Pat Nisenholz has always been a searcher. Her openness, her eagerness to learn, and her desire to make a difference in the lives of others brought her from an early career in interior design to her current position as Early Childhood Family Engagement Educator at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Chicago. After completing a degree in Art Therapy through the Barat College Psychology School, Pat furthered her Jewish journey by enrolling in the Melton program for teachers. Through a chance meeting with the Director of the Bernard Weinger JCC while working out at the JCC gym, Pat’s career with the JCC took off.
Pat embodies the JCC mission of bringing Jewish values to life. “My job is to raise awareness,” she says. “I want people to be action-oriented. I don’t want to just talk about being kind, I want us to go out there and show how to be kind. I want to model for my directors and model for my parents.”
Pat’s training as a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate has helped her to refocus and reassess the kinds of experiences provided by the JCC. She is JOI’s first “Jewish Pro You Should Know,” and she answers The Four Questions below.
What do you love about the work you do to open the tent of the Jewish community?
What I love is the visual of an “open tent” and using that as my anchor in the work I engage in. Working in a Jewish communal setting for the past 16 years has afforded me the opportunity to offer many invitations into a tent. Wearing my Early Childhood Director’s hat, I have welcomed traditional Jewish families, interfaith families, LGBT families, and families who are parents of special needs children. And did I mention families who are not Jewish by birth and/or do not practice Judaism, but because of our values and reputation of offering quality education, they want their children with us.
In one school, we have served early head start, Head start, Preschool for All (early childhood education programs for underserved families), as well as a modern Orthodox half-day program and a diverse Early Childhood full day program. These programs run at the same time – teachers come together to share resources, plan together- and share family programming. We are modeling ONE JCC and our tent is HUGE!
As a relationship weaver, it is up to me to possess an attitude of acceptance- nurturing an understanding of diversity. Through my training with JOI, I have deepened my understanding of families, culturally, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.
If you could solve one challenge in your local Jewish community, what would it be and why?
One of the biggest challenges facing Jewish communities today is that we don’t know how to “play in the sandbox nicely.” Early childhood educators could teach them a thing or two!! It seems as if we are all vying for the same families to attend our programs and become part of our “institutions.” We need to shift to engagement- create those ramps and not focus on capturing them “into” membership so quickly. We tend to freely use “numbers” as a way of tracking success; we must first understand WHO these families are - are they newcomers? What is it they are looking for? This happens with active verbiage in our conversations, sometimes one conversation at a time. The language we use must be intentional, and then relationship building will follow.
I personally believe there is a place for every family to feel comfortable. As a relationship weaver, it is my hope that I can direct them to that program and/or institution.
How have you incorporated what you have learned as a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate into your work?
I have a whole new awareness of my work as a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate today.
I am always asking myself the questions of who is it we are trying to reach? Where can I find and engage them? How do I create different entry points for our families as “one size fits all” does not work with today’s generation.
As I stand in the lobbies of our buildings, I am struck by how much intentionality must go into welcoming and engaging. I am fully conscious when I seek opportunities for those deeper and ongoing conversations with our parents and customers. Sometimes I must search for that “connecting piece” that will begin a conversation. That requires knowing who your customers are. You never know when a conversation is a one-off or when it can go further. I try very hard to follow up with each person when appropriate.
Just in the past two weeks, I have been part of two Grand friend Shabbat programs, which welcome grandparents and other “grand friends” into JCC’s early childhood classrooms and to a Shabbat celebration. These are well attended, and an opportunity to introduce these special guests to both JCC’s early childhood programs as well as our adult programs. Grand friends are now invited to stay for coffee, so that I can make meaningful connections and have some quiet conversations in an intentional setting. Rather than “sell” anything, I put together packets of adult and adult/child opportunities they might consider coming to in the future. I handed them to them at the end, with the message… look over when you have some quiet moments. The emails collected will be used to invite them in to their grandchildren’s lives, connecting them to their grandchild’s school.
I do not attend any program planning meeting without the JOI concentric circles model printed page. This is a valuable tool to assist in deciding what type of program we are planning… who is the audience and what is the goal of this offered program? When working with our marketing department on creating a flyer, I have become more aware of using inclusiveness language, not making assumptions of where our audience is or who they are or what they might want. I strive to focus on the message we are sending.
What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago?
Before my granddaughter aged out of the Jewish United Fund’s (JUF) Joyfully Jewish programming for families with young children, we as a family attended all their offerings. Thankfully we still attend most of our synagogue’s family opportunities. We are part of this year’s “Hineini” projects, which are social justice-oriented programs that will run throughout the year; we recently participated in a program together and went grocery shopping and then fed the homeless. Jordyn, my granddaughter, attends our JCC Vacation Day called the MLK Make a Difference Day.
Bringing Jewish Values to Life is my FAVORITE Jewish thing to do in Chicago!!
For more on the Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program, please contact Brenna Kearns at BKearns[at]JOI.org or 212-760-1440.