[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 20“The JCCs as Gateways to Jewish Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Masha Aryeva

It is always difficult for me to speak for other people, as I question myself – who am I to read other people minds: Therefore, I can only speak for myself or for those, whom I know closely. My personal experience tells me that if it wasn’t for my local JCC – I would have never associated myself with Judaism.

My family and I represent quite an average massive portion of modern Jews who live in the diaspora: we all acknowledge that we are Jewish, and that is the end of the story. Being a Jew in a modern world and a civilized country means that you might never, really never, observe any Jewish tradition in your life! As awful as it sounds – it is true. Because it is not needed in everyday life; Because modern diaspora is not a shtetl; Because no one explained to you what is so great about Jewish tradition, history, knowledge and what is in it for you. We live our “normal” lives, we go to school, work, give birth to children, raise them – and all of that can be done with no Jewish sparkle at all! I think that it is exactly the moment when the JCC steps in – it shows you that there is much more to Judaism than you ordinarily think.

First – there is an amazing sense of belonging to those, who share the same set of coordinates, the same values, the same general philosophy. And you don’t have to search for them all over the world – you come to a place where right there and right now most people will be “of the same species.” The JCC is a home with open doors, always and for everyone. You don’t have to be special (by any means) to feel comfortable here. You don’t have to prove anything, ask for anything, need anything – you just need to want to explore something new. And even that need – is up to you. You simply can BE – and discover a whole new wonderful world around.

I always view the JCC as a “third place” concept. There is home, there is work – and there is a third place you can think of in any situation, any circumstances, and any moment of your life that will always be there for you. From cradle to your last days – it is almost like your mother who is ALWAYS there for you. JCC can offer any kind of programs, for any age and any wallet. It mostly thinks from the participants’ point of view, not from that of the organization – what are the participants’ needs, wishes, challenges, questions – the JCC will try to adopt and accompany.

This is what turns the JCC into a true gateway to Jewish Peoplehood. People join the warm, caring and welcoming “home away from home” and there they are introduced to our rich civilization and heritage and a more meaningful belonging to the Jewish people. Through empathy and a welcoming pluralistic approach to all, we open not only the JCC gates but also the doors to the Jewish people. Through a learner focused approach, we can help Jews advance along their Jewish journey towards a meaningful and richer horizon.

I certainly hope that my family, who became affiliated with our JCC, will be able to be “happily Jewish” in Russia – although far from Israel, but close to Jewishness through the JCC.

Masha Aryeva is the Executive Director of Yesod JCC, St. Petersburg, Russia.