Miriam Szubin Connects City Families of All Faiths at D.C.’s Jewish Community Center

by Christina Bruce

At 4:00pm on a recent weekday afternoon, the relatively empty lobby at Washington, D.C.’s Jewish Community Center (JCC) fills with a stream of children. Many of them are little girls wearing pink tutus. Miriam Szubin, director of the JCC’s Parenting Center, lights up at the sight of them. “I have three boys,” Szubin says, pausing a conversation to call out hellos to kids and caregivers. “We’re not big on tutus in my house, so it’s like a little tutu fix once a week.”

The girls have come for preschool ballet, one of several classes Szubin offers as part of JCC’s programming for both little ones and adults that includes music, art, yoga, gymnastics, and workshops. “My mandate here really is to provide a place for people in the neighborhood to connect over parenthood,” Szubin says, “and to get help with parenthood and to have places for their children to do things.”

The stately white JCC building on 16th Street, just a few blocks away from D.C.’s much more famous stately white building, hasn’t always been a family destination. A pillared landmark that sits on the edge of what used to be considered a dangerous neighborhood, it was known for its theater and cultural programs mostly targeted at singles. But the Logan Circle area has changed dramatically in the past decade, exploding with new restaurants and condos. More and more families with young children were staying downtown, Szubin says, and “there was just a huge dearth of places for them to go.” Over the past five years, enrollment in the JCC’s early childhood programs has quadrupled. “We are bursting at the seams,” Szubin says.

A Boston-area native, Szubin started out teaching history to middle- and high school kids. She met her husband, Adam, shortly after moving to D.C. in 2002 to teach at a private Jewish day school. By the time her firstborn came along four years later, she was ready for a change.

While working part-time in the education department at the National Portrait Gallery, which she still does two mornings a week, Szubin began teaching a music class for toddlers at the JCC. She enjoyed it, and her involvement with the center grew. That led to what she calls her “strange and beautiful setup” at the JCC, where she works about 20 hours a week on a flexible schedule, running the Parenting Center's programs and teaching two classes—music for babies and their grownups, and  Getting Ready for Preschool, a mini-nursery program. As the position grew, Szubin held on to what she loved about teaching while picking up new skills: budgeting and marketing, spreadsheets, supervising staff.

Though it means more competition for the building’s already-stretched space, she says, being part of a larger organization means, “I get to have colleagues who run film festivals, and I get to have colleagues who build houses for homeless people, and I get to have colleagues who do all kinds of other amazing things.”

Parenting is hard, and there are lots of different ways to get it right.

Szubin has been with the JCC long enough, now, to see kids—including her own—grow up within her programs. Her three boys—Nathan, age 8; Micah, age 6; and Josiah, age 3—have been enrolled in classes and camps since Szubin started working there there. It also happens to be where their synagogue rents space, so the boys were circumcised there too.

When name Nathan was four, he observed, “Mommy, I go to school at the JCC, and you work at the JCC, and we go to synagogue at the JCC, right?”

“Right,” she said.

“Maybe,” he concluded, “we should just live at the JCC.”  

Nathan’s sense of place is felt just as acutely by many other people in the community. Says Szubin, “We definitely have families here that see this as their second home.”

She draws on her own experience as a mom, as well as conversations with other parents and on listservs, to come up with ideas for the parent programs at the center. The perennial favorites, she says, are “desperation topics” such as tantrums and toilet training. “People like to feel they’re not alone with whatever it is that they’re dealing with,” Szubin says, and she finds that the heart of her role lies in facilitating that connection.  Even informally, Szubin says, her goal is “to create clusters of people who can find community with each other,” such as interfaith families and single parents.

But it’s not just about new parents. Szubin is proud of a new offering she initiated, a workshop called Pathways to Parenthood, that provides information on nontraditional family planning, including adoption, surrogacy, and fertility treatments. “I had a woman come up afterwards and she said, ‘I’ve been feeling so alone with the infertility,’” Szubin says. “’Just being in a room with people going through it and hearing their stories, I feel less alone.’”

Another session, suggested by a grandmother-to-be at the JCC, offers a refresher, of sorts, to people who’ve been out of the parenting game for awhile and want to learn about the latest in car seats, safety, and other useful kid-care information for when the grandkids come to visit.

It’s easy to see Szubin, who has a ready, open smile and a confident demeanor, as a people-connector in a place where folks from many walks of life converge. That also means she has to be a bit of a diplomat in a landscape teeming with different parenting styles.

“We serve a wide variety of people here, and I don’t ever want anyone to feel in any way excluded or alienated,” she says, noting that teachers are told never to assume everyone has a mommy and a daddy. “I really try to find people who kind of fit into my general philosophy, which is: Parenting is hard, and there are lots of different ways to get it right.”

szubin interacting with icc habitués both young and old.

szubin interacting with icc habitués both young and old.

Photographs by Jeffrey Morris