Promoting and strengthening values in our community through proven leadership.
By: Kristen Penfield
PHOTO: Alec Erlebacher
Growing up in the foothills of the Catskills, Erlebacher and her family felt a sense of belonging…but, a bit differently than their neighbors. The landscape of rolling hills and winding valleys suggested a community of likeness. Erlebacher was popular in the town of Youngsville, NY; she was well-liked in school and enjoyed many friends. She also knew she was different than her friends. It was something she felt on a daily basis from an early age. At times, she had to learn to fight for her dignity, about which she could speak with authority – she was the only Jewish student in her entire class. The result? The strong, powerful, outspoken and passionate leader she is today.
“Growing up, I lived in a community of enormous anti-semitism. There were no community centers for Jewish kids, and our family had to go outside of our town to attend a temple. We experienced the essence of being Jewish at home on the chicken farm and as a teenager, I would go outside of my community to attend activities at a Jewish center. My classmates did not have experience with the Jewish community and treated me differently,” stated Erlebacher. “Any derogatory comments about Jews would quickly be covered by claiming I was ‘not that type of Jew’, insinuating Orthodox Jews practicing traditional Judaism were different than I was,” she added.
Erlebacher never let it go, either. She would think nothing of putting people on the line when she heard statements such as that. “I always stood my ground, and I was always feisty. I demanded to know exactly what they meant in any negative situation,”said Erlebacher. “In my community, I blended, sang Christmas carols in chorus, enjoyed my friends, but I always felt different. At the very young age of 3 or 4, I remember asking my brother what the work ‘kike’ meant,” she added. A term she heard being discussed.
Erlebacher’s experiences were not all negative; her pugnacity was balanced with strong friendships. It was merely the beginning of understanding who she was. In fact, growing up in Youngstown formed her into the effective front-runner she is today.
For the past thirty-one years, Erlebacher has stood strongly with the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Dewitt. Her leadership has promoted growth, awareness and education, among many other things. “We wanted to be sure there was something for everyone here,” said Erlebacher, “We have programs and services for children, teens, adults and seniors.” Erlebacher saw to it.
So how did her JCC journey begin? A life-changing event hurled her into her present-day success.
Erlebacher moved to the Syracuse area where her husband grew up as a Jew. His experiences were quite different, given there were many more Jewish people in his neighborhood. “We were beginning our family when I had a near-fatal car accident. I was not able to walk for months and had to slowly learn to walk again,” said Erlebacher.
She was bringing her two boys to the Jewish Community Center and noticed there was absolutely no handicap parking. Immediately, she approached the Assistant Director of the center who said to her, something that remains with her to this day, “Be part of the solution, not the problem.” And that, she was.
“I was volunteering at the center, and felt a strong sense of being part of their community,” said Erlebacher, “right away they noticed my strengths and asked me to join the Board of Directors.” Erlebacher had a two-three-year term as President of the Board of Directors and continued to volunteer her time at the center, where she was needed. It fulfilled her, immeasurably.
Erlebacher had what it took to be a successful President – she had zest, drive, passion, power and integrity to lead by example. She also had the initiative and wherewithal to recognize what needed to be done.
“In 2001, I was chairing the search committee for an Executive Director. Amidst the search, the members all turned their heads towards me and insisted I would be a perfect fit for the position. I became the Interim Executive Director of the JCC. I told them I would ‘try’ it,” said Erlebacher.
The 2nd day on the job, was the fateful 9/11. Immediately, her building had to be evacuated. It was all very new. “Parents were coming in to get their kids. They were scared, but there was no chaos here. We all remained extremely calm, helped every single person, cleared out the building and closed down,” said Erlebacher. “Later, parents approached me and said they were thankful it was me here because I know the building, and I know the heart of the JCC. They were relieved.”
“That…,” claimed Erlebacher, “was my Aha moment and when knew I wanted this job.”
At home, she had a great deal of support from her husband and sons (now 31 and 27 years old). She knew she had an opportunity. “We all have opportunities, whether we see them or not – we have to take risks. Before I began my journey at the JCC and almost dying in a car accident, I remember pondering what my obituary would look like. It was then I knew I wasn’t done. I had to make my mark. I was a survivor. I will mourn the loss and celebrate what’s next. Not just for me and my family, but for my community,” said Erlebacher.
Erlebacher stated, “Without a doubt, I was nervous going into this position. But, I received overwhelming support from major businessmen with whom I had worked as President and that gave me even more affirmation and strength to persevere.”
After a year, Erlebacher did her own review of her progress, where she needed to grow and the path, the center was on. She said, “I had fabulous leadership and support from those who were there and stood behind me with tough decisions. It was a huge learning curve for me. Moving from one side of the desk to the other is a lot of work and there was a lot to learn.”
“The JCC made its way into my heart” Erlebacher added, “I received phenomenal help from strong women who mentored me. Corrine Smith, Mateele Kall and Jill Palmeter were extraordinary women who taught me everything I needed to know about this position. The JCC made its way into my heart.”
Looking back, Erlebacher admitted that perhaps the writing was on the wall.
“When I was in kindergarten, my teacher told my parents that ‘Marci can be a little bossy’. By the time I was a senior in high school, my teachers told my parents that I would be leading a 3-ring circus! In a way, they were right,” joked Erlebacher. Needless to say, Erlebacher’s parents were extremely proud of her work accomplished.
Fast-forward to 2017, Erlebacher continues as a strong leader of JCC. Are there always new situations that arise? Absolutely. Most recently, The JCC received a bomb threat in January of this year.
“I have been through tough times and knew immediately what I had to do. We feel we are the safest and most secure location in our area as we plan, practice and execute every single week. We regularly practice evacuations,” said Erhlebacher. “Emergency plans and protocol are practiced in conjunction with law enforcement and other agencies each week. In addition to ensure safety and security, JCC practices four bomb “sweeps” a day as well as with K9 coming through our facility two times per week.” Typically, there are 200 to 250 children, adults and senior citizens in the building on most mornings participating in various programs.
Erlebacher added, “We are currently raising money to add additional security features to our building. We are consistently evaluating ourselves and discussing how to better improve ourselves and our building.”
This is the world we live in; it has an impact on us, and the JCC is continuously improving security measures.
Erhlebacher said, “I am extremely impressed with the Dewitt Police who were on location within 2 minutes, back in January. The New York State Police and FBI have been phenomenal in working with us. Our staff treat our children as their own. When the bomb threat happened, I and my staff remained calm. Our focus is the kids, getting them out of the building and onto the bus without alarming any of them. We love our kids at the JCC and are dedicated to their safety.”
Erhlebacher agreed that it is sad when this happens in our world, noting the ironic fact that most of the children in their center are not Jewish. Many enroll their children because the JCC is the best childhood care facility in the area. The JCC is a pillar of unity and peace for Jews and non-Jews. Our nation and our President agreed in saying that we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its ugly forms.
“We are a Jewish facility, but we believe in diversity. We reach out to the greater community and promote inclusive environments. As well, we have many strong women who lead in our organization who are always critiquing, noticing, improving. We are professional; we are multitaskers, nurturers, and business women. We are leaders,” exclaimed Erlebacher, “The JCC is part of me. It’s in my blood. I listened to my universe and am so thankful that I did,” she added.
Proudly, Erlebacher stated that the Dewitt Jewish Community Center is the second oldest center in North America, formed during the Emancipation Proclamation.
“We do not take this lightly,” said Erlebacher, “I am always in learning-mode and always looking to improve. If life throws you lemons, self-evaluate and make the best lemonade you can!”
To meet Marci Erlebacher, is to walk away a better person.
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Read more at jccsyr.org and to learn about upcoming events and programs that they offer, or call 315.445.2360.