Rabbi Ari Ballaban seems to be a perpetual optimist: Where others might simply see antisemitism, the new director of the Cincinnati Jewish Community Relations Council sees an opportunity to make the city more welcoming for Jews.
Take, for example, a recent incident at a Cincinnati public school.
“A non-Jewish student made reference to Kanye West and used it as a wedge point to antagonize some of his Jewish peers,” Ballaban said. “That’s anything but good. The flip side is that it leads to a really important conversation.”
Together with Jeremy Spiegel, the JCRC’s assistant director, Ballaban was invited to speak with the school administration to talk about how the school can best support Jewish students – and make sure the students know the administration is on their side.
“How could that not matter?” he said. “That’s a great way to spend an afternoon, to take something like that and turn it into a way to make sure that Jewish students are going to be in a better position going forward.”
Ballaban started his tenure at the Cincinnati JCRC, the public policy and advocacy arm of the Cincinnati Jewish Federation, in late July, replacing previous director Jackie Congedo. Congedo is now the chief external relations and community engagement officer at the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center.
As he begins to make his mark on the position, Ballaban wants the Jewish community to know that he is only a message away from helping in times of need.
“Whether it’s in confronting issues of antisemitism, finding a resource within the Jewish community for support or for educational purposes, I see the JCRC as being a connector within our community,” he said. “I want people to be aware that that’s our job.”
Ballaban’s road to the JCRC, though winding, was always in the orbit of the broader Cincinnati Jewish community. As a child he moved from Cincinnati to Atlanta, then attended college at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.
But in 2011, looking for an academically rigorous Jewish studies program, he made his way back to Cincinnati as a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. It helped that the city was more affordable compared to other HUC campus locations, and that Ballaban still had family in Cincinnati.
“The Cincinnati campus of HUC had a reputation for being much more of a community, where you can really spend time living within the city, not spending time commuting, or, you know, slaving away to pay your rent,” he said.
While studying for his smicha, or rabbinic ordination, Ballaban did interfaith work with college students. But it was later, as assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Dayton, Ohio, that Ballaban found his way to the JCRC.
The Dayton JCRC had been missing a director for over a decade, and feeling that he had enough connections as a rabbi to help advocate for the Jewish community, Ballaban decided to revive the role. His choice came at a uniquely relevant time.
In the wake of white supremecist attacks like the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018, and the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, conversations about security at religious institutions dominated Dayton. Amid fear and grief, Ballaban was part of growing Jewish-Muslim interfaith conversations as the communities came together in solidarity.
“The small solace I take is that people of a bunch of different backgrounds, who maybe didn’t speak to each other as much in the past as they ought to have, now are coming together,” Ballaban told the Dayton Daily News at the time.
In time, Ballaban left Dayton and returned to Cincinnati, where he worked at the HUC admissions office. But when he saw that the Cincinnati JCRC’s director position was opening up, “the time felt right to get back into it,” he said.
Now, Ballaban is settling in at the JCRC. And while some priorities – like addressing antisemitism and building interfaith relationships – have stayed the same, others have shifted with the times, like reproductive and abortion rights.
“If you asked me last January, I probably wouldn’t have ranked this so high,” Ballaban said. “But in the wake of the [Supreme Court’s] Dobbs decision, the community has made it clear that they want to see us advocate on behalf of women’s rights.”
In the last few weeks, Ballaban has also been helping to advocate for two bills at the Ohio state legislature: HB 504, which would increase fines for disturbing in-person or virtual religious services (as synagogues have experienced with zoombombings), and HB 353, to make religious accommodations easier to access for college students when holidays like Rosh Hashanah conflict with classes.
Despite not being at a pulpit, for Ballaban this kind of advocacy still “is rabbinic work,” he said. “The topics I discuss as a JCRC director are different than the topics I discussed working as a congregational rabbi. But the approach has quite a bit in common, just in terms of meeting people where they are and showing that you care about them.”
It’s an approach he also feels from the broader Cincinnati community, even as antisemitic incidents have increased year-over-year and high profile right-wing influencers like Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) and Nick Fuentes spread hate against Jews.
“I don’t know Kanye West…personally, so the harm that they can do to me is real, but more theoretical,” Ballaban said. Meanwhile, “people I do know personally have reached out to offer support in the wake of [Ye’s] antisemitic statements…that does have a real, concrete impact on my life.
“The help is immediate, it’s in our backyards in Cincinnati,” he said.