21st Century JCCs: Building Community in a Brave Pew World

by Allan Finkelstein

The first YMHA opened its doors in 1854 to serve Jewish immigrants arriving in America. It – and those YM and YWHAs that followed – provided a wealth of services helping turn a diverse lot of Jews into good Americans making their way in this “goldene medina.”

That mission – to strengthen the quality of Jewish life in the community – has remained constant as their children left cities and built Jewish communities in the suburbs. As Y’s turned into Jewish Community Centers, their service continued, changing with the times to respond and adapt to different needs, always mindful of its core values. Offering preschool, camp and sporting programs, fitness and arts programs, they gave all Jews in their communities one central place to gather regardless of denomination or affiliation.

Fast forward to the Jewish community of today, and you find it concerned about what it means to be a Jew when traditional institutions are not always meeting its needs. Add to the mix that how people see themselves as Jewish comes more through self-definition than group identification and you have the perfect storm detailed in the Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish American’s survey – that Jews are proud of their heritage, but not so willing to join with it.

JCCs meet the needs of this fractious American Jewish community every day, and are uniquely positioned to provide outreach and create lasting communal ties. With the JCCs of North America Biennial opening in San Diego on March 28, now is a good time to celebrate the work that JCCs do in their communities. This gathering of delegates from 77 communities across North America celebrates the most innovative, dynamic and energetic programming that JCCs offer their communities. The Biennial allows for a meeting of some of the best minds in the Jewish community as committed lay leaders and outstanding professionals gather and exchange ideas that will sustain Jewish life and culture as we discover new ways to meet the challenges facing 21st century Jewry.

Throughout the five-day Biennial, JCCs will focus on what JCCs do so well, and what they can do even better. Through 100 sessions, highlighting more than 50 speakers who are experts in their fields, JCC leadership can explore what works and what does not in engaging Jews in the business of being Jewish, however they define it.

JCCs accept and serve Jews in all their diversity, wherever they are on their individual Jewish journey. Whether that means offering more Israel programming through a shaliach; working with interfaith families to be more welcoming; or partnering with LGBTQ organizations to create varied programming, JCCs are ready. No other institution is better equipped to assist Jews today as they explore their hyphenated Jewish identities.

They achieve this through a wide variety of exciting programming offered every day. “Just a gym?” Hardly. The next time someone hurls that at your JCC, direct them to the annual film festival, or growing author series. Bring them to a tot Shabbat program. Let them attend an opening ceremony of the JCC Maccabi Games® and ArtsFest®, which last year attracted more than 3,000 Jewish teens, allowing them to explore their Jewish identity and make Jewish connections during the largest gathering of Jewish teens of its kind anywhere. Our day and overnight camps reach an astonishing 100,000 kids each year. These camps are values-based communities that instill a strong sense of identity into each camper and create enduring connections to their particular and the wider Jewish community.

Our reach goes beyond our shores as we connect the Jewish community in North America to the one in our Jewish homeland. In the past two years, we have doubled the number of JCCs that have sent members of their communities to Israel, to see, taste, touch and explore for themselves Jewish life in the “startup nation.” Last year the JCC Association Boarding Pass Initiative and JCC Maccabi Israel® sent adults and teens respectively to Israel, many of whom were making the trip for the very first time. Those firsthand experiences change people’s perceptions of the Jewish state, build relationships and create connections that invigorate Jewish life today and will for future generations.

To meet the challenges of that Jewish future, JCCs foster the kinds of connections that inspire people to take on leadership roles in their communities. We bring new people to the table, and then, through guidance and nurturing, training and exposure to the best the Jewish world can offer to address the huge executive leadership turnover expected to take place throughout the Jewish communal world over the next 10 years. At events like our Biennial Convention; programs like our Merrin Fellowship, now serving its eighth class, which identifies professionals and trains them to work with and serve as role models for our teens; and Kivunim, our program for new executives in the movement, we fill that talent gap. We co-launched our Jewish Experiential Leadership Institute (JELI) with the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), with funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation, in March 2012. This program identifies talented JCC professionals and emerging leaders and teaches them to apply Jewish frameworks in setting a vision for their organization. And in collaboration with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, we are training JCC resident camp directors to be transformational Jewish educators in a program funded by the Avi Chai Foundation.

As an older generation of Jewish leaders, both lay and professional, steps down, we are helping a new one focus its energies and embolden its vision so that it will be empowered to lead. These leaders will go on to head not only JCCs, but also synagogues, federations, and a myriad of other organizations and groups they may never have known had they not first walked through the doors of their J.

Just a gym? Not by a long shot. The 21st century J has a clear-eyed approach to our future. And we will see it at work in San Diego. We have come a long way from making our way in this “golden land.” And JCCs have not only brought us along on that journey, but they will also be there to serve us – changing, diverse, renewed – long into the future.

Allen Finkelstein is president and chief executive officer of JCC Association.