Removing barriers

Is It time for a new partnership paradigm in our Jewish community?

Together we can lower the barriers to participation.

More than 3,200 professionals from 154 JCCs came together recently for Professional Conference 2021 (ProCon), the biennial conference hosted by JCC Association of North America. ProCon 2021, the largest-such conference in the long history of the JCC Movement, may also have been the biggest-ever online gathering hosted on this continent for those who have worked toward improving Jewish community and life. 

What was it that brought them together? 

And why now?

For one thing, it had been a while. Local demands and responsibilities obliged our people to focus on those in greatest need throughout these past 14 months. And they rose to the occasion in dramatic fashion: carrying out food drives and blood drives; serving as COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites; transforming senior meal programs into even-larger meal delivery initiatives; offering settings for children’s remote learning; and providing childcare and early childhood education to working families, including essential workers. By September 2020, nearly every JCC had resumed in-person programs, the only sector in the organized Jewish community that could make that claim.

Fulfilling these critical needs left precious little time or energy for staff enrichment or professional development, or to come together with peers and colleagues to share insights, experiences, ideas, innovations or simply to support each other. As we now heighten the focus on mental and emotional health across the field, and in light of the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on all of us, compassion among colleagues has become increasingly important.

Removing significant barriers to participation also was a major factor. Thanks to the generosity of funders and sponsors, all conference costs were fully covered for individuals and their JCCs, allowing us to invite every professional in our more than 170 Jewish Community Centers and Jewish Community Camps to attend ProCon’s array of plenaries, cohort sessions, electives, excellence showcases, networking and social events, and more.

The only obligation for participants was to carve out time and to be present. That’s it. 

Simply by eliminating the cost, thousands of dedicated JCC staff members, who likely never would have attended ProCon otherwise, became more educated and engaged citizens of our movement. That refrain has often been repeated by a growing chorus of JCC executives and leaders, who call it the most meaningful contribution ProCon made to local JCCs. What’s more, these professionals now see themselves, their work and their own JCCs as part of something bigger—a wider community and an entire movement dedicated to building and strengthening Jewish community in every corner of North America.

A quarter of a century ago, several visionary philanthropists decided that a group experience in Israel for older teens and young adults should be a birthright, entirely free of the  oftentimes prohibitive cost of such trips. For many of these young people, their Taglit-Birthright Israel experiences sparked a commitment to Jewish life and active participation in Jewish community. Their commitment, in turn, created extraordinary possibilities for all of us to embrace these inspired young people and add their energy, talents and motivation to the treasure trove of opportunities to engage in Jewish life. 

For tens of thousands of Jewish communal professionals, a similar opportunity to learn, engage and be inspired is no less compelling—and comparably important if we, as a North American Jewish community, are to become the community we aspire to be.

JCC Association’s ProCon 2021 may be a small sample, but the conference made history, as did others—the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly, Jewish Funders Network’s International Conference, and more. As a result of the pandemic, we, the Jewish community at large, stretched into the realm of online programs and gatherings. To foster greater participation, we lowered or eliminated barriers to participation, many of them predicated on costs. Most of all, we learned, and we’re still learning. 

The primary lesson is that those we serve and support are hungry for something more. They’re eager to stoke the flames of their passion for the work, and to find partners and allies, mentors and compatriots, role models and teachers. They’re voting with their feet, their time and their passion. 

Gateway agencies, such as JCC Association, Jewish Federations of North America, Prizmah, Foundation for Jewish Camp, the religious streams, Repair the World and many others, have so much to contribute as conveners and community builders. Perhaps it’s time for a new paradigm in partnership with funders and philanthropists. Perhaps, together, we can lower the barriers to participation. Who knows? Perhaps, together, we can profoundly—and positively—affect the nature of our Jewish community. 

Doron Krakow is the president and CEO of JCC Association of North America.