From The Deep South to Southern California: JCC’s New CEO Brings 20 Years of Experience

by Brie Stimson September 23, 2017


img_5208Times are changing at the Lawrence Family JCC. The annual book fair is moving from November to the spring, the Foodies on the Farm cooking event is getting more prominence this month and possibly most notably, the community center has a new CEO.

One of the best regarded JCCs in the country, the Lawrence Family JCC has both the largest Jewish Day Camp in California and the largest Jewish preschool in San Diego. Those facts, among other accomplishments of our JCC, helped to bring new CEO Betzy Lynch all the way from Birmingham, Alabama.

“I’ve spent almost my entire professional career working in Jewish community centers,” Betzy explained to me over the phone, making time for an interview between all of her other appointments. She’d been on the job for less than a month at the time of our speaking, and she already loves it.

Lynch started her career in West Palm Beach, Florida in 1998 as the assistant health and physical education director before moving on to be program director at the JCC in Youngstown, Ohio. She then worked as the assistant executive director of the Jewish community center in Memphis, Tennessee. She was in Tennessee for nearly ten years when she was hired as the executive director of the JCC in Birmingham. Five years later, she’s ready to get started in San Diego.

“Everything’s been fantastic,” she said of her first few weeks in San Diego. “Obviously a lot of my responsibilities of being the CEO here are similar to my responsibilities of being the executive director at the JCC in Birmingham where I was prior to this, but … every community has its unique nuances, its special challenges and this JCC is a lot bigger in terms of size and focus than where I was, so I’m really excited by the challenge of that.”

Betzy says for her, the most important part of any JCC is their impact on Jewish life, but that’s not the reason she got involved initially. “I really wanted to have a career in sports and recreation, and I grew up at a JCC my whole life and never really thought about it as a potential career path,” she explained. She completed her masters at Indiana State in exercise science and physical education, and among other possibilities was given the opportunity to work at a YMCA. “I thought to myself ‘why in the world would I do that when I could go and work at a JCC?’ And so that’s where my path started, but also that might have been where it ended,” she told me. “But I was really into the other side, meaning the professional side of what it is to work in an amazing community that is the movement of Jewish community centers. I really found my path and I always say this job chose me, I didn’t necessarily choose it.”

She says her goal is to make the JCC as inclusive as possible, no matter what path brings people to their doorstep. The center has a significant influence over the quality of members’ Jewish experience, which Betzy says she is passionate about enriching, and she wants everyone to feel welcome. “Everybody has a place at the JCC,” she tells me. “People who come from any kind of Jewish background, whether … they were born Jewish but didn’t identify with anything religiously or somebody who’s incredibly observant,” the doors are open to everyone. “And even more than that, patricianly in the culture we’re living in today, the importance of our providing that bridge and giving an authentic Jewish experience to people of all faiths, really helps to bring a level of understanding and diversity that’s unique to the JCC that isn’t really the same function as any other Jewish institution.”

Betzy said one of her main goals as a manager is to provide a level of mentorship and excitement about the job for her staff in the hope of keeping them working in the Jewish world, whether it’s at a JCC or another Jewish institution.

Jewish community centers across the country are known for their exceptional early childhood education programs, and “ours happens to be one of the best of the best here in San Diego,” Betzy told me. The JCC provides support beyond education, Betzy explained, providing support to the whole family “through a Jewish lens so that whether you’re Jewish or a faith other than Jewish you’re getting an authentic Jewish experience which gives a rich diversity to your children’s experience.” Lynch is the mother to an 11-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter, both of whom attend the San Diego Jewish Academy.

For Lynch, the move is big change both culturally and professionally. “I mean who wouldn’t love San Diego?” she laughed, remarking on our city’s beauty and famously pleasant weather.

“We’ve lived in a very small Jewish community where the resources and choices of what Jewish [culture] is available and Jewish life is limited, and so the fact that my children could attend a school that can go all the way through … high school, was really important to us and absolutely added to the factors of us wanting to choose it.” Lynch said she’s lived in every part of the country, but was really touched by the way San Diegans welcome diversity and encourage people to be who they are. “The way people embrace is so very different than the way I’ve seen it anywhere else,” she said.

Lynch said she’s thankful her children were able to understand about the Civil Rights movement at such a young age from living in the Deep South, but “now in juxtaposition to that to experience diversity the way that they are going to now really will give them a rich experience of what it is to deal with people in life, and I’m so thankful for that.” Coming from a community in Birmingham with only 7,000 Jews, Lynch sees San Diego as an embarrassment of riches. She still feels our Jewish community is a bit “hidden” though, and plans to do a lot of listening to figure out how to get people more involved.

Book Fair, as mentioned, will be moving from November to the spring and will be getting an upgrade, Betzy promises. Now called Bookfest, which will feel more like a literary festival with different types of experiences rather than just lectures. “I think that what we’re really looking for is to create experiences beyond events, meaning things that people can touch and feel and learn something from rather than just sort of the lecture component, which maybe gives it a little more of a festival feel than just a series of author lectures,” she explained.

Foodies on the Farm at Coastal Roots Farm in Encinitas is the bridge program to remind people that book fair is moving, and the program is back this year with plenty of tastings, cooking demonstrations, classes and custom-created bites to satisfy even the pickiest of eaters. The all-day event takes place on November 5 this year, and, according to organizers, it will be bigger and better than ever.


Paula Shoyer, author of “The Healthy Jewish Kitchen: Fresh Contemporary Recipes for Every Occasion”, will be teaching a class with no margarine, powdered stocks and very little frying. Healthy Jewish cooking is on trend right now, and with classics like Israeli Herb and Almond Salad and Schnitzel with Nut Crust , no one’s going to be missing the salt or sugar. A graduate of the Ritz Escoffier pastry program in Paris, Shoyer’s 60-page book is full of traditional Sephardic and Ashkenazi recipes – made without the guilt. Shoyer will teach her class Sunday morning.

TV producer Peter Geller will demonstrate recipes from his book inspired by his mother. A debilitating stroke took away his mother’s ability to cook, and his book “My Mother’s Kitchen: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and the Meaning of Life” was his way of reconnecting with her and saving her favorite recipes for generations to come.

Emily’s Paster’s new book “The Joys of Jewish Preserving: Modern Recipes with Traditional Roots, for Jams, Pickles, Fruit Butters, and More – For Holidays and Every Day”, pays homage to a thousands year-old tradition.

Other demonstrations include fast meals, different ways to make matzo and happy hour dishes.

Nature lovers can also enjoy free tours of the Encinitas farm and the beauty of the Butterfly Farms Vivarium, the largest native butterfly free house in Southern California. The vivarium’s mission is to conserve native butterflies and their habitat through education.

The farm’s one-hour walking tour covers 20 acres of mixed gardens, orchards, food forest, animal pastures, vineyard, barns, greenhouses, barns and farmhouses. The community garden donates more than 50 percent of its food to those in the community who lack access to fresh food through pay-what-you-can farmstands, pop-up markets and direct donations. A whole day of culinary fun is $140, or $115 for JCC members.

Political junkies should also note that Carl Bernstein, the renowned Washington Post journalist who, along with Bob Woodward, broke the Watergate scandal and helped take down Nixon’s presidency, will be speaking on the abuse of presidential power on Saturday, November, 11 at 7 p.m.

JCompany, JCC’s youth theater group, is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year and are currently in rehearsals for “The Lion King.” Performances start on October 20.

Lynch said she wants one of her main focuses to be finding new ways to engage people and bring them into the JCC community. She told me there is a strong connection with the address on Executive Drive, but beyond the physical building she wants the JCC to be out in the community. “We have this amazing facility and we need to make use of it whenever we can, but we also need to be doing things in every corner of the community. Especially because San Diego County is so expansive, [it’s important] that we’re doing that in every portion of the community so that we’re connecting people to each other and connecting them to Jewish life.”


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