Roberta Levine on August 10, 2016
“Take a look at these photos,” says Rachel Marcus, handing over a snapshot of three campers in T-shirts, smiling broadly, and a beautifully composed black and white photo of a young girl sitting on a counselor’s lap, both laughing gleefully.
“Happy kids,” Rachel says, characteristically matter-of-fact. “That’s what we’re about.”
Marcus, JCC Associate Executive Director, has been focused on providing programs that enrich the lives of families and children -programs that make people happy – for more years than she cares to count. As she approaches retirement, she reflected on her time with the JCC and how the agency has grown and evolved to meet community needs.
Her experiences and responsibilities of the early years of her professional service laid the foundation for a career that literally touched thousands of lives.
It all started when she was in second grade. “My mother dragged me, kicking and screaming, to an arts & crafts class,” she recalls. The class was in an old house on the corner of Stanton and Negley that served as the East End Irene Kaufmann Center. “I said I was there to watch,” she says, “and I’ve been watching, and participating, ever since. That was the beginning of my career at the JCC.”
When Rachel was eight, she experienced her first summer camp — the East End IKCs’ Fun Time Kiddieland Camp. There, a counselor made such a strong impression that “all I ever wanted was to grow up to be a counselor,” she says. “It’s amazing that decades later children at JCC camps experience that same feeling.”
A few years later, Rachel’s dream came true when she got her first job as a junior counselor at the camp, earning $50 for the summer. She soon progressed from counselor to unit head. That was the beginning of a career of nearly 50 years at the JCC.
Her first full-time job was as a preschool teacher of three year-olds in the Squirrel Hill IKC. This was at a time when the JCC housed only three classrooms – and preschools operated for either morning or afternoon 2 ½ hour sessions. Now, nearly 340 children attend JCC Early Childhood Development Centers, which Marcus supervises in both the city and South Hills, with the vast majority of children attending full day. “The whole family environment has changed,” she says. “With two working parents, we serve an entirely distinct population who need us in a very different way.”
From preschool teacher, Rachel was appointed School Age Supervisor at a time when the JCC housed separate boys and girls high school “clubs.” She had been an active member of an IKCs girls club called the “The Gems” while at Peabody High School. She helped organize and grow many of the clubs in the late 60’s and early 70’s at the IKC and fondly remembers her favorite group “The Charades,” many of whom have become active lay leaders in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. “I became attached to them,” she notes, “and they became attached to each other.” Members of the Charades have unofficially gathered annually for decades as their own friendships deepened.
During these early years, Rachel became one of seven professionals to open the newly constructed Henry Kaufmann Family Park in Monroeville. Within a few years, she was appointed director of James & Rachel Levinson Day Camp held on site. She served as J&R’s Director for over 30 years, growing the program six-fold under her leadership and passion to make JCC camps the best in the region.
Rachel was intuitive at recognizing the changing needs of the community. In 1977, noting the increase in working single- and dual-working parent families, she started an after-school program for school-aged children. At the time, the program cost $15 a week – including the costs of transportation. Still, Rachel never lost sight of a working with families as a total unit. She began organizing Family Weekends at the newly acquired Emma Kaufmann Camp in Morgantown – a tradition that continues to this day. She also worked at bringing counselors from Israel to both the JCC’s day and overnight camps, another facet that also continued over decades.
As she gained experience and expertise in all aspects of JCC life, Rachel ultimately was promoted to Associate Executive Director, where she oversees all JCC camping programs, early childhood and school age programs, health and wellness, and the operations of the South Hills Branch. She received the Pittsburgh Jewish community’s greatest professional honor as the recipient of the 2003 Doris and Leonard Rudolph Jewish Communal Professional Award of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Yet, Rachel downplays professional accolades, focusing on core JCC values that have inspired her as much today as in her first years at the agency. She notes, “not only is it my job, but it’s become my family as well.” For her, “The greatest pleasure of all is building the relationships with families and being part of watching children grow here and generations sending their kids to camp,” she says.
“I believe that I’ve made a difference in a lot of young people’s lives.” And the JCC community can second that emotion.
Rachel will be among three agency executives honored at the Jewish Federation’s annual meeting on August 30. The JCC is also planning a special event to celebrate Rachel’s career on Sunday, September 25, at 7 pm. Both programs are open to the public.