Here at the Mayerson JCC, great things happen every day. See the J’s impact by-the-numbers in our Impact Report below, and hear the incredible stories of our members and community in their own words.Impact Report (PDF)
“This trip really connected me to my roots.”
Alex Karev always identified as a Jew, but never really saw himself as Jewish. That changed dramatically this past May, when Alex represented Jewish teens and the Cincinnati community on an international stage during the March of the Living.
A recent Sycamore High School graduate, Alex was very involved in athletics and didn’t have time for activities like BBYO. The school boasts a large Jewish student population, so as Alex settled in for his senior year last fall, many of his friends started talking about the March of the Living, a two-week trip to Poland and Israel that teaches teens about the Holocaust in the places where it happened, and then transitions them to experience the joy of Israeli independence. Alex decided to take a chance and attend one of the information sessions. He quickly realized that he couldn’t pass up this incredible journey.
March of the Living focuses on creating connections between then and now, and between participants and their forebears. This past spring, teen delegates prepared for the trip during pre-trip sessions led by the J and the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center.
“The pre-trip seminars exemplified the human connection of it. It was hard to envision the things you’re going to see, but having firsthand accounts from people made it that much easier to grasp,” Alex said. “It made me want to go more. I felt like I needed to see it for myself.”
While in Poland, one of the Cincinnati delegation leaders asked Alex to come talk with her. “At first, I was worried I might be in trouble!” Alex laughed. “Then she turned to me and asked me to be a torch lighter representing the United States of America.” The Cincinnati delegation had been selected to lead the 20 United States delegations during the March, and Alex was selected by his fellow delegates to participate in the torch lighting during the International March of the Living ceremony on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah).
“I didn’t know what to say,” Alex said. “The Cincinnati delegation is a tiny family in comparison to other delegations; New York had 300 people, LA brought 250.” Again, Alex recognized the opportunity of a lifetime within the trip of a lifetime. Before an audience of thousands of people from all over the world, with the gates of Auschwitz in the background, Alex joined fellow student participants from Mexico, Argentina, and Morocco for the ceremony. The students sat alongside Holocaust survivors and international dignitaries including prime ministers and U.S. ambassadors to light the six torches which commemorate the six million Jewish people who died during the Holocaust, the victims of other genocides, and which honor the survivors who rebuilt their lives.
“This trip really connected me to my roots. It made me want do things I thought I’d never do,” Alex reflected. “I had my first Shabbat dinner on the trip. I want to do Hillel in college. It’s cool to be super-connected to your faith; it adds to my identity.”
“No matter your background or what sect you’re a part of, the J brings people together.”
On any given day, you’re likely to see at least one member of the Brafman family around the J. Marc and Shana Brafman first met in Sunday School at Temple Sholom. They later worked together as camp counselors, then spent several years in Chicago after college before moving back to Cincinnati. Upon their return, they immediately joined the J. “It was important for us to have a connection to the Jewish community, and the J offered that,” Shana said.
Their daughter Maya needed a place to finish preschool, and enrolled at the Early Childhood School. As the kids grew, they became even more involved with the J. Jacob plays on the Blue Jays baseball team, which Marc helps to coach. Marc also serves on JCC Softball Commission and is a Captain of his team. He’s serving on the committee for the J’s first Father-Daughter Dance in November 2019.
Shana has volunteered at the J’s annual golf outing, where she loved connecting with new people while coordinating the raffle. She works out at the J nearly every day, and loves the social aspect of her workouts: “It’s motivating to know that my girlfriends are going to be there. When the kids were younger, it was helpful to have childcare available so that I could work out or get a massage while they were entertained in the building.”
In fact, the kids often request having a “J Day.” The family arrives in the morning and the kids are off to play with their friends while Shana gets in a quick workout. They meet up for lunch in the J Café – pizza is their favorite! – before visiting Toby in the PJ Library Patch and ending the day with a swim, playtime in the Aquatic Center and time in the gym shooting hoops. “Earlier this week, we were here from 9:15am-4pm!” Shana said.
“This truly is our second home. Our kids are so comfortable here, and I feel safe here. The kids know how to get everywhere, and everyone knows who they are, and helps watch them.”
Marc loves seeing his kids enjoy the J the way he did growing up: “I think about the kid version of me at the old J. I watched my dad play in the softball league in the 80s, and now Jacob is like the team mascot when I play. My goal is to play until he plays!”
One of the appeals of softball and their experience of the J itself is the connections the family has formed. “The genius of that league is that you get to play with different people every year,” Marc said. “We have a large network of friends just because of the J,” Shana said. “No matter your background or what sect you’re a part of, the J brings people together.”
“We still get together with people from Honeymoon Israel at least once a month.”
Carly & Michael Kahan
Carly and Michael Kahan have both been active in the Cincinnati Jewish community throughout their lives, yet their paths rarely crossed. Carly grew up attending Wise Temple while Michael went to Rockdale Temple and Temple Sholom. They both traveled to Israel in high school, Michael on NFTY in Israel and Carly on March of the Living, and each couldn’t wait to go back.
The perfect opportunity came along years later, after the couple had met and later married. In 2018, the J and the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati partnered with Honeymoon Israel to bring this incredible trip for young couples to Cincinnati.
“I saw on social media that a friend who went to Sycamore and now lives in LA went on Honeymoon Israel, and it looked amazing!” Carly said. “We knew we might not get the chance to go again, maybe ever or at least for 30-40 years once we have kids, so we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Carly and Michael joined 19 other couples as part of Cincinnati’s inaugural Honeymoon Israel trip. A series of pre-trip sessions and a group chat on the trip’s Facebook page enabled the couples to get to know each other better in the months leading up to the trip. “For having grown up in the Jewish community and being pretty well connected, we still got to meet new people and share this experience with new friends,” Michael said.
The journey itself was better than Carly and Michael had imagined. Dedicated travel plans made the trip stress-free and easy, and the excellent hotel stays made Honeymoon Israel a luxury experience. Throughout Honeymoon Israel, the group experienced Israeli culture and history in ways they never could on their own. It was particularly special to experience Hanukkah in Israel:
“It was nice to be surrounded by it,” Carly said. “It gets so overshadowed in the U.S. that it was nice to be among ‘our people,’ to see families lighting menorahs outside and witnessing all of the celebrations.”
One of the highlights for Carly and Michael was getting to know their fellow participants even better while on the trip. “The trip itself had its intense moments and discussions, so it was fun to connect with people at the end of the day, go out together at night, just letting loose and being normal,” Carly said. “We still get together with people from Honeymoon Israel at least once a month,” added Michael.
So what was the most meaningful part of the entire experience? “Just disconnecting, spending ten days together in Israel – life is so busy day-to-day that it’s hard to get that much dedicated time to spend together,” Carly said. “We’re both Jewish and we both knew we wanted to raise our children Jewish, but if it’s possible, this trip cemented that even more for us. It really helped us become more rooted.”
“Joining the Mayerson JCC proved to be life-changing for me.”
“Joining the Mayerson JCC proved to be life-changing for me,” says Laney Rothschadl. One of the first-ever winners of both Commit to Be Fit and follow-up fitness challenge Stick with It, Laney’s success reaches far beyond her incredible physical transformation.
Laney and her husband moved to Cincinnati from Colorado to be closer to his family, but working from home didn’t allow Laney many opportunities to meet people in her new city. She began to search for a place where she could go to form new connections in Cincinnati. “There are like 25 gyms between my house and the J, but I wanted more than a gym. I wanted to join a community center,” she said.
She started working with JCC Personal Trainer Nic, who helped her get back into shape following her cross-country move. After jump-starting her progress during Commit To Be Fit 2018, Laney signed up for the challenge again in 2019. Even though her trainer wasn’t leading a challenge group, Nic made sure she was set up for success. “Nic actually went to Traci and told her not to yell at me because I’m shy!” Laney laughed. “Traci is so supportive and encouraging; she really wants you to love yourself and be good to yourself. Nic’s training feeds me intellectually and Traci’s training feeds me emotionally.”
The dual-trainer approach worked; once the challenge started, Traci complimented Nic on how he had helped Laney develop such great form, while her ongoing training with Nic enabled Laney to better track her progress throughout the challenge.
Having a strong female trainer helped push Laney to achieve incredible results during Commit to Be Fit. She won the J’s most popular fitness challenge after losing an incredible 21% of her body weight. She even took home the top prize from follow-up challenge Stick With It, thanks in part to the support she received from her trainer, her coach, and her challenge teammates.
But the real strength Laney discovered was the joy of being herself and finding home in her new city. “Participating in Commit To Be Fit broke down that first wall and helped give me back to myself. I’m better now at self-advocating and doing things that are outside my comfort zone.”
Laney has started to meet new friends everywhere: in the Fitness Center and in her community. “I know that it had to start with me,” Laney said. “But it wouldn’t have been the same somewhere else. There are people here who care about you. Here, you’re already good enough, and they just want you to be even better.”
“There’s something wonderful about finding new parts of your faith and expanding your Jewish network.”
Parents always want to find ways for their children to become active and involved in a community.For the Friend family, it became an even higher priority to find a place where youngest daughter Emily, who has autism, could be comfortable. Around the time Emily was three years old, the family started looking for a place where she could spend time in the water year-round, because kids on the spectrum can often more easily find their center and maintain their physical activity in the water. When they found the J, they knew they were home.
It took less than a week for the JCC Aquatics staff to get to know Emily, her personality, and how she reacts to different environments, when it normally takes people a few interactions a week over several weeks to get to know her. The family was moved to see how quickly the staff understood Emily’s needs and found ways to adapt procedures to fit her needs.
Soon, time spent with her family in the Aquatic Center led big sister Madelyn to develop her skill and love for the sport; she continues to swim competitively. Now in second grade, Emily started private swim lessons at the J this winter. While her lessons present some new challenges in communication, Aquatics Director Sam Castellini has formed a strong relationship with Emily, based on mutual respect, communication, and by embracing the things about her that are different.
When you work with people who haven’t been trained in a special education environment, you’re never sure how it will work out,” says Emily’s mom, Mandy. “But the J has become a second home for our family.”
Several JCC staff members know the entire family by name. “We always know the people working the front desk and fitness desk – Emily practices her communication skills from the time she enters, to the time she leaves.”
They’ve also enjoyed the unique opportunities to deepen their relationship with the Jewish community at the J. “Sometimes, we find ourselves swimming with our rabbis over Christmas break!” Mandy said. “There’s something wonderful about finding new parts of your faith and expanding your Jewish network.”
Swim lessons for the Friends are a family affair. The girls have their lessons, and then the entire family enjoys the Aquatic Center together – swimming in the current pool, going down the slide, and enjoying the outdoor pool in the summer. For them, the J is a comfortable place that feels like home, where the entire family feels accepted and appreciated for who they are.
“We knew the value of the J to the community, and we wouldn’t have wanted to be involved in a community without a JCC.”
Stacey Schimberg and her family wanted to get in on the ground floor at the Mayerson JCC. A South Florida native, Stacey and her husband David moved to Cincinnati in 1993. In 2004, along with their children Adam and Carly, the family moved to Amberley Village as plans for the construction of the current facility were getting underway.
“We knew the value of the J to the community, and we wouldn’t have wanted to be involved in a community without a JCC,” Stacey said. These new Amberley residents were thrilled that the J would be so close to their new home, and contributed to the capital campaign that enabled this incredible building to become reality.
Once the J opened in 2008, Stacey knew she wanted to do more. She sought the advice of friends who were actively involved within the Cincinnati Jewish community, and soon joined the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati’s Women’s Philanthropy (WP). A friend and fellow WP member recommended Stacey to join the Mayerson JCC Jewish & Israeli Film Festival committee; Stacey accepted, and hasn’t looked back.
The 2020 Film Festival will be Stacey’s sixth as a member of the committee, and her fourth as Committee Chair. The Festival has grown tremendously – from featuring six films in its early years, to now showing 13 films over the course of a month. Stacey has worked to make the Festival feel bigger, transforming Opening Night and Closing Night into hot-ticket events that bring in world-renowned guests.
The Film Festival Committee has grown to include 15 people, offering greater representation in terms of backgrounds, ages, gender, and more. This diversity presents a wider spectrum of opinions on which films under consideration should be included in the Festival, which has led to showing films of all genres, representing different countries.
As Cincinnati’s only Jewish & Israeli Film Festival, this signature program is one of the most outward-facing programs presented by the J and represents the local Jewish community. Stacey recognizes the importance of sharing Jewish and Israeli stories with Greater Cincinnati by taking Film Festival events to theatres throughout the city and inviting experts from diverse organizations to speak on relevant topics. Stacey, a current JCC board member, is proud that the Film Festival exemplifies the best that the J has to offer: incredible Jewish culture, openness to conversations, and a chance to gather with people of all backgrounds throughout Cincinnati.
“The J is truly a community center. Here, you get a sense of the community and you connect with people.”
Joseph, Jerry & Eric
They appear to be an unlikely trio of friends when you see them around the J, but Joseph Cable, Jerry Klein, and Eric Smith have found connection, inspiration, and support in one another.
Joseph joined the J in April 2018, after thinking about joining every day for nearly six months. As a young adult, he had struggled to form healthy eating habits and to exercise consistently; combined with some emotional issues caused him to gain weight, eventually weighing more than 300 pounds. Now in his early 30s, he knew it was time to make significant changes. “I knew it would only get harder as I got older,” he said.
He had struggled to feel comfortable at other gyms, but found the community atmosphere of the J inviting. “You have to be able to feel comfortable, and it’s hard to do that at a heavy weight,” Joseph said. “But if you can’t get comfortable, you can’t start that journey.” He started slow, coming in for about 30 minutes each day. He took his time getting started, cleaning up his diet and taking weekly pictures to track his progress. “When I first started, I tended to be pretty quiet. But in my profession [as an EMT], I tend to be aware and notice who’s around. I would always see these two guys here in the afternoons. I knew I had no excuse not to change my life if these two could be here so consistently too.”
Jerry has been a fixture in the Cincinnati Jewish community for years. A former board member for the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, he has been actively using the J for nearly five years, since around the time he lost his sight due to diabetic retinopathy. He became connected with Eric, his guide, and they started walking at the J together 3-4 times per week. Jerry and Eric have become well-known around the J for their endless positivity.
“I like it here because it’s a rec center and a community center; everybody seems to know you, or is happy to get to know you,” Eric said. “That’s how we got to know Joe. We’d see Joe walking – not lifting weights or anything, just dedicated to walking. The more we saw each other walking, the more we’d get to talking. It’s a nice way to decompress from everything that’s going on in the world.”
Eric was the first person to notice and comment on Joseph’s transformation. His consistent workouts, which grew to last 2–2.5 hours a day as he became more comfortable at the J, have helped him shed more than 100 pounds over nearly 18 months. “Everyone started to notice after that,” Joseph said. “Now every single time I see them, it’s a handshake or a hug and a ‘You’re doing awesome.’”
As they walk through the Fitness Center, they stop to say hi to familiar faces, or give a friendly word of encouragement to fellow members, bringing a smile to everyone’s faces. “The J is truly a community center,” Eric said. “Here, you get a sense of the community and you connect with people.”