A look at Nishmah, one year after merging with JCC

Ronit Sherwin, then-Executive Director of Nishmah, participates in the 2009 Nishmah pre-Passover Journey held in Clayton. Sherwin, who left Nishmah in 2011 after accepting a job as director of the University of Delaware Hillel, is returning to St. Louis Aug. 26 for a Nishmah “Tea with Ronit” event.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A year after being absorbed under the umbrella of the Jewish Community Center, Nishmah continues to provide programming to the community and perhaps demonstrates a blueprint for Jewish organizations as they face challenges and mature into new roles.

“People start these great, innovative organizations but what does that mean once you get started and you’ve gotten beyond the initial excitement of a new thing?” said Sara Winkelman, director of the program. “How do you move to the next level?”

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Founded in 2005 as a non-profit effort to provide spiritual, educational and social programming for girls and women in the community, Nishmah serves some 400 to 500 in the area annually with programs such as the “Salon Series,” a set of living room-based discussions for women and “Banot Buddies,” an initiative that pairs 2nd through 4th grade girls with teenage counterparts for interaction on topics of female interest “through a Jewish lens.”

Winkelman said joining with the JCC has been nothing but a benefit to the group, allowing it to expand its audience while reducing the logistical and overhead challenges that can produce a drag on the core mission of an organization.

“Basically, Nishmah was offering all these amazing programs but it was really hard to run a small non-profit by yourself,” she said. “You have to do everything from take the garbage out to pay the bills and also try to run these great programs. To have long-term sustainabil ity we really needed to merge with a larger organization.”

Winkelman said that the recent women’s Shabbat retreat was one example. She noted that it had been done before but this time it sold out with 144 participants.

Not only are existing programs enhanced but new ones have begun or been expanded. The organization now collaborates with the national Sharsheret group to offer “Sharsheret Supports,” which aims to assist Jewish women and their families facing breast cancer. Nishmah’s long-running “It’s a Girl Thing” initiatives for 5th to 9th grade girls are now being complemented with a similar program for adolescent boys.

“The biggest change for us is that we’ve been able to focus more on the things we’re good at which is our innovative programming for women and girls and not the details of running it,” Winkelman said.

Margie Hartman, chair of the Nishmah committee and a founding board member of the group, agreed that, with the JCC’s help, the everyday challenges are not as difficult they were.

“When you are operating as a startup, just to get a mailing out requires an unbelievable amount of logistical effort and volunteer time,” she said. “It sucks up a lot of energy to take care of day-to-day things that you wouldn’t even think about. When you become a part of the J, there is a support system there that doesn’t exist on your own.”

Hartman said that though it’s turned out well, the move didn’t come without concern.

“People were worried about becoming part of a larger institution like the J, that somehow it would change us,” she said. “We’ve had nothing but good news for the past year. It’s been nothing but a benefit for us.

“When you stay true to your mission and be clear what it is that you do, it helps,” she added.

Ronit Sherwin, the founding executive director of the group who served in that capacity until her departure last year to take over the Hillel at the University of Delaware, said that she was ambivalent about the move knowing that it was best for the organization but also concerned that it could lose its “countercultural” ethos in joining a mainstream Jewish entity.

“That’s appealing,” she said. “I think some people have become less enamored with the traditional Jewish community and how it is operated. That was an appeal for some of our funders and certainly our participants.”

Sherwin said the decision had been discussed for as much as three years before making the move but previous attempts to go forward had met with at least some resistance from board members. When the final decision was made, the board was unanimous.

“It wasn’t a short process but it was a very genuine process and it required a lot of buy-in and sensitivity to that,” she said.

Issues of mergers have been important to the community of late on both the local and national levels with Jewish communal institutions finding separate infrastructures difficult to maintain in a challenging philanthropic environment. Sherwin noted that many agencies and synagogues are looking at new models and methods of collaboration though combining cultures of various groups can sometimes remain a tough issue to work through.

“It’s hard to put aside your history…but I think you need to keep an eye on the future,” she said. “Just because you merge doesn’t mean your history no longer exists.”

Sherwin, who worked at the JCC before starting Nishmah, may get to reminisce over some of that history this month. The subject of a recent profile in Lillith magazine will be coming back to her old stomping grounds for a “Tea with Ronit” event set for Aug. 26 at a private home in West County. She said she’s happy to see Nishmah able to offer an exciting array of expanded programming.

Jenny Wolkowitz, another founding board member who is no longer on the board, said she is glad for the community to have the chance to hear from Sherwin who will talk about her experiences in the Jewish communal environment.

Wolkowitz sees Nishmah’s evolution from independence to a part of the JCC as a natural maturation. She doesn’t feel the unique organization could have been founded as a component of the agency. It needed independence as a starting point.

“I don’t think the J was ready for that at that time,” she said. “That was really the impetus for moving away from the J in starting an independent organization.”

Wolkowitz, who is also president of the Jewish Light board, said seven years of being on its own showed the viability of the concept.

“We were this proven commodity in the community doing vibrant programming and so they said this is a good marriage to come back to each other because it is something we need in our tool belt,” she said.

In the end, she thinks the combination works.

“When two organizations find that they have mission overlap and can provide the same things, it’s a more efficient use of resources,” she said. “It makes all the sense in the world.”