“I think that people are hungry for coming together, and I think they want to do it in their Jewish world. The more we can look out, talk with people and really listen to what they are asking for, I think the more creative we can get in building opportunities for connection.”
Julie Wohl, Jewish Educator, Artist, Author, Mom, Wife
One never knows when what seems like an unremarkable day will, in retrospect, be an inflection point that will significantly impact the direction of our life. Julie has experienced multiple inflection points during her life journey, some that she stumbled upon and many that she created. All have informed the multidimensional human being she has become.
A Detroit native, Julie was an undergraduate at Michigan State University, active in Hillel and working at a JCC day camp in a newly launched inclusion program. An article about this program that focused on Julie and her campers was published by The Detroit Jewish News, which caught the attention of Aviva Panush, director of Congregation Kehillat Israel’s Hebrew School. The Detroit Jewish community is much like Baltimore’s Jewish community, where it seems everyone is within several degrees of separation from one another, and thus Aviva reached out and ultimately contacted Julie’s mother who proudly provided her daughter’s phone number.
Aviva hired Julie for a teaching position in the congregation’s Hebrew school, despite Julie’s explanation that she did not have the knowledge base. With Aviva’s mentoring over the next couple of years, Julie graduated with a clear vision of a career pathway, moving to NYC to earn a Master’s degree in Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). “I wanted to focus on experiential education and the arts.” During graduate school, Julie’s next mentor, Serena Victor, hired Julie to run a conference for new synagogue school directors, a job that evolved into summer work with ever-increasing levels of responsibility. At the age of 26, Julie was hired by a NJ congregation to build a new religious school “from scratch.” “It was an incredible opportunity to set everything we know aside and just be creative and think differently.” They hired a car service to bring teachers from Manhattan to NJ to fill a human resources gap, and they offered students choices in elective offerings.
A parallel career track as artist and author also was developing immediately following graduate school, starting with another inflection point: a call from a friend at JTS, Rabbi Lauren Kurland, who was also a religious school director. Lauren explained that a family belonging to her synagogue wanted to purchase a siddur for its K – 2nd grade children’s services. The siddur needed to be “beautifully illustrated and inclusive of all of the prayers in Hebrew with translations.” When nothing could be found that met this criteria, Julie, an accomplished artist, and Lauren created exactly what the family envisioned, and the third iteration of the original siddur, now published by Berman House as “Siddur Mah Tov: A Family Shabbat Prayer Book,” is used by Reform and Conservative religious schools throughout the US. “If you can’t find something, just make it. It works in art, books, programming, teaching. It’s a hallmark of what I do: find what’s needed and make it happen” says Julie.
Additional publications over the past ten years include “Simply Seder: A Passover Haggadah” (Berman House), “A National Religious School Curriculum for Grades 3-5” (Melton Research Center), “Shalom Baby! A New Baby Memory Book” (CJE) and “Make, Create, Celebrate! Jewish Holidays Through Art” (Berman House). Proclaims Julie, “Make, Create, Celebrate!” is the book I was always meant to write: an art journal on the Jewish holidays. The color, the shape, the whimsey, the vibrancy. That is how people identify my art and maybe, hopefully,” she says with a smile, “that’s also how they identify me.”
A sought-after speaker at national conferences, Julie has taken her messages to podiums since 2005, the same year she graduated from JTS.
In 2018, Julie was hired by the Baltimore Council for Jewish Education (CJE) when the Wohl family relocated to Maryland for Julie’s husband, Rabbi Josh Wohl, to become senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shalom in Annapolis. Two years ago, Julie was promoted to Director of Baltimore’s PJ Library, two weeks before Covid disrupted life as we knew it.
“Some of the most important work of my career was done during this pandemic because I’m tasked with working with families, creating community, helping people feel connected, helping parents as well as children feel safe and embraced, feeling like this is a community and a tradition that supports them at a time when the entire world was upside down. Young Moms and Dads with young children were parenting by themselves locked in a room. It was very challenging. And it was personally challenging because at the time, I had two young sons, a 4th grader and a 7th grader. I think the lens I bring to all my work of creativity, problem-solving and openness was a very important lens to have during Covid.”
An Oscar Wilde quote encapsulates Julie’s life philosophy: “Be yourself because everyone else is already taken.” She works hard to find balance between her roles as mother, wife, Jewish educator, artist and author. “I have things that I love to do, and I must create the time and the balance for them. I set boundaries. Art making is an essential part of my life. It is not negotiable. I also need to write and go on walks…I really love being in nature, something I kind of always knew but during the pandemic that was really solidified for me.”
Visioning the near future, Julie says, “The organized Jewish community has always been good about being a space for people to come together. We are approaching a moment when the world is opening up, and those who maybe did not feel that they needed community or found community on the sidelines of the soccer field or other (secular) spaces, will have a real openness to coming back together in more communal, religious spaces. I think that people are hungry for coming together, and I think they want to do it in their Jewish world. The more we can look out, talk with people and really listen to what they are asking for, I think the more creative we can get in building opportunities for connection.”