JCCs Create Jewish Communities

by Alan Goldberg and Arnie Sohinki

One of the early goals of the JCC Movement was to build community among immigrants, first from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, then the survivors arriving after the Holocaust, and most recently, immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The JCC has always played a critical role in building community where no sense of connection may have previously existed. How did it manage to do that? One way was to employ a large number of people who had special skills in developing relationships.

Thirty years ago or more, social group work was the central training of professionals in the Jewish Community Center field, and almost all higher-level professionals had M.S.W. degrees. They were educated to understand human needs and to help individuals become valued members of a group. As Marci Mayer Eisen said, “social group work finds merit in connections.” Today, fewer young Jews choose to get degrees in social work, and they come to the JCC with a variety of degrees, ranging from fitness and physiology to science or business administration. But their motivation for wanting to work at a JCC is similar – to do something important and to help people connect.

Through the training programs we offer our young professionals we build on their personal and educational experiences to teach them the Jewish Community Center’s role in building Jewish community. JCCs reach 100,000 children in day and overnight camps throughout North America, places where lifelong relationships are made. While classic group work terms may not be part of the vocabulary, camp counselors are taught and understand the importance of building a camp community that thrives on relationships, compassion, Jewish values, and pride in a Jewish way of life. Camp provides an opportunity to practice group work in much the same way as 50 years ago – even though we may not call it that. It is still about the importance of relationships between and among campers and staff.

The same can be said about the many thousands of children in our early childhood programs. While our teachers are professional educators, the importance of building relationships, of sharing and creating community among parents who identify the JCC as their primary Jewish connection point, cannot be overestimated. A JCC early childhood center can – and does – form the Jewish social network for many families with young children, a network that may sustain them and keep them connected for the rest of their lives.

While some funders and JCC board members have become more business focused in their approach to what defines a good JCC program or service, it is still (and will continue to be) the social value of connections that impact JCC users. People come to a Jewish Community Center to be with people and to make friends. They come to feel part of something. Otherwise, they would work out alone in their basements or park their children in front of the TV. Group work may not be the same as it was 30 years ago, but it remains the foundation of everything a Jewish Community Center does when it brings together young adults, parents, aging adults, new community members, or people like you or me.

Alan Goldberg, M.S.W., is JCC Association Vice-President, Professional Leadership. Arnie Sohinki, M.S.W., is JCC Association Senior Vice-President, Program Services.

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  1. says

    Dear Alan and Arnie,

    I applaud your article about the importance of building relationships as a core mission and capacity of JCC’s. I want to extend it further. I think the kind of training that group work provides and the kind of warm community that is enabled is central to ALL Jewish organizations, synagogues, schools, camps, youth groups.

    Your pointing to group work as a core skill is, I believe, critically important as we think about how to prepare the next generation of Jewish professionals.

    Right now group work training is isolated in the few professionals who come from a social work background but why shouldn’t it be part of the training in all professional programs and professional development? In particular, I would like to see group work, and facilitation become part of the curriculum for Jewish day school educators as 21st century schools demand teachers to become more of the ‘guide on the side’ rather than the ‘sage on the stage.’

    Jewish educators and Jewish communal service professionals live in separate professional worlds at the moment. But I believe cross-training between the two must happen. How can we have Jewish communal service workers who are not comfortable providing Jewish content to their constituents and Jewish educators who are not comfortable building Jewish community among theirs?

    I am grateful to the Covenant Foundation for funding the Kehilliyot Community of Practice where members of these two professional worlds, Brenda Gevertz from JCSA and Phil Liff Grieff of the BJE of LA began to dialogue and see the richness that emerged.

    Where can this dialogue continue? May the spirit of Purim that celebrates the topsy turvey in life, mix up Jewish communal life a bit and get us out of our silos.

    Naava Frank

  2. says

    I want to thank my old friends Alan Goldberg and Arnie Sohinki for the shout out and continuing the conversation about building community. I believe there is no dialogue more important for Jewish professionals, even as I’ve shifted my own career from direct JCC service to leadership development.

    As Naava Frank describes, we can teach Jewish professionals from all disciplines the skills to build community without ever stepping into a formal social work class. I have admiration for a large number of colleagues who have extensive skills in group facilitation that build on their own backgrounds in Jewish education, communications, program planning and marketing.

    Yet, it is important to make a distinction between environments that are welcoming and where friendships naturally evolve and those organizations where building communities within community (a phrase I first learned from Rob Goldberg of Hillel) is front and center . Building community goes way beyond excellent customer service and depends on staff who never take for granted their abilities to introduce members to one another and form and facilitate groups that take on lives of their own.

  3. Art Wolf says

    A number of Jewish professionals (myself included) launched their careers as a result of a different kind of camp experience where group work was also central, critical and consciously taught to us in our college years. The place was Block and Hexter Vacation Center – one of the “summer camps” for NYC seniors run by what became the Association for Jewish-Sponsored Camps. It was a powerful experience, reflecting both the times (mid 1970s) and the pioneering leadership of people like Barney Lambert and Les Kaplan.

  4. Shalom Orzach says

    Thanks for this thoughtfull piece. For a number of years now the Achva and B’yachad training program for returning camp staffs funded by the AVI CHAI Foundation and JAFI utilize the settings of the training opportunities to provide the skills to enhance communinity by preparing North Americans and Israelis together. The impact of celebrating Shabbat together (an integral and intentional part of the training) with people representing all religious and ideological spectrums in Israel and North America is both inspirational and instructive. The acceptance and deep appreciation of differences becomes integral to the skill sets we hope to impart to these leadership groups.

  5. says

    I’m sorry for coming late to the conversation, but thought I’d add a couple of thoughts as the director of the HUC School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, one of the leading graduate programs training the next generation of Jewish professional leaders. Unfortunately, there is no “one size, fits all” curriculum for Jewish communal professionals. This is not only because different settings require different competencies, but also because all settings now require much more sophisticated training and diverse skill sets than ever before. This is not just the case in the Jewish community; it applies throughout the nonprofit world.

    Social work and group skills are certainly as relevant as ever, and we continue to see a good number of future Jewish professionals enrolled in Social Work schools, whether through our dual degree program with USC or in the Social Work schools at Michigan and Wurtzweiler where there are tracks in Jewish communal leadership.

    The reality, however, is that Social Work is no longer sufficient for most professional settings in the Jewish community. While the tilt towards running nonprofits like corporate businesses may have gone too far, it is nonetheless true that we need to approach Jewish communal work with the same attention to strategic thinking, organizational sophistication, and fiscal responsibility as our for-profit counterparts. And for this, it is encouraging to see more students enrolled in Jewish professional leadership programs allied with business schools and public administration programs, again like ours with USC’s outstanding MBA and MPA programs, or the Brandeis and NYU dual degree programs.

    What is distinctive about all of these programs is the overlay of Jewish values and experience with disciplinary specific programs, helping to shape knowledgeable, multi-faceted and sophisticated Jewish professionals. Graduate programs like ours, and Brandeis, and NYU continue to teach group work skills, as well as management skills, fundraising skills, communication skills, and leadership skills… and do so in the context of Jewish history, tradition, values and experience.

    While it is important to maintain the importance of group work to Jewish communal settings, the real trick is integrating this with the other skills and perspectives needed to be an effective Jewish communal professional. Naava Frank’s comment on the importance of integrating Jewish educators and Jewish communal professionals is an expression of a similar perspective… and btw, we also have a joint masters degree program with the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC for that very reason.