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Student Profile: Toni Davison Levenberg
Student Profile: Toni Davison Levenberg
Love of Jewish Summer Camp
Inspires a Community-Building Career
Toni Davison Levenberg, Director of the Steve and Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken JCC, is a student in a graduate program designed specifically for those who work for Jewish organizations. She recently spoke with Betsy Gomberg, Director of Communications at Chicago’s Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, about her participation in this unique program and its impact on her work in the Jewish community.
As a kid, Toni Davison Levenberg lived for summer camp.
Summer camp was such an important part of her identity that she decided, when she was still a camper, that she one day wanted to make camping her career. Unlike many childhood career goals, this one stuck. In college, Levenberg’s sorority yearbook foretold that she would one day be the director of a summer camp — and indeed today Levenberg is Director of Camp Interlaken JCC, where she has worked since 2006 and is proudly preparing for the camp’s 52nd season.
As prescient as this early decision was, it took Levenberg longer to realize something more nuanced about her love of camping.
Levenberg had been a camper at JCC Camp Arthur-Reeta in Pennsylvania (returning every summer even after her family had moved from Pennsylvania to Florida). And she began her camping career at Camp Chi, affiliated with Chicago’s JCC. She admits now, that when she started working there and she heard colleagues refer to themselves as “Jewish communal professionals” she didn’t identify one bit. Her career was about camping; she just happened to have a long-running relationship with Jewish camps.
Honing her experience and skills, she moved to a position at a camp serving inner-city Chicago youth. House in the Wood Camp does extremely important work, from which Levenberg appropriately drew satisfaction. But at a point in her tenure there, she realized this wasn’t really where she belonged. She recognized that her passion came from her experience at Jewish camp, from being part of the Jewish world. She now regards her work in the Jewish community as a critical part of her identity, and she sees her future as a Jewish agency executive, maybe working for camps, maybe not.
Another piece of Levenberg’s career plan was a graduate degree. She got as far as checking out Executive MBA programs, but they seemed unworkable for a camp director with two young children.
When Chicago-based Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership began recruiting for a Milwaukee-area cohort of its Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies (MAJPS) program, it seemed this was something she could realistically add to her schedule.
Classes meet one evening each week, in the very same building as Toni’s office, making the commute a single flight of stairs. Even so, she worried that it would be difficult to “be present” in class, that she would be distracted by thoughts of other important things on her plate. But she hasn’t found it hard to make the shift. The curriculum is relevant and engaging and class has become an intellectual respite from her other responsibilities.
There were other concerns as well, typical of adults returning to graduate school. She was originally aghast at the thought of writing papers. She’d studied Computer Science as an undergrad (in the Business Administration program of the University of Florida), so she hadn’t written a paper since high school. The first MAJPS course was an historical survey taught by Spertus Provost Dr. Dean Bell, a former director of the Association for Jewish Studies and a widely published author on Medieval and Early Modern Jewish history. In it, Levenberg felt the same pressure she’d had as an undergraduate in courses designed to weed the field. But she was determined. She felt tremendous pride at conquering her first paper, and then her second, and now such things are routine.
Levenberg finds she’s getting even more out of the program than she anticipated — and she’s applying more of what she’s learned. The leadership classes have both validated things she was doing and given her new techniques and ideas. She’s been challenged and learned to work smarter, to deliberately delegate time to her various roles: educator, planner, leader, fundraiser.
When Professor Scott Aaron (who teaches a course called This American Jewish Life) asked students to pick two things they’d learned, Levenberg found it hard to stick to just two.
Her cohort consists exclusively of professionals from Jewish organizations that serve the Milwaukee area. It’s been amazing to see the varied expertise in the room (program directors, educators, rabbis, fundraisers) and to learn from each other’s perspectives. The members of her cohort have become so close that she feels she has her best friends on her team, a throwback to how she felt as a camper. She’s going to miss this camaraderie when the program is finished.
Furthermore, her family is going to miss it too. Her husband, son, and daughter have been dining together in the cafe at the JCC with the families of several of the other students every week, forming a cohort of their own while mom or dad is in class.
Levenberg believes the MAJPS program answers a critical need for succession planning in Jewish organizations. It is securing a field of well-trained talent to fill leadership roles. A second cohort of the MAJPS program will begin in Milwaukee in August, with introductory seminars in June. Levenberg encourages her Milwaukee community colleagues to apply. “The program will help you succeed in your current job,” she says, “and prepare you for the future.” She looks forward to seeing graduates of the program permeate the Jewish community of Milwaukee, providing leadership and innovation for Jewish generations to come.
More information about the program is available at spertus.edu/majps.