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.