Israel trip and fellowship redefine JCC officer’s passion for community
Professional DevelopmentPersonal Growth

Israel trip and fellowship redefine JCC officer’s passion for community

As a Jewish professional working in philanthropy, 'I talk about community and the impact of a gift ... I understand it now on a higher level”

Fara Marcus is participating in an 18-month fellowship with the JCCA. (Photo courtesy of Fara Marcus)
Fara Marcus is participating in an 18-month fellowship with the JCCA. (Photo courtesy of Fara Marcus)

A fellowship and visit to Israel transformed Fara Marcus’ understanding of community and Judaism.

Armed with insight from the Martin Pear Israel Fellowship, Marcus, the chief development and marketing officer of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, said she is still learning and determining how to implement best the life lessons she gained on her trip.

Alongside 10 North American colleagues, Marcus began an 18-month Israel education program on Oct. 1.

Administered by the JCC Association of North America, the fellowship introduces participants — Jewish and non-Jewish JCC professionals — to Israel’s “past, present and future.”

Though organizers intended to ease the cohort into a complex topic over 18 months, that plan changed when, six days after the fellowship began, Hamas invaded Israel. Two days later, on Oct. 9, cohort members took to Zoom for their first meeting.

“Obviously, there was a lot of uncertainty,” Marcus said.

Concerns were quickly allayed as educators and program administrators not only addressed questions but immediately modified the curriculum.

Instead of spending 18 months instructing fellows about Israel’s history, teachers realized there needed to be a “crash course on why the war is going on,” Marcus said, exploring “what’s happening right now,” while preparing participants for an immersive 11-day visit to the Jewish state.

Marcus returned from the “life-changing” trip weeks ago.

“I think that as we can see in the world, Israel is not only underappreciated but misunderstood,” she said. “Israel is a nation of love and strength, and it’s a promise of community and a promise of people who watch out for each other.”

Her beliefs, she said, were reinforced by visits with Jews, Arabs and Christians.

Regardless of faith, “people care for each other,” Marcus said. “They care for the person who’s walking next to them when they might be on the street in Tel Aviv, and they care as well about Israel.”

While at war Israel is in deep crisis and hurt, she said, “At the end of the day people are there for each other. They have to survive, and they have to rely on themselves to survive, literally.”

Fara Marcus, left, learns about inclusion and community during a dinner in Israel. (Photo courtesy of Fara Marcus)

After returning to Pittsburgh, Marcus shared her thoughts during a talk with members of the JCC’s board, through an email to JCC staff and stakeholders and during brief remarks at a Bring Them Home vigil on the corner of Darlington Road and Murray Avenue.

Her learning, she said, is far from complete and she’s excited to see where it leads.

Cohort members are required to implement a project that brings Israel back to their JCC and community in a “purposeful and meaningful way,” Marcus said. “I’m not sure what I’ll do yet, but I think our community is already making change since the start of the war.”

Marcus pointed to a December program at the JCC when four Israeli visitors publicly lit a Chanukah candle and recounted the horrors of Oct. 7.

Six months after their visit, Marcus remains in touch with several of the travelers through WhatsApp. Along with checking in on each other, the group wishes each other Shabbat shalom every Friday. On an off night in Israel, Marcus went to dinner with one of the parties — Hila Fakliro, an Israeli who, during her visit to Pittsburgh, described the terror of being a bartender at the Re’im music festival.

Sitting together in a Tel Aviv restaurant, “felt like all worlds colliding,” Marcus said.

As a Jewish professional working in philanthropy, “I talk about community and the impact of a gift,” she said. “I understand it now on a higher level.”

Before last month, Marcus had never traveled to Israel. She “passed up” opportunities in her teens and 20s, and her earlier connections to Judaism weren’t particularly substantive, she said.

“I grew up in a Reform family. We went to the High Holidays and I got bat mitzvahed, but being Jewish was always just kind of in my side pocket,” she said. “It wasn’t until I met my wonderful husband that I started to really explore my Jewish identity and what it meant to truly be Jewish. That just continued when we had children. Where I really started my Jewish journey is when I became a Jewish professional at the JCC, and that coincided with my children being of age to attend the ECDC here and then go on to Community Day.”

Though Jewishly engaged personally and professionally, a void existed, Marcus said.

“I kind of felt like an outsider,” she continued. “I work in a JCC where most of my colleagues, or in the Jewish community, have experienced Israel by this point in their life.”

Fara Marcus places her hand on the Western Wall during her first visit to Israel. (Photo courtesy of Fara Marcus)

Studying about Israel, and experiencing it firsthand, didn’t only alter Marcus’ relationship to the Jewish state, but to her colleagues and neighbors at home.

She credits the fellowship’s origins.

Named in honor of Martin Pear, a former CEO at Valley of the Sun JCC in Scottsdale, Arizona, Pear was “one of the field’s most beloved leaders,” according to JCCA. “He believed strongly that all Jewish professionals should anchor their practice in a passionate commitment to Israel.”

After Pear died, his daughter and son-in-law funded the fellowship, Marcus said.

“When I thought about this it struck me because this is my career,” she continued. “Every day I work in philanthropy and talk about the impact of a gift, but this time I wasn’t the solicitor, I wasn’t the donor, I was the recipient. And it really reinforced for me my purpose in our community, as the chief development officer for the JCC, that just one gift, one thoughtfully created gift, literally impacted and changed my life.”

Jason Kunzman, the JCC’s president and CEO, said he is “beyond thrilled that Fara had the opportunity to experience Israel for the first time through a program of the JCC Association. The trip’s powerful impact on both her professional approach and her Jewish identity is already evident.”

Months remain until Marcus concludes her fellowship. The Israel-based portion is now complete, but she isn’t thinking about finality.

“I don’t call it a trip,” she said. “It’s an educational journey.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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