The Marcus JCC was recognized with two JCC Outstanding Program Awards from the Jewish Community Centers of North America for its Intown Outreach and Spotlight Theatre programs.
Awards are given out every two years in 15 categories, including: Israel, inclusion, arts and culture.
MJCCA Chief Programming Officer Hope Chernak said that the awards are a prestigious honor, and that each category is rife with competition.
“What’s nice about it is that you’re able to recommend or apply for your agency, so the nomination comes internally, but it’s selected by the national organization,” she said. “You’re up against close to 20 applicants per category, so it’s definitely a broad field.”
Spotlight Theatre — winner in the inclusion category — is an immersive theatre experience for actors with special needs. The theater features an audition process, and the actors all train and rehearse together and learn from professionals and educators in the performing arts industry.
Elizabeth Knapp, director of the Blonder Family Department for Special Needs, explained that the Spotlight Theatre program was originally formed to help actors with special needs elevate their experience to a more professional level.
“One of the great things that has come out of it is not just that the participants are reporting improved self-confidence and self-esteem, but also that participants are working with professionals in the industry,” she said. “The recognition has allowed the actors to show off their abilities rather than their disabilities.”
Knapp also said that she believes more national attention may cause other communities to mimic the innovative program.
“I think the attention will make others try similar programs in the future. One of the things we addressed when we submitted Spotlight for the award is how adaptable it is,” she said. “We talked about how other communities and JCCs can do a similar program.”
Lauren Chekanow, MJCCA’s Intown Outreach associate, said that after beginning the program last May, it has drawn more than 1,800 attendees at events and more than 20 partnerships with intown organizations.
“The goal was to increase engagement among young Intown Jewish families, and …. it’s very exciting for us,” Chekanow said. “It’s definitely been an initiative for the MJCCA that everyone is proud of.”
Chernak added that including Intown Jews in the MJCCA’s initiatives is a big focus.
“We here in Atlanta have an interesting vision that the Jewish community is not just in one specific location,” she said. “We’ve been focusing on how we do our outreach to the intown, and we’re seeing how JCCs can expand beyond the walls, outside of a campus.”
The awards will be handed out Feb. 24 at the JCCA conference in Orlando, Fla.
“To be recognized as excellent in programming is beyond just a feather in our cap,” Chernak said. “It means we will now become a resource for our colleagues around the country,” and, “not everyone gets to know about it unless it’s shouted from the rooftops, which we try to do, but having the national platform means it’s more widespread,” she said.