Jim Rawl sets up camp at Dwares JCC

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Here are some facts about Jim Rawl, the new director of School-Age Programs at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center: he can play the ukulele; he briefly lived in the Philippines; he was a competitive swimmer for 15 years; he was recently granted dual citizenship by Hungary; he remotely interviewed for his new job while he was making his way through Costa Rica, where he had just gone scuba-diving with bull sharks.

Unless you asked, you might never learn these facts about Rawl, who is a man of few words. Despite his eventful 33 years, he is the last person to brag about his many achievements. He wears an expression of Zen calm, and burns little time on small talk.

At work, only one task seems vitally important to Rawl: to nurture the after-school and camp kids who come through his door.

“I had nieces and nephews, starting in high school,” Rawl said. “I realized I liked kids, so I decided to go the teaching route.

“After undergrad, I decided to do youth development work, like I’m doing now. I figured I can make a big impact on children’s lives.”

Rawl grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, along with his brother and two sisters. His father worked in finance and his mother was a homemaker. His family was not particularly religious, but Rawl grew up knowing that his paternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. After the war, his grandfather emigrated from Hungary to New York to begin his life afresh.

“I know that had a big impact on me,” Rawl says. “That definitely strengthened our Jewish identity.”

Rawl originally wanted to study ethnomusicology, which analyzes the relationship between music and culture, but job prospects in that field seemed limited. Instead, he earned a bachelor’s degree in early and middlec childhood studies from Ohio State University.

In addition to his studies, Rawl became a swim coach, building the school’s team from six laid-back members to more than 50 competitive swimmers. He also found time to join a ukulele club, where he occasionally performed.

But Rawl still had anthropological interests, so he moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, to pursue a master’s degree in intercultural service, leadership, and management from the School for International Training. He honed a variety of skills there, from nonprofit management to conflict resolution.

At that point, things got complicated for Rawl. He had long planned to join the Peace Corps, but his initial attempt to volunteer in Fiji didn’t work out. Then he signed up for a stint in the Philippines, to help find peaceful solutions to the violent Filipino drug war. He settled in, preparing himself for 27 months of intensive community work.

Rawl’s ad hoc title was youth development facilitator, with “youth” referring to people 15 to 30 years old. The work would also serve as a practicum and research opportunity, which he needed to finish his graduate studies.

“It was going really well,” Rawl recalled. “My job was … to go in the back doors [of local organizations] and work with professionals, trying to get people off drugs. It was definitely really memorable, that’s for sure.”

But six weeks into the job, Rawl became seriously ill, and he returned to the United States.

Back home with his parents, Rawl still needed to fulfill his practicum. He landed a position as youth development director and aquatics director at Altru Family YMCA, in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  He finished his final research paper and continued to work at the YMCA for two years, until the arrival of COVID-19 in the U.S., in 2020. Like thousands of other nonprofit employees, Rawl was laid off.

For eight months, Rawl applied for new jobs, but nothing materialized. When the pandemic appeared to be subsiding in 2021, he decided to travel to Central America, where he backpacked through Belize, Guatemala and Costa Rica. He also went diving and tended to sea turtle eggs with local environmentalists, among other activities, including looking for work.

Rawl found the camp director position at the Dwares JCC online, and he interviewed from a computer in Costa Rica. When he returned home to Ohio, he learned that he’d been offered the job.

Two weeks later, Rawl arrived in Providence, ready to begin his new life in a state, and a workplace, he had never even visited.

Rawl said he quickly warmed up to the JCC.

“Everybody’s really friendly and supportive and always willing to help,” he said. “That’s something that stands out. Whatever resources I require for an activity, I’m allowed to get. It’s been pretty open, and I’m allowed to grow the program as I see fit. I like that a lot.”

For the past few months, Rawl has been focused on running J-Space and J-Cation Camp, extracurricular programs for schoolchildren.  He has also started teaching religious school at Temple Emanu-El.

Rawl has aspirations to participate in the national JCC Maccabi Games, and he would like to get involved in the March of the Living, when COVID is under control.

In the meantime, he is busy planning this summer’s J-Camp, mapping out activities and enlisting new counselors.

“It’s my job to restart everything. COVID broke down a lot of things,” Rawl said. “I just want to make sure it’s well-rounded: have sports, an outdoors section, learn about cultures, do music, art, STEM. Help the kids grow into well-rounded people.”

He gives a chuckle.

“And have fun, too, of course,” he adds.

ROBERT ISENBERG (risenberg@jewishallianceri.org) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.