success.”

Cain was a long-time educator in the Vestavia and Hoover school systems. A member of the Jewish community who knew Cain suggested him as an interim head of school, and that grew into the permanent position he holds today.

He loves the NEMJDS. Cain glides through the school like a Pied Piper, drawing teachers, kids and parents to him. He is a passionate and effective ambassador for what the school offers and is committed to advancing the well-being of his students, encouraging them at every turn. “What we have here is extraordinary,” he said as he walked through the school. “It is a best kept secret, and my job is to tell the story far and wide.” His energy and love for kids animates every conversation.

A past NEMJDS board president, Brooke Kaplan, reflected on Cain’s impact: “What we did not expect was how quickly he would embrace not only the Day School family but also the greater Jewish community. What makes Brian a natural leader in an educational setting is his absolute love of teaching which reaches across all age groups. This passion even draws in parents and lay leaders to support the success of the Day School students.”

These two agency leaders have become good friends. Bowles and Cain talk almost every day, support each other and advocate for the other’s institution. The collaboration between their agencies — from sharing space and staff to promoting the other’s mission — has been exemplary.

“Never any question”

Like everything else in the Jewish world, their institutions — and their lives — turned upside down on Oct. 7. Bowles and Cain instinctively understood what the impact of that day meant for the Jewish community and swung into action, making sure their agencies were secure and the people within them felt safe.

Bowles turned the LJCC lobby into a community living room for people to support one another and had the LJCC host a community rally with 700 people in attendance and another 1100 watching online. She also began helping the Birmingham Jewish Federation by speaking to groups in the broader Birmingham community about the conflict and rising antisemitism, and raising dollars for the BJF’s Israel Emergency Campaign.

“Only by being in the Jewish community, could I begin to understand what Oct. 7 meant to the Jewish community. The impact on me professionally and personally was and still is profound,” said Bowles, who was scheduled to go on a BJF trip to Israel on Oct. 10, which was cancelled, and on a national Jewish Community Centers directors trip a few weeks ago, which also was cancelled.

Cain’s post-Oct. 7 challenge was something he — and no one else — could have imagined. Israeli families who had connections to Birmingham were arriving almost without warning, and Cain and his faculty had to make plans in real-time to accommodate an influx of students that tested the capabilities of the school.

“There was never any question,” said Cain. “We were going to rise to the challenges, step forward and embrace these families and affirm to our students, parents, faculty and community the teaching that I have become familiar with through my work: All Jews are responsible for one another.”

What’s ahead for these two Jewish community leaders? Plenty.

Even with the challenges that continue to stem from Oct. 7, they are poised for continued growth, filled with optimism about the future of their institutions and say over and over that fate and good fortune have brought them to the right place at the right time in their lives.

“The school has become a second home to me. It is where I belong. It is where I continue to grow. It is a place that I love,” said Cain as he adjusted his kippah.

“I never could have imagined that I would come to know Shabbat and so many other beautiful aspects of the Jewish faith and culture,” said Bowles, as she watched a LJCC pre-school Shabbat program, covering her eyes as Jewish women do as the candle-lighting blessing was said.