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14th Street Y

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
In collaboration with

East End Temple
Brotherhood Synagogue
Town & Village Synagogue
NYU Bronfman Center
JCP Downtown
6th Street Community Synagogue
The New Shul
The Center for Creative Judaism
The Manny Cantor Center
The Village Temple
5th Avenue Conservative Synagogue
JCP Downtown
Kol HaKfar

Prize category
5+ years
Target audience
Community Building

The 14th Street Y cultivates a relationship-based community, teaching and embodying Jewish wisdom in our programs and how we approach our work. We offer programs that support people of all ages. We offer parenting classes and early childhood education. Afterschool, camp, and teen summer programs support youth development. Our fitness programs offer a supportive community for individuals at all levels. LABA, our artist fellowship program, uses Jewish text as the inspiration for the creation of new art and culture. Downtown Jewish Life cultivates a connected, inspiring Jewish community in Downtown Manhattan. Our vision is to empower community members to apply Jewish wisdom in their own lives.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Jewish text and sensibilities are at the heart of all of our work at the 14th Street Y, influencing and impacting all that we do. We have introduced the Jewish Sensibility Cards to provide a framework for discussion at our staff meetings as a way of helping our staff understand and apply Jewish sensibilities in their work. One of our core sensibilities is Na’aseh V’nishmah. We see Na’aseh V’nishmah applied in our classrooms, where students learn by doing through our emergent curriculum based on Jewish stories, wisdom, and sensibilities. We also see this applied in our offices as our staff imagine, develop, and implement new programs and activities inspired by Jewish wisdom.

At the 14th Street Y, we grapple with the complexities of life through our our LABA arts programming. LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture is based on the sensibilities of Elu V’elu, Na’aseh V’Nishmah, and Israel. LABA’s House of Study is a year-long artist fellowship that brings together artists from a variety of backgrounds for a year-long beit midrash taught by Sapir Prize-winning novelist and scholar Ruby Namdar and guided by a new theme each year. These artists bring diverse perspectives from their experience with Judaism, their interests, and their perspective and work as artists to their study of traditional Jewish texts. The beit midrash is animated by intellectual rigor and an approach to unpacking Jewish text that encourages our artists to think critically and continually question. Then, drawing inspiration from these texts, artists develop artwork and cultural experiences that bring the wisdom of the texts to life for an audience of about 21,000 individuals who we engage through our LABAlive event series and via The name LABA is inspired by the modern Hebrew word for lava, and like lava the program seeps into every aspect of our community, becoming the richest soil from which new ideas grow and flourish. We include artist-educators in the LABA beit midrash, who then bring Jewish wisdom into our classrooms and programs throughout the Y, so that all of our members and students have opportunities to contemplate how Jewish texts, stories, ideas, and sensibilities can enrich their lives. LABA’s text-based, applied approach is a model for Jewish education in all of our programs including our programs for young people: preschool, afterschool, and our camps for elementary school students and teens. Our preschool’s emergent, Reggio-inspired curriculum is driven by the interests of the children and evolves according to open-ended exploration of ideas and concepts rather than prescriptive instruction. Indeed, across all of our programs for children and youth, we challenge our students to tackle complex Jewish ideas, derived from text, and to use the arts as a way to respond to and explore how those ideas can impact their lives with a questioning, open mind and an abiding curiosity.

At the 14th Street Y, we are constantly on a journey of discovery and development, and our staff frequently refer to Avraham and Sarah’s willingness to heed the call to Lech Lecha—take the next step and go—as they take smart risks in imagining, developing, and implementing new programs and activities. Our new Downtown Jewish Life program, which pulls together 25 downtown synagogues and Jewish institutions together to build a connected, inclusive, vibrant Jewish community in Lower Manhattan has newly emerged as a full scale program. Downtown Jewish Life includes a robust series of public holiday events and Shabbat celebrations that celebrate the diverse perspectives that these partners bring to the community. We embarked on this program in 2015 with a long-term vision to reimagine the East Village as a vibrant cultural center for Jewish art, ideas, and wisdom. We set out to achieve this by a process of co-creating, so that our members and partners could help create experiences that addressed their needs and interests. We were willing to experiment and learn from our experience, from our partners, and from our audience, and we have seen that our audience and our partners have learned as much as we have through their participation in this process. We continue to implement this approach, piloting an adult education series for newly committed couples in partnership with Honeymoon Israel this coming fall before launching a full-scale program next year. We apply a process that includes co-creating, testing, and iterating new programming over many cycles because we have learned that experiment and experience are the best teachers. Our annual Tikkun, our “white night-style” celebration of Shavuot is farther along in in this process of experimenting and applying lessons learned through an iterative process. For each of the three years we have offered this event, our audience has grown. Our 2016 Tikkun drew 560 attendees, a tremendous success for us, up from the 450 people who attended our first one two years ago.

Through these and many other programs, the 14th Street Y applies Simcha by bringing our diverse community together for celebrations. Our winter Shabbat series, Pause/Play, opens our building to the full breadth of our community for a festive afternoon of recreational activities, culinary experiences, performances, fitness and meditation classes. Jewish or not, we believe that taking time for a Sabbath of rest and renewal can help support wellness, imbue our members’ lives with meaning, and build a resilient community. At the end of each Pause/Play, we invite our community to join a Havdallah ceremony and say goodbye to the sweetness of Shabbat together. Pause/Play is a time for busy families to share an afternoon together and to connect with other members of the community. Building on our success with our Pause/Play series, we are testing a smaller pop-up Shabbat series specifically designed for new parents. We celebrate Shabbat, too with our staff, with a weekly yoga class on Friday afternoons, just for our staff, and a weekly coffee hour, inviting our hardworking staff to relax and commune with one another at regular intervals.

We see each member of our community as an individual with infinite potential and capacity. We apply B’Tzelem Elohim through our inclusion model at camp and in our preschool. Understanding that children come to the Y with a diverse range of needs, our goal is to provide support so that every child—including those with special needs—is able to join our community and participate in our programs alongside their neurotypical friends and siblings. In our fitness center, we meet our members where they are and bring them to the next level of skill and physical fitness. For example, we offer beginner adult swimming classes, provide modifications in our fitness classes and personal training sessions, and cultivate a welcoming fitness community that accepts each new member as they are at every stage of their fitness journey, celebrating both incremental progress and major milestones.

Even as we celebrate the accomplishments of our community members, we recognize and make room for Shevira, and apply Chesed, in our community. We come together as a community when one or a few of us experience tragedy. When a gas explosion destroyed a residential building in the East Village in April of 2015, two families who are members of the 14th Street Y found themselves in need of affordable, permanent housing. In addition to publicizing the families’ Gofundme pages to our members, encouraging them to support a campaign that raised a combined $120,000, we also provided each family with a social worker and a caring group of neighbors and friends to support them, and to connect them to brokers who offered their services for free. This is just one example of a time when the whole Y community came together in support of families during their time of need. Recognizing brokenness as a part of life allows people to share their tragedies and challenges, so that we can work together as a community to ease the burden. We provide opportunities for our members to contribute their time and talent as volunteers, recognizing that everyone at times can give, and at times must receive, Chesed.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

We live these sensibilities at the 14th Street Y, demonstrating by example to members of our diverse community how Jewish wisdom drives our programming and continued growth. We name and discuss Jewish sensibilities as a community. For example, at staff meetings, we use the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah’s Jewish sensibility cards as a framework for small group discussion. The sensibilities and our staff study of Jewish text are then translated by our staff into programmatic initiatives in their program area. For example, at our 800-camper New Country Day Camp, we designate a different Jewish sensibility to examine for each week, encouraging our campers to dissect and explore each one through different forms of educational programming throughout the camp day. Through posts on our Y blogs and direct communication with the 25,000 recipients of our communications, we share Jewish wisdom and invite people to opportunities to apply it, whether in our programs or in their lives outside of the 14th Street Y.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

Our approach to applying Jewish wisdom to our work in open, welcoming, non-prescriptive ways has enabled us to build a community here at the Y that is grounded in strong relationships that are sustained beyond the walls of our building. Individuals connect with one another in our programs and at our events, and then develop deep and lasting friendships as a result of those encounters. It is difficult to quantify this and we are still learning how to document this relationship-based community, but we have substantial qualitative evidence that people connect to a community when they walk through our doors.

We have also documented evidence that individuals who learn Jewish wisdom at the 14th Street Y apply it in their lives. We have seen LABA artists embrace Jewish wisdom in their lives as they come through our program, moving from no engagement with Jewish sensibility, to meaningfully incorporating it to their own lives and projects, moving from nothing to something.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

Jewish wisdom inspires us to innovate, to dream ambitiously about what we hope to accomplish, and to take smart risks, knowing that occasional failure is a part of a journey of learning and growth. These actions are ingrained in our community center, influencing both what we do and how we do it.