By Andrew Adler
Abigail Goldberg – Teen Director & Philanthropy Outreach at the Trager Family JCC and Jewish Federation of Louisville – is among 17 recipients of 2023 Merrin Teen Professional Fellowships.
The program is funded by grants from entrepreneur Seth Merrin and his late wife, Anne Heyman. Goldberg’s participation also has key support from Louisville’s Jay Levine Youth Fund – named in memory of the youth director at the old Jewish Community Center and the longtime athletics director at Male High School — who died 20 years ago this past July.
“My dad was all about making opportunities,” says his daughter, Shannon Levine Benovitz, citing Goldberg’s fellowship as a prime example of how the fund translates intention into action. “It resonated with us to know that she has this opportunity, because training future leaders was part of our fund’s designation. We all started at a certain point in our careers, and we all have a place we aspire to (reach). It’s befitting of what my dad stood for.”
The Fund, in many respects, reflects his wife and daughter’s commitment to honor his exceptional record of service. Indeed, after retiring from Male, returning to the JCC testified to how vital it was for him to nurture and encourage young people – wherever he found them. “I do feel we’ve tried hard to establish a legacy,” Diane Levine says, adding that she often hears about how Jay Levine somehow bettered their lives.
“I’ve gotten so many phone calls and run into people over the years who I didn’t even know,” she says. “And as a grandparent, as I’ve gotten in different circles, I’m hearing about what he did for their kids. Jay was definitely a mentor: a good all-around person who wanted to find the best in a child or teenager. He didn’t want recognition. He just wanted to help others.”
Merrin Fellows are focusing on four principal areas: Jewish literacy, understanding adolescence, networking, and leadership development.
The current cohort met in person for the first time this past May in Waynesboro, Penn., at Capital Camps, a Jewish camp and retreat center. Subsequent in-person and online sessions will be highlighted by a 10-day trip to Israel in October.
Fellowship training will help guide Goldberg better understand what most concerns her teenage constituents. “Our current political climate is influencing the mental health and social wellbeing of our teens,” she says. The Merrin Fellowship will give her skills essential for making teens feel they’re being heard.
Over the summer, participants read “Why Do Jewish: A Manifesto for 21st Century Peoplehood” by Zack Bodner — CEO of the Palo Alto (Calif) JCC – who’ll speak to them in September. Fellowship emphasis “isn’t just attending or planning a prayer service,” Goldberg says. Instead, it’s more along the lines of “incorporating Judaism into things like community service, volunteer projects and holiday programming for teens.”
Goldberg explains that through the fellowship, “We learn how to incorporate Israel and education into programming because many of our teens will travel to Israel with camp or BBYO during the summer. While in Israel, Merrin Fellows will visit “many teen-focused centers, to see how they structure their programs and their services.”
During their May meeting, Merrin Fellows attended a panel discussion featuring several JCC chief executive officers. “They told us, essentially, (about) their career journeys from where they started to where they are now,” Goldberg says, “and how connections are helpful in your career.”
That kind of early-career advice is invaluable. “This cohort gives me a sounding board to ask questions and throw out ideas – how do you run this type of program? How do you recruit teens to come to XYZ programs,” Goldberg says. “Or how do you involve parents – and how do you handle issues when it comes to mental health?”
Networking among current Merrin Fellows is already paying off. “One of my friends in the cohort runs their leadership-in-training program at their camp in Pittsburgh,” Goldberg says. “It’s similar to what we have in our counselor-in-training program, which is what I (staff) at Camp J here. He gave me tons of ideas on how to incorporate different team building and conflict-management training – and how to do that on a ninth and tenth grade level, because they’re not counselors yet. They’ve never acquired these skills before.”