It’s rare these days to come across job longevity; it’s rarer still to discover those who not only relish a position but seek to continually improve it.
Barak Hermann is one such job-holder. CEO of the JCC of Greater Baltimore for the past 10 years, he seems to be just getting started. The 52-year-old resident of Owings Mills notes this is his most extensive employment to date, having previously worked at Jewish Community Centers in New York and New Jersey.
Engaging Jewish community are the words he stresses when discussing trends in his field. It is the JCC, insists Hermann, where people should feel safe and their authentic selves, and participate in dynamic programming. “We’d love the JCC to be that third place,” he says, after home and work.
That is significant, especially after more than two years of a pandemic that merged home and work into a single entity, and kept crowds out of places like gyms, recreational areas and large gathering places. COVID-19 came on the heels of transformational change at the JCC, notes Hermann, who along with his staff aims to give area residents and visitors alike “something they cannot get elsewhere.”
“This is not your grandparents Jewish Y anymore,” he says of the institution that dates back to 1854 — the oldest in North America. (It started out as the Hebrew Young Men’s Literary Association at the corner of Fayette and Gay streets to help Jewish immigrants, supported by the Jewish Welfare Board.) Hermann says that after having spearheaded vast improvements in the facilities, programs and personnel (the JCC employs more than 600 people). “We must excel in all of these sectors; we have no choice.”
Hermann acknowledges that it takes a few years to learn about and understand a community, and then several more to foster change. A strategic plan under his watch in the past decade divided the facility into three centers: arts and culture; sports and wellness; and youth and families. The goal was to be indispensable across the board, to advocate inclusiveness and in these ways meet the needs of a modern-day Jewish community that has changed significantly in the 21st century.
“We’ve worked very hard to use data to guide us,” he points out, attributing this to the fact that the JCC is not only surviving post-COVID, but thriving. “We’re proud that we have a place that’s so welcoming, a meeting place that makes everyone feel comfortable to be there, to be ‘the best me’ there.”
‘Team understands mission’
Hermann recognizes the power of such connection more than most. He and his wife, Cory, met at an overnight camp run by the Reform movement (she is a Jewish communal professional as well, serving as the director of education at the Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore) and have been married for 25 years. They are the parents of three boys: Jacob, 23; Zachary, 20: and Jonah, 16.
A native of Long Island, N.Y., Hermann studied hospitality and management at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island — something he puts to the test every day. He also holds a Bachelor of Applied Science degree from Stony Brook University and a master’s degree in social work from Yeshiva University, along with other certificates in his field.
Hermann is a fan of exercise, outdoor breweries and live music, and family and friends. He remains a diehard Yankees fan (“I’m surprised that they allowed my Yankee pinstripes to last so long”), but now follows the Orioles and “won’t make a move without first checking the Ravens schedule.”
He adds that he has been “enamored of Baltimore and the dynamics of a smaller city,” as well as the pride felt by the Jewish community in all things local. That goes for JCC staff, “a team that understands its mission and is laser-focused,” and has helped get back 80% of pre-pandemic membership and 100% for JCamps and other programs.
To that end, when asked about which area of the facility is the most bustling, the one place that’s never empty, he gets right down to the basics even before a door opens or a locker clicks shut. Not hesitating for a moment, he responds: “the parking lot.”