The Jewish Journal staff had an opportunity to speak with incoming JCC CEO Mike Rawl who begins his new role later this month.
Mike, first and foremost, Mazal Tov on your new appointment. If you would, please introduce us to your family.
Thank you. I’m excited to join the JCC this month and our family is looking forward to relocating in 2021. I’m so proud of my family. My wife Adrienne is an early childhood educator who works with special needs children. She grew up in the Youngstown, Ohio area and is incredibly passionate about her work. She’s the hardest working person I know and every day is an inspiration for me. We are the proud parents of 5 incredible children. Our oldest, Violet, who is named for my grandmother, turns 15 in December. She is currently a freshman in High School and is actively involved in BBYO. Our second child is 12 year-old Ivy who is preparing to become a Bat Mitzvah next April. Our third born and first son is Thomas who just turned 11. Thomas is named for my grandfather’s nephew who was killed in Auschwitz when, ironically, he was just 10. Growing up, my grandfather could never utter Thomas’ name without being overwhelmed with emotion. It was particularly meaningful for us to keep the name Thomas alive and to honor our family’s legacy. And now, to see our Thomas so full of life is really special. Our fourth child and second son is Lawren, named for my grandfather Lawrence, and he turns 5 in January. Finally, our youngest is Juniper, the sweetest little girl, who turns 3 on November 1st. We are so incredibly fortunate to have healthy and happy children. We also have two hounds, Elsa and Bella, and ten chickens.
What do you do for fun?
“Free” time of course with this kind of work is limited but at the same time I’ve been able to integrate family in my work and feel very lucky about that. I like reading and playing music, which is to say, I attempt to play the piano! As a family, we spend a lot of time in the outdoors, and enjoy swimming, hiking and backpacking. I also love to build things. At home, I’ve created and manage a garden and built an aquaponics community in my basement. I’m fascinated by how systems work.
I know that you are a volunteer leader in your Temple in Youngstown, tell us a bit about your connections to Judaism.
I believe that Judaism is both a birthright but also a choice particularly in how one integrates Jewish values and practice into daily living. One of my fondest early Jewish memories is sitting on the bima with the Rabbi and being able to ask him questions that probably, in retrospect, would have been considered blasphemy in other religions. So early on, I knew that Judaism encouraged the asking of “big” questions and I really connected with that mindset. I also grew up in a house with a Holocaust survivor and that had a profound influence on how I relate to justice in the world. I also learned about the power and potential of community from having moved so many times as a kid. In every instance, the Jewish community was the constant for me. Because of moving so much, there were large stretches in my childhood when I had few friends and despite my parents making sure I was involved in sports and other activities, it was lonely and the Jewish community was always there with open arms. As I got older I came to really appreciate the depth of Judaism when it comes to the ability for an individual to find their own personal connections. I found my spiritual path in Judaism in unexpected places becoming more conscious of it in High School when I read Jewish authors, many of whom like the poet Alan Ginsburg, who while disconnected organizationally to Judaism spoke with a poignant Jewish voice. In college I took a lot of religious studies courses and they helped me to understand my own unique Jewish experience.
What excites you most about moving to Buffalo?
Adrienne and I like to change things up; we believe that the most effective way to create personal change is to change one’s environment. So while I love my work at the JCC in Youngstown, the opportunity to build community and impact people’s lives in a bigger platform excites and motivates me. I have lived all over the Midwest and Buffalo is one of the most welcoming communities I’ve experienced. And the community’s size, at least for our family, provides so many more opportunities for us and our children.
What are you most proud of in your professional career?
During my time at the JCC in Youngstown, we established numerous innovative community partnerships that helped grow operations by nearly 70%. We completely turned around the organization from one that was struggling both financially and in terms of identity to one that is vibrant and fiscally sound. And this year – as we know among the most challenging – we are on pace to end 2020 with the most successful financial year in our JCC’s history. While many JCCs have been shuttering programs, laying off staff, and taking pay cuts, we have actually grown significantly. I’m so proud that we had built an infrastructure that was able to respond to the pandemic so efficiently and actually quite naturally. And that is my legacy and what gives me the most pride: that the systems and structure I built will continue to be strong, viable and healthy when I’m no longer at the helm.
Thank you so much, Mike. Our last question is about the state of the Jewish community. Please share with us your perspective and the role that the JCC plays in shaping the Jewish community in the future.
We’re in a golden age of the Jewish people. Think of the miracle of Israel since 1948 and the miracles happening in Israel since then in terms of technology. The global Jewish population has grown to a level close to that before the Holocaust and our connections to Jews around the world abounds. In fact, one could argue that Covid has underscored the power and ease in which we connect which other Jews. And for the first time, experiential programs like overnight camp and Israel travel through Birthright is accessible to all who want to engage. At the same time, there are real challenges that we must confront, in particular increasing polarization in the Jewish community that is reflective of the polarization in our society. Questions about who is a Jew and support of Israel have created fractures in our American Jewish communities. The future of the Jewish world certainly rests on our ability to appreciate and see ourselves as Klal Yisrael – one Jewish people. That is part and parcel of the vision I have of the JCC; that on one level we are a physical place where all Jews are welcome, but we are also a place that interfaces with the outside world and builds community for both. So despite the polarization within Judaism and all around us, the JCC provides a platform where we can dialogue, celebrate together, and become more unified.