New J Life program aims to foster direct, creative family interactions under arts umbrella


The Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore is always looking for new ways to engage the Baltimore area’s Jewish population. With the launch of J Life, its new family engagement platform, the JCC is hoping to reach out to families and their children, and get them more involved.

Rabbi Ariel Platt (Courtesy)

“We have many families with children enrolled in the Early Learning Center who are Jewish, but the most Jewish thing they do is send their kids to a Jewish preschool,” said Sara Shalva, the JCC of Greater Baltimore’s chief arts officer. “We want them to have meaningful Jewish experiences; we want their families to really engage in Jewish life. J Life is really a platform for intergenerational family engagement.”

J Life is the brainchild of Shalva and Melissa Seltzer, senior director of arts and culture at the JCC, and falls under the center for arts and culture Rabbi Ariel Platt serves as its director. The program is open to Jewish families of all kinds, including interfaith, multi-racial and LGBTQ families who are interested in getting more in touch with their religion.

Seltzer said the idea is to draw “the whole family in and meet them where they are on their Jewish journey.”

“We make it fun and creative,” she noted. “We aim to make everyday moments sacred, to offer something everyone can attach to, to bring it all full-circle. It’s about creating connections with the entire community.” (See more on Melissa Seltzer on Page 9, “You Should Know.”)

Platt described the program as “the sprinkles on the ice-cream or cupcake [of Judaism], brightening up people’s lives,” supplementing regular Jewish education with family- and kid-friendly activities on the JCC campus — from community-wide events and festivals to smaller activities and classes.

“Our tagline is: ‘Joyful Jewish experiences,’ ” she said. “That is very much what my job is — bringing joyful Jewish experiences to everyone, which is the best gift I could think of and the best job.”

J Life is largely supported by funding from the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, dedicated to providing financial support to Jewish activities and community institutions in the Baltimore area. President Elizabeth Minkin said that J Life’s focus on diversity and accommodation made it important to fund.

“Now, more than ever, institutions must ensure that they are welcoming, innovative and relevant to everyone, regardless of a family’s Jewish affiliation or level of knowledge or practice,” she said in the press release announcing J Life’s official launch.

‘It’s the spark’

The Jewish community has changed a great deal since the JCC of Greater Baltimore was founded in 1854, making it the oldest JCC in America. Shalva notes that Jewish Community Centers were originally founded by German Jews in order to help other Jewish immigrants to assimilate into the American workforce and culture by teaching trades.

More than 150 years later, “they are much more in the work of reminding [Jewish] Americans that they are Jewish,” said Shalva. “And instilling a pride in Jewish identity in Jews who are only sort of engaged in Jewish life.

“We want to be a place where parents don’t just drop off their kids for the afternoon,” she added. “We want to be a place where we provide opportunities for the entire family to learn and experience meaningful Jewish life.”

Shalva also noted the isolation caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which took away spontaneous face-to-face communication for a good 18 months, has made it more important than ever for people to have the opportunity to have direct social interactions with others in their community.

Platt and the other JCC staff involved with the program already have a lot of plans for future J Life events. The Sukkot-themed Harvest Music Festival and the Illumination Celebration in honor of Hanukkah are both part of the platform, and they are working with the Early Learning Center to create events geared towards young children. The J Life press release also hints at events taking place at the Shapiro Aquatics Park, the Gordon Center, and the JCC’s various outdoor trails and playgrounds.

“I really think that J Life is about empowering people to create meaningful Jewish experiences on their own,” said Platt. “It’s the starting point for that … it’s the spark.”

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