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The MJCCA's Impact

Impact Stories

Sharon Cohen

"The MJCCA changed my life and helped me become an active member of the community."

Sometimes a little nosh can be perfectly filling, but in other cases it only sparks one’s appetite. In August 2017, Sharon Cohen took the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s two-day Taste of Judaism class, and it turned out to be the catalyst that ultimately satiated her desire to find a clear religious identity.

“I had been struggling to find where I fit in terms of faith for a long time. Although I had been married to a Jewish man for 15 years, I had not converted,” she reveals. “Taste of Judaism was advertised as welcoming to anyone curious about Jewish traditions, values, and spirituality, and that was exactly my mindset at the time.”

Sharon appreciated how the instructor, Rabbi Brian Glusman, asked the class to share questions they had about Judaism. “He made it a safe environment and took time to answer every question. I repeatedly felt this overwhelming sense of, ‘Yes, this is what I was searching for, and these are ideas I’ve believed my whole life!’ I loved Judaism’s focus on family, community, history, and doing the right thing. I walked out of that class feeling like I belonged, and I was ready for more.”

Compelled to explore this connection further, Sharon took the MJCCA’s more in-depth Derech Torah classes, and had more heart-to-heart discussions with Rabbi Glusman. During this time, she also began the formal conversion process through her synagogue. “In the early stages, I kept asking Rabbi Glusman for detailed instructions on how to be a good Jewish woman,” she admits. “He told me to focus less on steps and just immerse myself in the Jewish community. After that, it was like a light bulb clicked. I relaxed and was able to enjoy my journey.”

Sharon completed her conversion in October 2018. “I am proud of what I accomplished,” she beams. “The MJCCA changed my life and helped me become an active member of the Jewish community. My family now has a sense of belonging like we never had before. My positive experience with Taste of Judaism showed me how amazing the MJCCA is, and I plan to be a big part of it for a long time. I am forever grateful.”

 

Kim Schneller

"Through the MJCCA I’ve become a better person, and my children have come to know tolerance and inclusion."

It was a Friday night when Kim and CJ Schneller received their then 2-year-old son’s diagnosis. They were told Evan had type 1 (T1) diabetes, and his compulsory care would be “24-7-365, with constant diligence and monitoring of blood sugar levels,” Kim reveals. This life-altering news created a ripple effect of concern, and they wondered whether Evan could return to his beloved preschool community at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s Weinstein School, and if Kim could keep working.

The next day, Kim emailed MJCCA Preschools Director Kim Sucan, to find out if Evan could stay in preschool. Sucan replied that there were systems in place to make it work, and the two planned a ‘T1-101’ training session for Monday evening. When Kim arrived, all three of Evan’s teachers were there. “I teared up instantly,” Kim recalls. “With almost no heads up they were there, bravely willing to learn how to care for my little one, whose pancreas quit working.”

The support they received that week from The Weinstein School was just the beginning. “Twice a year, Evan would change classrooms, which meant new teachers and additional training,” Kim explains. In the meantime, Sucan had the teachers and some

of the administration attend formal training through Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “To say they were accommodating is a drastic understatement,” Kim shares. “There were five, then seven, then 11 people in the building who knew how to care for Evan. It is very difficult for parents of a T1 to feel their child is safe, and yet we never had a doubt because of the support from The Weinstein School.”

“Evan was meticulously cared for every day for more than two years, and yet we were never made to feel like it was a problem,” Kim asserts. “The MJCCA and The Weinstein School have enriched our lives immensely and permanently. The entire preschool team demonstrated such grace, selflessness, and generosity that our opinion of humanity and its capacity for kindness is changed for the better. Through this experience I’ve become a better person, and my children have come to know tolerance and inclusion. We are not Jewish, but the Jewish faith and its traditions and values are now part of our lives, and for that we are extremely grateful.”

 

Kevin Gillese

"I hope I can work with this group again, I’m inspired to do more."

That Was Awesome! The phrase sums up the successful partnership between the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s Spotlight Theatre Company, a program for actors with special needs, and Atlanta-based Dad’s Garage Theatre, led by Artistic Director Kevin Gillese. It’s also the title of the short film they collaborated on, which has been screened at numerous film festivals throughout the Southeast and earned an Audience Award at the DC Shorts Film Festival.

Through the MJCCA, Spotlight participants have the opportunity to be part of an enriching, hands-on theater experience guided by professionals. The ultimate goal is to help these actors gain more self-confidence, self-esteem, social skills, discipline, and motivation — life skills that are useful long after the curtain call.

When Kevin was first approached to lead an improv workshop for the MJCCA’s Spotlight actors, he jumped at the chance. His younger brother Mark has special needs, and Kevin shares, “I had been waiting for an opportunity in my career to do something with the special needs community.”

“I wanted the experience to be impactful,” Kevin explains. “I thought if everyone could experience a real film set and see themselves on the big screen, they could share it with loved ones and have something that lasts forever.” He proposed partnering on a short film and penned a script about a floor hockey team, with a part in mind for each Spotlight actor.

Kevin based That Was Awesome! on his own observations and experiences with his brother. “The film navigates the complexities of adults with special needs, how friends and family can be overprotective, but how that tendency can actually deprive a person with special needs of living a full life.”

Kevin and the cast spent several months on acting techniques, doing improv exercises, learning hockey, and reviewing the script before filming at multiple locations for a week.

“I hope I can work with this group again,” Kevin declares. “I’m inspired to do more. The opportunity provided through the Spotlight Theatre Company is so rare and unique. And it was only possible with support from the MJCCA.”

 

Jacob Sabel

"Being a JCC Maccabi Games® athlete gave me the opportunity to create a larger network, giving me some of closest friends today."

When Atlanta last hosted the JCC Maccabi Games® in 2001, Jacob Sabel was a teenage athlete competing for the third time. His experiences instilled in him a deep appreciation for the Games, and a passion that has spanned the last two decades.

“The camaraderie, competition, and Jewish culture impressed me,” he says. “The JCC Maccabi Games transcend sports; they influence cultural and social values.” To illustrate, Jacob recalls that in college, he recognized an athlete who he’d competed against in the Games as a teen. “He still had my signed Atlanta hat I’d given him after a game – four years later.” Jacob cherishes the connections he made throughout the years. He explains, “Being a JCC Maccabi Games athlete gave me the opportunity to create a larger network, giving me some of my closest friends today.”

When asked to coach baseball for the 2009 Games in San Francisco, “I jumped at the opportunity,” he declares. “As a player, you see the Games from the surface level, but as a volunteer you understand the impact. The Jewish community shares a special bond and we are so fortunate to bring these 1,600 kids together for an experience of a lifetime and to feel that connection.”

Jacob’s participation in the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s Erwin Zaban Leadership Development program led to serving as a Team Atlanta co-chair for five years, which led to his current roles as the Local Delegation Committee Co-Chair and Delegation Head for the 2019 JCC Maccabi Games. This requires 200+ hours of volunteer time annually and involves everything from recruiting coaches and players to planning meetings and practices, and more.

Twenty years after his first Games, Jacob still relishes his involvement with the organization and appreciates how all affiliations connect through Jewish identity. “We have an opportunity to integrate Jewish culture in the lives of athletes who might have not otherwise affiliated, which inspires future inclusion. It is an honor to be able to give back to a program that was so impactful in my life,” he beams.

 

Roey Shoshan

"The JCC Maccabi Games® provided me with the opportunity to give back, to be part of something bigger than myself, and to do something I love. "

The scene could have played out on the silver screen: A young athlete competes on several JCC Maccabi Games® teams, but never wins a coveted gold medal. Later in life, he coaches a team that puts its heart and soul into succeeding, and they triumph. For six-year coaching veteran Roey Shoshan, the reality is much sweeter than any movie version. Traveling all over the country, bonding with his teenage basketball and soccer players, interacting with parents and fellow coaches, winning medals; it all adds up to an extraordinarily fulfilling experience that gets better every year.

In 2011, Roey arrived in Atlanta from Israel as an emissary to work at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s Camp Barney Medintz and had no idea it would prove to be life altering. He fell in love with the MJCCA and decided to make Atlanta home, becoming the agency’s Assistant Director of Youth Sports Leagues. “Without the MJCCA, I don’t think I’d be in the U.S. The people there believed in me and waited for me to get my work visa. It took nearly eight months, so that patience made me feel very appreciated.”

Working at the MJCCA, he was introduced to the magic of the JCC Maccabi Games, which charmed him with its far-reaching educational, social, physical, and emotional benefits for participants. “The Games gave me an opportunity to connect with kids in a way I never thought I would,” Roey reveals. “I’m able to mentor them, be a role model, teach them kills, and create memories.”

While gold and bronze medals have peppered his rewarding tenure, prior coaching the Games, “I had never won anything or been part of a community like the MJCCA,” Roey admits. While he is extremely proud of his teams’ successes over the years, what has touched Roey the most has been his Midot Medals, bestowed upon him twice for epitomizing Jewish values. “Receiving the Midot meant so much to me because it’s about your character,” he says. Roey has moved on from his professional role at the MJCCA, but he is still devoted to coaching. And with the MJCCA hosting the Games in Summer 2019, he is also part of the committee planning the opening ceremonies. Roey shares, “The JCC Maccabi Games provided me with the opportunity to give back, to be part of something bigger than myself, and to do something I love.”

 

Jamie Kornheiser

The JCC Maccabi Games® are not only about competing, but also about creating relationships with other Jewish people from around the country.

Peel back the layers that shape the JCC Maccabi Games® — the months of preparation and training, the adventure of traveling to the host cities, the exciting opening ceremonies, the tough athletic competition, the thrill of winning medals — and what’s at the core is perhaps the most rewarding part of the experience for the Kornheiser family: the camaraderie.

The 2019 JCC Maccabi Games, hosted by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, will be Jamie Kornheiser’s fourth time competing. Each of her experiences at the Games has involved different sports, teams, coaches, and destinations, but the common thread has been the most meaningful – the personal connections. “I love cheering on my teammates, spending time with friends and making new ones,” Jamie shares.

Jamie’s dad Michael volunteered as a coach in 2018 and will be a commissioner for the 2019 Atlanta Games’ bowling competition. He affirms, “Making a Jewish connection with other kids around the world is extremely special and sharing an affinity for sports helps strengthen that bond.”

“The friends I have made through this experience are incredible because we lived and spent most of our time together for a whole week; we got to know each other really well,” Jamie reveals. “Before the Games, each player is given Team Atlanta clothes and pins that we trade with other athletes, which is one of my favorite rituals because not only do I get cool gear from other cities, but I get to know teens from across the United States. The Games are not only about competing, but also about creating relationships with other Jewish people from around the country.”

Michael says he loves the “family aspect” of the JCC Maccabi Games. “We cheer for the other Atlanta teams. We laugh with all the coaches and parents. Being involved with the Games is like being part of a family.”

And it’s exponentially more impactful when an actual family can share the experience. “The JCC Maccabi Games have afforded our family the opportunity to work together for several months to achieve a common goal – to participate in the Games and do our best,” Michael explains. “It was incredibly meaningful going through it together. Our lives are happier thanks to the JCC Maccabi Games, and we’re fortunate to be involved.”

 

Zoe Gordon

The MJCCA has given her the literal and figurative springboard for becoming anything she wants to be.

What began as a casual early childhood activity for Zoe Gordon has evolved over the years into a lifechanging pursuit. Now, at 10 years old, she has found an all-encompassing passion formed from sweat equity, sacrifice, and success.

Zoe first got a taste of the sport in a preschool gymnastics class at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. Soon that turned into weekly sessions with the MJCCA’s Perimeter Gymnastics “Hot Shots” program. Now, a few years later, Zoe trains on the Perimeter Gymnastics Compulsory team as a USA Gymnastics Level 4 athlete, which requires 9.5 hours of gym time each week. Zoe’s mom, Shelley, says the gymnastics program nurtures a sense of accomplishment and self-assurance and has been incredibly impactful for her daughter, crediting Zoe’s “dream team of wonderful, tough, firm, and loving coaches” at Perimeter Gymnastics. “They’ve helped her blossom into the strong, confident young woman she is today.”

Among the many skills Zoe has gleaned from gymnastics, Shelley touts the life lessons as the most impressive. “The MJCCA program is designed to not only build strong and able bodies, but to build character, confidence, and inner strength. Zoe has learned the importance of hard work and dedication. Even if she’s tired from a long day at school, she knows she must show up at the gym because she has made a commitment to herself, her coaches, and her team. Perimeter Gymnastics is about more than just exercise; it has helped hone her inner grit and mental fortitude.”

It has been profound for Zoe to experience the true meaning of success, and for her parents to witness that realization. “Success is not the elusive 10 score,” Shelley reveals. “Success is falling off a balance beam during a meet and getting right back on without skipping a beat. Success is Zoe completing a difficult uneven bars routine and doing her personal best, regardless of the core. Success is looking back and realizing how many skills Zoe has mastered, friends she has made, and how much confidence she has gained.”

“The Perimeter Gymnastics community at the MJCCA has been our second family,” Shelley explains. “It has given Zoe an opportunity to shine, giving her the literal and figurative springboard for becoming anything she wants to be.”

 

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