Building Bridges With Jennifer Zwilling

Photo by Anna Lippe

Jennifer Zwilling, 51, joined the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center as the new CEO in January. She can often be seen greeting people on their way to the 16th Street building’s gym or theater. Previously, she was chief strategy and campus success officer for Hillel International.

How are the first few months going?

Exciting. It’s sort of a whirlwind. I’m trying to immerse myself and take in everything and really learn. There’s an incredible team here, so it’s a really exciting place to be part of.

What’s your vision for the Edlavitch DCJCC?

I feel like JCCs are an incredible point of access; a welcoming, accessible touch point for people to Jewish life. The JCC has the opportunity to continue growing the ways in which we connect Jews to being Jewish and find community in a time when I think people are seeking it more than ever.

JCCs are a bridge builder. We live in a divided world, and we live in the epicenter of that divided world in Washington, D.C. I want this to be a place that builds bridges and brings people together and is able to have a conversation when everyone else around us is shouting. We have the opportunity to be a bridge to the wider community and help heal a broken world.

What does it mean to enrich Jewish life in Washington?

It’s this question of, what does it mean to be the JCC of the nation’s capital, and to be the center of Jewish life in downtown Washington? And part of that is about being six blocks from the White House and being in this place. But I think it’s the question of, what are the conversations we want to be having as a Washington, D.C., Jewish community? And how are we having that with all the things that make this city so incredibly special and great?

How is a post-pandemic JCC different from a pre-pandemic JCC?

This is an incredibly resilient team who did all kinds of really creative, wonderful things that will stay with us, like parking lot gatherings. And I think we have to continue to take the lessons of what we learned.

The other thing is helping people come back and be back together. And I think people are realizing how good it feels when they do. Things are special when you come. You don’t just come see a movie and walk out the door here. You get invited into community and conversation in a way that’s unique.

What are you hearing from community members post-pandemic?

People are talking about loneliness. And for me, that’s a profound thing when you think about being a community center. And how do you not just come here to swim, not just come because there’s a great preschool, not just come to see a show, but to actually find points of connection and community. I’m thinking a lot more about how we intentionally build those points of connection.

Is there a moment or memory that stands out to you these first few months on the job?

I’ve been to two theater openings and several film events, and spent time with preschool families. We had a huge Purim party in our parking lot and paraded out 16th Street with all of those families.

The experience of the show “Gloria: A Life” and being there opening night was a favorite. I got to meet Gloria Steinem and welcome Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor. I think people are proud that the show is here, at this JCC. And also that we’re introducing it to a real diversity of people in the community. I love that members and leaders of our community decided to come out and be part of that conversation.

I brought my daughter to the “Gloria” dress rehearsal. They were practicing the consciousness-raising circle part of the production. We sat in the audience and my daughter loved it. My family is excited for me to be at the JCC in this role. For me to get to see the JCC through their eyes gives me another insight into what it means to connect people to community. ■

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