Photos by David Stuck
The Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia has been closed for more than a month. But rather than making the drive to Fairfax like they used to, families can now send their children to virtual classes teaching how to make challah and do easy at-home arts and crafts.
Before Passover, the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center offered a cooking class on how to make charoset. And at the virtual Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, trainers offer Zumba and Pilates classes.
But whereas courses like these typically generate revenue for JCCs, all these classes were free — helping to fulfill the agencies’ mandate to serve the Jewish community, but doing little to plug the revenue hole caused by facility shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Jewish community centers around the country slash staff and suspend operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the three Washington-area JCCs have kept on most of their workers and are still turning out regular online programming after closing their buildings in late March.
The Bender JCC of Greater Washington has reduced pay and hours, but has “not initiated any layoffs or furloughs,” CEO Michael Feinstein said in an email. The Pozez JCC of Northern Virginia has laid off or furloughed both part-time and full-time employees, according to the agency. The Edlavitch DCJCC has only laid off or furloughed some part-time staff members.
All three centers have transitioned to virtual programing, offering full calendars of online classes and events intended to replace much of what was lost when their facilities closed.
Edlavitch CEO Carole Zawatsky said that JCCs in the larger metro areas like Washington already offered a wide variety of programming, providing a relatively easy transition to an online environment.
“There are JCCs in some really small towns in America that don’t have access to [much] programming … and it’s tougher on some of them,” Zawatsky said.
She added that the DCJCC continues to charge for its fitness center memberships, as well as some ongoing classes, but that most one-off online programs are free and open to the public.
The Bender and Pozez JCCs are likewise making their online programming free, though paying customers including fitness members and families enrolled in their preschools are receiving some additional individual outreach.
The Bender JCC has adapted preschool story time to a video format. The Pozez JCC converted a planned lecture on the Sarajevo Haggadah into a webinar attended by 100 people. Meanwhile, the Edlavitch DCJCC created a new, slickly branded Youtube channel for its fitness center instructors to post classes and tutorials.
And that’s in addition to a host of Hebrew and theater classes, happy hours and social justice webinars offered over Zoom videoconferencing software.
“The issue is right now for us to make content as available and pervasive as we can,” said Jeff Dannick, Pozez JCC’s executive director. “But if we get to the point where we can’t sustain this, we will have to move to furloughing much of our staff.”
Closures hit traditional strength of JCCs
While almost every Jewish institution’s operations have been upended by COVID-19, JCCs are in a particularly precarious financial position as their traditional strengths are rendered moot by the mandatory facility closures.
JCC Association of North America CEO Doron Krakow said that, unlike many Jewish organizations sustained largely by philanthropy, most JCCs cover 80 percent of their operating expenses by charging fees for early childhood education, day and overnight camps, gyms and cultural events.
“Nobody could have anticipated that essentially those fees would disappear entirely and overnight,” Krakow said.
The three local JCCs vary in what share of revenue live programming represents, according to financial disclosures for each organization.
Last year, 88 percent of the Pozez JCC’s revenue came from program fees, memberships and rentals, according to the center’s annual report. The Bender JCC generated nearly 70 percent of its revenue from similar activities in 2018.
The EDCJCC relied on donations for more than half of its budget in 2017, according to its most recent publicly available tax statement, with programming accounted for just 43 percent of its revenue, though that was during a major capital campaign.
Krakow said centers that have remained operational after closing their facilities are being kept afloat by cash reserves and the generosity of local communities.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has created a $3.2 million COVID-19 response fund and has so far allocated $450,000 for organizations, including JCCs, that have lost revenue due to public health shutdowns. That money is meant to help those organizations through the next six weeks.
“We’re working with organizations starting with 45- and 90-day plans,” said Gil Preuss, CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “We’ll know a lot more about the economy and any government response at the end of that period.”
Preuss said that after weathering the immediate crisis, local institutions need to start building one-to-two-year plans to get back to pre-social distancing health, as the impact will last well beyond the pandemic’s end.
Even once social distancing starts being eased, JCCs may be unable to reopen at partial capacity.
Buildings have fixed expenses to operate, and regulations mandate certain staffing standards for preschools and camps that could make it difficult for JCCs to resume partial operations.
While the DCJCC has kept fitness center memberships active despite the gym’s closure, both Pozez and Bender have offered members the ability to cancel or suspend their monthly fees, or to convert the fees to tax-deductible donations, an option selected by 80 percent of Bender members, according to CEO Feinstein.
The Pozez JCC has also created a dedicated staff support fund that the public can donate to through its website, and all three institutions are looking into federal loans and grants being made available to nonprofits.
Krakow said the JCC Association is lobbying Jewish foundations and donors to make $1 billion in low-cost credit available to his member organizations and said that philanthropy will be crucial to sustaining JCCs.
It will be tough for JCCs to compete with the quantity of free online content being made available right now, Krakow said, citing virtual museum tours, live-streamed concerts and plays, and even a bevy of free Jewish content from organizations across the country.
“JCCs would be hard-pressed to generate revenue if it’s not being generated for the same things offered elsewhere,” Krakow said. “JCCs are going to rely heavily on goodwill and generosity from the Jewish communities they serve.”
A bumpy transition
Local JCCs are nonetheless exploring what fee-based content might look like online, and whether it could replace a meaningful amount of lost revenue.
“We are all trying to figure out if there is a way to monetize this programming,” said Dannick, the Pozez executive director.
Dannick said given the geographically dispersed Jewish population of Northern Virginia, his center had been exploring how to offer more online programming for several years. The shutdown has accelerated the timeline for that transition and staff are still discovering what content works best online.
University of Wisconsin professor Jeremy Morris, who studies the digital commodification of cultural goods, said the first attempts at making live content digital usually falls short with consumers and that can doom efforts to generate revenue.
When record labels first made CDs available on computers, they tightly controlled the digital files and offered various digital “extras” tied to each disc, believing it was imperative to recreate the traditional album experience on the computer, Morris said. But consumers wanted to take advantage of digital music files to create playlists of their favorite songs, or copy them from a desktop computer to a laptop or an mp3 player.
“People in charge try their best to replicate the existing experience in the new format and oftentimes that’s where the breakdown happens,” Morris said. “Consumers don’t want it to be exactly the same — they want to take advantage of all the things digital provides.”
That last piece is crucial, said Institute for the Next Jewish Future president Dan Libenson. At the start of coronavirus-related shutdowns, Libenson helped create a Facebook group and website called jewishLIVE, essentially a master calendar of online Jewish programming.
The best content tends to be intentional, rather than simply porting existing programming to a computer screen, as the record labels unsuccessfully attempted to do. “You have to understand that the streaming experience is profoundly different than the in-person experience,” Libenson said. “You have to reimagine the thing that you’re doing to be specifically for the internet — and that’s really challenging.”
Libenson said this means independent operators and small organizations are often better able to adapt to the paradigm shift in content delivery caused by COVID-19 than more established Jewish institutions like JCCs, even if the JCCs have existing rosters of cultural programming to draw from.
The challenge of creating content that seems at home on digital platforms is compounded by the difficulty of generating a meaningful financial return on it.
“We can make that business model successful over time, but it’s going to take a decade,” Libenson said. “Even in the best possible circumstances, there doesn’t seem to me any way that a large Jewish organization can significantly replace the revenue that it’s losing from the closure of in-person operations.”
JCCs as public broadcasters
Federation CEO Gil Preuss said the early efforts he’s seen from Washington-area organizations to monetize their new online content have come in the form of offering exclusive programming to existing members and asking for voluntary donations from those who attend free virtual programs.
“That has not been successful yet,” Preuss said.
He cited the example of Sixth & I Synagogue, a non-membership institution in the District that offers a mix of arts and culture and Jewish programming. Sixth & I has moved some planned events online, and created new virtual offerings meant to meet the moment,including Jewish mindfulness classes on weekday mornings.
“They asked people very gently if they’d be willing to give $18 and I don’t think that many people actually contributed,” Preuss said.
Sixth & I Rabbi Jesse Paikin said that the synagogue’s online Jewish content is reaching a broader demographic than their target audience of people in their 20s and 30s, and that the organization was “in an OK place” financially while trying to balance its mission to be open to all with the current economic reality.
(Sixth & I received 66 percent of its 2017-2018 revenue from contributions and grants, according to tax documents.)
For now, leaders like Paikin and Dannick envision online revenue coming from people who feel moved to donate, either because they are receiving a direct benefit from it or to ensure it remains available to the community.
Dannick said he’s been thinking about virtual JCC offerings as a kind of public Jewish broadcaster for Northern Virginia, a region with roughly 120,000 Jews spread over 700 square miles, where it is has long been difficult to create a convenient physical gathering place for all of them.
“Public radio is out there on the airwaves, anybody can take part in it, anybody can enjoy it,” he said. “For the people who find value in it there are donations, and contributions voluntarily made are the lifeblood of the public radio station.”
Paikin said he has already started donating to free online meditation classes and other virtual offerings he’s attending, recognizing an obligation to “pay it forward.”
But if social distancing continues for months, a more serious reckoning about how JCCs and similar Jewish institutions can sustain digital content may become necessary.
“Once the novelty wears off, it’s going to get harder to continue engaging people,” Preuss said.
Winnowing the field
As industries adapt to digital disruption, consumers often gravitate to just a handful of content creators — prioritizing quality over geographic allegiances. That tendency may impact which JCCs are able to continue bringing in fees for online programming over the coming months.
“The JCC movement is a continuum of relative strength,” said Krakow, the JCCA president. He said it is relatively easy for institutions like the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, the 92nd Street Y in New York City and the San Francisco JCC to begin producing premium digital content.
“All the JCCs are trying to pivot in that direction but if you weren’t already a strong player there’s a limit of how strong you can be on the quick,” Krakow said.
That means JCCs without a current line-up of compelling cultural programming may be left out of any future in which online Jewish programming has been successfully monetized, setting up a world in which a small handful of JCCs produce programming consumed and paid for by Jews across the country.
If the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates such a transition, that could make it more difficult for smaller JCCs to come back at full strength after social distancing ends — especially if most institutions abandon online offerings as soon as their facilities reopen.
“The demand will have increased dramatically but the supply will dry up because there’s not a short-term business model,” Libenson said. “Organizations that are doing a lot of digital programming because they have to are going to say, ‘It’s a better revenue source to go back to do it person because people are willing to pay more for classes and conferences.’”
While leaders of all three JCCs acknowledge that forced facility closures have required them to experiment with digital content in a way they hadn’t previously, and that some of it is likely to continue in various forms following COVID-19, they all say it cannot replace in-person programming in terms of either revenue or community building.
“The role of the JCC is and always has been to make deeply human connections with all our constituents,” said Zawatsky, of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center. “It’s hard to argue that being together isn’t the most valuable way to do that.”
Arno Rosenfeld is a Washington-based writer.