Washington Jewish Week / June 29, 2011
By Larry Luxner
Motorists heading downtown along Washington’s Sixteenth Street might not understand the giant “Thank you Arna” banner hanging from the façade of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center.
For local Jews who frequent the DCJCC, however, no explanation is necessary.
Arna Meyer Mickelson, the widely respected chief executive officer of this venerable institution, is retiring June 30 after more than 24 years at the helm. Her replacement is Washington native Carole R. Zawatsky, chief program officer for arts, culture and Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
Mickelson has spent the past few weeks packing up her office, whose walls are graced with a poster of baseball player Hank Greenberg as well as a replica of a Jewish Welfare Board advertisement from 1918.
There’s also a pair of white Adirondack wooden beach chairs covered with scrawled notes from friends and colleagues throughout the years; the chairs were presented to Mickelson and her husband, Alan, at a June 21 farewell dinner attended by 300 well-wishers.
“The event itself was not a surprise, but the evening was filled with surprises,” she told WJW. “It’s wonderful to finish a career with such kindness being shown. It gives you a feeling that you’ve made a difference in the life of a community.”
Mickelson, 66, was born and raised in Miami. She worked at the Greater Washington Jewish Community Center in Rockville, Md., for 11 years before taking on her current job in January 1987.
At that time, about 23,000 Jews lived in the District, and the DCJCC was housed in a small townhouse at 2028 P St. Within two years, it relocated to 1836 Jefferson Place, and in 1990, the board purchased its current headquarters from the city.
“This neighborhood was transitional at best, and many people felt we’d never build a successful JCC in this location. We had a young board and only two people with experience in fundraising,” she said. “Yet we raised a great deal of money, and built a building that is graceful and is still state-of-the-art.”
The historically protected building dates from 1926 and was owned by the board that eventually moved to Rockville and built the current JCC on Montrose Road.
The DCJCC’s renovation took seven years and $17 million.
“Most suburban JCCs are larger than us, but as our architect used to say, we put 100,000 square feet of program space into 60,000 square feet,” she said. “We tried to be smart throughout the design process.”
Mickelson recalled that the late Abe Pollin – who built the Verizon Center – was also a benefactor of the DCJCC. “He practically grew up in this building,” she said. “He used to come here with his dad. He was the ping-pong champion.”
As CEO, Mickelson turns over to Zawatsky an institution with a $7.3 million annual budget, and a full-time staff of 65 employees and an equal number of part-timers.
“From a small agency that hardly had any space of its own, we are now a major Jewish institution that serves probably half a million people over the course of a year,” said Mickelson, who shows up for work every morning at 7 and frequently doesn’t go home until 9 p.m. “I came up as a programmer, and it’s all about the quality of the programs. However, you can’t run a successful JCC if you’re not spending all your time fundraising. So I’ve been involved in fundraising every single day.”
Mickelson said the District itself has seen dramatic changes in the quarter-century since she’s headed the DCJCC.
“This city is nothing like it was even 14 years ago. Difficult neighborhoods are now thriving. Areas to the east of the JCC which we wouldn’t even walk in are now packed with people,” she said. “We’re also in the middle of the city’s largest gay community.”
Mickelson added: “We also have many people who come to Washington directly after college seeking employment in political science and international relations. Some stay and some leave, but now they’re staying longer. This city is a good place to raise a Jewish family, and those who leave are replaced by people who feel much like them, people interested in their Judaism and anxious to make a difference.”
Another big change she’s noticed is the proliferation of female-run Jewish community centers throughout the nation. Twenty-five years ago, Mickelson was a rarity, but today, one-third of all chief executives of the country’s 200 or so JCCs are women.
The DCJCC is considerably larger than the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax, yet smaller than the Greater Washington Jewish Community Center in Rockville.
“We do most of what JCCs do, and on top of it, we’re a major arts presenter with an international reputation,” she said. “I would say we offer the finest programming of any JCC of our size in the country.”
Israel is a major focus of the DCJCC’s activities, she said, noting that of the 60 movies featured in last year’s annual Jewish film festival, more than 20 were Israeli films. Its Theater J has staged Israeli plays with very controversial themes, including Hadar Galron’s “Mikve” – which exposes domestic abuse within Israel’s Orthodox Jewish community – and Boaz Gaon’s “Return to Haifa,” based on a 1970 novella by a onetime spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. That play deals with two women – one Arab, one Jewish – fighting for the soul of the same young man, who both claim as his mother.
The DCJCC also made headlines last year when playwright Deb Margolin pulled her highly acclaimed “Imagining Madoff” from the lineup of the center’s Theater J, where it was slated to open the fall season. She did so after noted Holocaust survivor and author Elie Weisel threatened to sue the DCJCC and Theater J’s director, Ari Roth, because Weisel claimed the play defamed him.
“It’s important to most of us here that we provide the opportunity for multiple voices to be heard,” said Mickelson. “That means you’re always having to pay attention to balance. But it also means you are, from time to time, open to criticism from people who believe that you should not should not have multiple voices.”
One thing that didn’t prove controversial – even though Mickelson was sure it would – was her board’s 1997 decision to allow Bet Mishpachah, a gay congregation, to hold its Shabbat services at the DCJCC.
“They moved in and marched up to the building in a processional under a chupah with the Torah, and they asked me to be out there to greet them,” she said. “This was one of the most emotional things for me, that these people would finally be accepted within the Jewish community.”
For at least five years now, DCJCC has also offered its Gay Lesbian Outreach and Enrichment (GLOE) program, which is funded by the federation.
That same welcoming spirit is evident in the J’s interfaith program, which currently serves about 600 couples in which one person is Jewish and the other isn’t.
“Our interfaith program accepts both religions – but has an opinion. We want that to be a Jewish family, and for that couple to raise Jewish kids. We tell them that at the beginning,” she said. “This year, we’re trying to offer a trip to take interfaith couples to Israel, with the hope that the same kind of magic Birthright does will help strengthen the percentage of families that decide to be Jewish families.”
So now that Mickelson is stepping down, what will she do with all that free time?
“I’m not sure,” she replied. “In the fall, the federation is launching a campaign that will encourage bequest giving to the Jewish community. I’ll have some contractual responsibilities working for the DCJCC during the first six months of my retirement, trying to establish those gifts.”
As for her replacement, says the departing CEO, “Carol has a very strong arts background, she grew up in Washington, she’s Jewishly educated, she’s smart and she’s warm. I think she’s going to be excellent.”