Defining and Leading the New Jewish Community

By Stephen P. Seiden

Nearly 600 people will gather on Sunday [May 6] in Memphis for the JCCs of North America Biennial, a signature event of JCC Association of North America focused on strengthening the lay and executive leadership of JCCs by providing learning and networking opportunities with some of the most thought-provoking speakers in the Jewish world.

We have a lot on our plates to discuss: shifting demographics; disaffiliation of young generations from the legacy organizations that made our communities tick for so long; the rise of anti-Semitism both in Europe and on our own shores; and the growing support for the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement against Israel. This all takes place against a thematic backdrop of “Strengthening the New Jewish Community,” and really, who better to do this than our JCCs?

The larger Jewish community has not always thought of JCCs as the place to reach Jews in all their diversity. With 1.5 million people walking through our collective doors and turnstiles each week, however, JCC are literally where the Jews are. It is also where those of other communities who might be most inclined to support Jewish and Israel causes are likely to be found.

And so, with this Biennial, and under new leadership with Doron Krakow as our president and CEO, and Gary Jacobs of San Diego assuming the board chairmanship, we see this as an opportunity to project the strength of the JCC Movement. As those who love JCCs, we have always known how important our movement is, but we saw it in action this past year as we rallied together during bomb threats, and in how our communities – Jewish and beyond – stood with us.

During the three days we are together, we will present initiatives that will focus on how we care and respond to one another during times of crisis, how we learn together as diverse communities, and how we integrate our founding mission – to support the Jews who serve in our United States military – into the mission of JCCs today. It is a tall order, but a challenge that we are excited to undertake as we enter our second century of operations.

Founded as the Jewish Welfare Board in 1917, JCC Association of North America’s mission has evolved over 100 years to mirror the community it serves. Because the organization was so effective during World War I, the coalition of YM-YWHAs and other communal organizations that were within its fold, remained together, meeting the needs of the Jewish community as it moved from urban centers, to suburban oases, to online communities.

What does it mean today to strengthen the new Jewish community? All of us have been struggling to define what community means in the 21st century – not just for Jews, but for everyone. JCCs are often where community “happens.” They are where your kids hang out, where you meet your friends, and where you connect. JCCs are the physical spaces where many of us create and engage in an array of Jewish experiences, and that attract the broadest spectrum of Jews and a great diversity of others. There is no reason we should not be in front of this conversation, leading the way.

We are excited to be joined by our partners, which include JCC Global, as we look for ways to build community resilience and enhance a local mission through international collaborations; Keshet, as we look to support LGBTQ inclusion in our communities; and IsraAid, the Israeli NGO that often provides the first boots on the ground during natural disasters around the globe. How we rethink philanthropic partnerships to be more effective will be on everyone’s mind, as well, when we hear from both Barry Finestone, president and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation and Lisa Eisen, vice president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

We have delegates from 80 JCCs who are board leaders, executive directors and senior professional staff eager to take on the challnege of strengthening the new Jewish community. We have 45 participants in our Esther Leah Ritz Emerging JCC Leaders Institute, up-and-coming lay leaders who will spend the next few days fast-tracking their leadership skills. There will be 12 young professionals who work with teens in your JCCs, who are completing the 10th cohort of our Merrin Fellowship. They, in particular, are so very much a part of the future equation. They work with Gen Z – the generation of young adults who are out there hoping to change and improve our world.

We are fortunate as an organization to make it to a second century. We kicked off our Centennial Celebration in Baltimore two years ago. What better way to wrap it up than by focusing on strengthening the new Jewish community so that all of us move forward, stronger and prouder, together.

Stephen P. Seiden has served as chair of JCC Association’s board of directors since 2014. You can follow the JCCs of North American on Facebook and Twitter @JCCAssociation using #JCCBiennial2018.