My Name Would be Chocolate: Betzy Lynch on her first year as CEO of Lawrence Family JCC

by Leorah Gavidor November 6, 2018


betzy-and-spencer-lynch-with-annual-gala-patron-party-chairs-susan-and-jim-morris-humphreys-2018As a people, Jews are known for adherence to tradition. But Betzy Lynch seems perfectly comfortable with change, as she proved by moving her family 2,000 miles from Birmingham to San Diego so she could assume duties as the new CEO of Lawrence Family JCC, Jacobs Family Campus, in 2017. She took the reins from Michael Cohen, who had been with the organization for 45 years.

In her first year, Betzy took on something else that was new: the inaugural “Arts & Ideas” season. The concept launched this year: a reconfiguration and expansion of the J’s offerings.

The J’s board chair Phil Ginsburg described it as a “more inclusive umbrella of cultural arts. It provides a platform to increase the quantity and diversity of the offerings.”

“In every community the role of the J is slightly different. This JCC is the first I’ve worked at with such a strong commitment to bringing arts and culture to the community, with such a robust offering,” Lynch reflected.

Underwriting events for Arts & Ideas kicked off September 27 with a visit from comedian Phil Rosenthal, creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” His new series, “Somebody Feed Phil,” premiered on Netflix in January. The evening at the J included a screening of the Tel Aviv episode and a conversation with Rosenthal and another visitor, a photographer for Israel Eats. A member of the Israeli consulate general in L.A. and the founders of restaurant Puesto, who attended classes at the JCC as teens, brought their perspectives as well.

“It was amazing,” Lynch told me the morning after the event. “A conversation about Israel without the politics. Instead the discussion was about how the food of Israel combines the beauty and flavors of a blend of cultures, showing how people in Israel are coexisting in a way the news doesn’t tell us.”

The idea behind the Arts & Ideas concept is to appeal to more varied attendees with events throughout the year, literary and otherwise. Previously called “Bookfest” and happening just one week a year, now programming will run year-round and hopefully reach more people.

“One of our new underwriters told me she was so excited that our book talks were running all year-round,” said Betzy. “Because she hadn’t been able to attend the Book Fair/Bookfest for years and was finally going to be able to make it to an author event.”

Highlights of upcoming literary events include an evening with “The Simpsons” writer Mike Reiss, a visit from cookbook author Dorie Greenspan (inventor of Lemon Goop), and a conversation with the head writer/director of the first Israeli Netflix series, “Fauda.”

Among many other guests, November brings musician José James with a tribute to Bill Withers and archivist Mark Cantor with rare film clips from his jazz and blues performance collection.

“It’s been very successful,” said CJC board chair Todd Allen of the first Arts & Ideas season. “We’ve seen events selling out, and we’re seeing new faces, as well as continuing to reach our existing patrons.”

Betzy’s main focus is to make the J “as welcoming as possible.” This applies to both the physical location on Executive Drive and the J’s presence throughout the community. She envisions an expansion of offerings that transcend bricks-and-mortar to engage more folks who are not able to make the trip to La Jolla.

“We are just one dot in the middle of the whole county,” Betzy points out. “The vastness is a challenge.”

One of Lynch’s strategic initiatives is to take advantage of “well-baked” partnerships to identify remote communities and individuals, and then develop programs to engage them. For example, partnership with the Jewish Federation of San Diego, PJ Library and Shalom Baby has helped identify Jewish families who want to be more involved.

“We’ve hired three women/mothers to begin the engagement of young families in the Jewish community,” said Lynch. And she wants to see more of that. But the idea is not to build more physical JCC spaces.

“We have to be nimble,” Lynch emphasized. She envisions the J responding to the needs of these communities using existing public spaces to host programs and events.

“We’ve seen significant progress in outreach,” said Allen. “Betzy is dedicated to moving the community forward together.”

As for more people walking through the doors at the Jacob’s Family Campus on Executive Drive, Lynch said she’s not sure of actual numbers. But she did share a story with me about visitation for this year’s high holidays that illustrates an anecdotal increase.

“During the high holidays, our staff sets out apples and honey for everyone who comes in. We ordered 4,000 honey sticks, thinking, from past years’ experience, that it would be enough and we would even have extras. But by Yom Kippur all 4,000 were gone.”

1.5 million people visit JCCs nationally each week, Lynch quoted for perspective. Her hope is that those who attend events put on by the Lawrence Family JCC and the Center for Jewish Culture will experience Jewish life in a way that speaks to each of them as an individual.

“She introduced more Jewish-ness,” Phil Ginsburg described, “from an educational standpoint.”

Ginsburg said Lynch’s first year “exceeded all expectations.” He was quick to say Betzy is “extremely hardworking, intelligent, experienced and engaging.”

He even coined a term to describe the manner in which she gets things done: “Lynch speed.”

For example, when the director of the Center for Jewish Culture left, Betzy saw an opportunity. She wanted to better understand the CJC, which is part of the JCC but operates as its own entity. After consideration and consultation she decided to step in as its new director. Thus, with support from Brian Garrick, Director of Cultural Arts Programs & Festivals, “Arts & Ideas” was born.

“Overarchingly, the embrace has been incredible,” Lynch said of the welcome she has received from the community. “It’s been a gift to myself and my family.”

Lynch is grateful for inheriting the legacy of Michael Cohen, and for the warm and generous group of lay-leaders she has found at the J. She is inspired by the unwavering commitment of the staff.

After 15 years working in Jewish community centers in the South, Betzy has first-hand experience of the varied roles JCCs can play in different communities. In Birmingham the Jewish population is around 6,000, and in Memphis around 12,000. She seems to be adjusting to San Diego’s much larger Jewish community just fine.

“I’ve only heard positive things,” said Ginsburg.

To be thorough, I asked Betzy about any negative feedback.

“If I could make everyone happy, my name wouldn’t be Betzy, my name would be chocolate.”


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