A little more ‘J’ for the JCC

Rabbi Elyssa Auster’s eclectic approach to Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington is a reflection of her upbringing.
Photo by David Holzel

Is it possible to make a gym Jewish? It’s on Rabbi Elyssa Auster’s to-do list as the new director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville. In the part-time position which she began in August, Auster will be a Jewish resource for center staff as well as bring Judaism directly to members.

“The idea is to infuse more Jewish content into everything that happens here,” she says, seated in her tiny five-sided office on the JCC’s second floor.

She wants to bring spirituality to the bricks and mortar of the JCC. She’ll lead a mindfulness series beginning in October. And she wants to introduce what she calls “Jewish yoga – so we feel what was happening in the Torah.” Practitioners might try to recreate the experience of Moses when he had to keep his arms raised so the Israelites would prevail in battle with the Amalekites, she says, adding, “Even people not affiliated with synagogues have a deep yearning for spiritual life,” she says.

Auster grew up in Cleveland, home to a “diverse, strong Jewish community,” she says. “I felt God very strongly in the world, even when I was a young child.”


Her parents were eclectic about their Jewish choices. “The first school I went to was a black hat Orthodox school. But we went to an ultra-Reform synagogue.”

It was at her bat mitzvah, when she discovered she enjoyed writing her d’var Torah, that she “started thinking about becoming a clergy-person.”

When she decided to study for the rabbinate, it was at Hebrew College, a nondenominational seminary outside Boston.

“It was important for me to get a foundation in traditional texts in the original language,” she says. “But I also wanted the freedom to have my own spiritual journey without anyone dictating [my] practice.”

Auster says her transdenominational approach is suited for the work she is doing at the JCC, which subscribes to no stream of Judaism.

“Transdenominationalism is the understanding that people want meaning and purpose, and there are a number of ways to do that from the Jewish tradition.”

That approach is broad based and inclusive, says the JCC’s executive director, Michael Feinstein, “and that’s what the JCC is about.”

Feinstein says his agency has been considering hiring a director of Jewish life since 2011, when it decided to “engage more people in Jewish discovery and activities. Part of Elyssa’s charge is to infuse the ‘J’ in JCC.”

She and Feinstein say the JCC is trying to appeal to the unaffiliated. “We don’t want to turn the JCC into a synagogue,” she says. “That’s not our goal. It’s for people who aren’t finding what they need in Jewish life elsewhere.”

Adds Feinstein, “We’re trying to reach out to people to put them on a path of Jewish discovery.”

In the future, that path might lead to the gym.

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