It is tough for many community members to imagine the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh without Rachel Marcus, who has announced her retirement after serving the Squirrel Hill institution for almost 50 years.
Andrea Glickman, 44, was a toddler when she first met Marcus, who began her career at the JCC as a teacher in the nursery school. Glickman’s relationship with Marcus deepened during her summers as a camper and counselor at the JCC’s James & Rachel Levinson Day Camp (J&R) in the 1970s and early 1980s, where Marcus served as the camp’s director for more than 30 years.
Now, Glickman’s children are the beneficiaries of Marcus’ personal touch.
“My family has a long relationship with Rachel,” said Glickman. “I was a nervous camper, and Rachel took care of me. Now, she takes care of my kids, [campers at the JCC’s Emma Kaufmann Camp]. Every week, I take packages of goodies for my kids and give them to Rachel. And every week, she takes those packages up to camp [in Morgantown, W.Va.] and
personally delivers them to my kids with a smile and a hug. Sometimes she takes a video of my kids and sends it to me.”
Marcus, 70, began her career in 1968 as a 22-year-old with a degree in education from Youngstown State University. Following graduation, she headed straight to the JCC.
“I sort of grew up at the East End Center,” the former site of the JCC, Marcus recalled. “When I came back to Pittsburgh, I wanted to be part of the community, and I wanted to be part of the Center.”
The JCC first hired the native Pittsburgher as a preschool teacher and part-time adviser for The Charades, a club for ninth- and 10th-grade girls.
In those days, there were about 30 different after-school clubs for children of JCC members, Marcus explained. The Charades got together for service projects, as well as social and creative activities.
“Rachel was adviser of the girls’ club,” recalled Meryl Ainsman, a member of The Charades under the tutelage of Marcus in the late 1960s. “Every day after school we would go to the ‘Ikes,’” the nickname of the JCC, taken from its former name, the Irene Kaufmann Settlement. “That’s what we did. Our entire social life was centered around those clubs.”
Ainsman remembered holding bake sales to raise money for charity and
performing in musicals and a “drama fest” as part of the club.
But she values the lessons of friendship and inclusion most from the time she spent in Marcus’ group.
“Girls can be mean,” Ainsman said. “Rachel made sure we treated everyone fairly. You had to vote people into the club in those days, and Rachel taught us to be as inclusive as possible. That’s the thing I remember most. That’s what I learned from her.”
Marcus’ work at the JCC has encompassed virtually all facets of the institution. In addition to early childhood education and camping, she has been involved in board development, finance and administration. She has been a member of the JCC’s senior management team for the past 19 years and currently serves as the organization’s associate executive director.
In 2002, she took on leadership of the JCC’s South Hills branch and was the JCC’s lead representative in the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Partnership 2Gether initiative with Karmiel/Misgav, Israel.
But Marcus’ most treasured memories of her life’s work at the JCC involve the kids.
“The fondest memories I have are being in the day camp and watching the kids grow, gain independence, becoming part of nature and singing songs,” she said. “That was my pride — seeing how they grew from summer to summer. I miss it very much.”
Marcus’ official retirement date will be announced at a later time following a national search process for the newly created position of JCC chief program officer.
To say that it will be hard to replace Marcus is an understatement, according to Brian Schreiber, the JCC’s president and CEO.
“In many ways, Rachel is an iconic figure,” Schreiber said. “I think we don’t live in an era right now where people dedicate over six decades to any organization. She put her heart and soul into the agency. It will be hard to replace that, and I’m not sure we will in the same way.”
Schreiber noted Marcus’ “tremendous history” with the JCC, praising her ability to nurture relationships “that go back for generations.”
Marcus, who Schreiber described as “a very intuitive person,” often dealt with “the most difficult and private situations,” providing guidance to JCC members behind the scenes and helping to positively resolve stories that will never be publicly told, he said. “No one can really replace that.”
Schreiber added that he plans to continue to turn to Marcus as a resource, even in her retirement.
“I’m so proud of being a part of this institution and a part of this community and such a committed staff,” Marcus said. “Every day was a different experience. Every day I could make a difference to a child or a family was my greatest pride. This was my family.”
Marcus will be among three agency executives honored at the Federation’s annual meeting on Aug. 30. The JCC is also planning a special event to celebrate Marcus on Sunday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m. Both programs are open to the public.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.