JCCs gather in Maryland, seek new ways to do business


CC Biennial attendees discuss speaker David Bryfman’s presentation.  “Stop thinking of [teenagers] as your failure [and] start thinking of [them] as your success,” he told them. Photo by David  Stuck
CC Biennial attendees discuss speaker David Bryfman’s presentation. “Stop thinking of [teenagers] as your failure [and] start thinking of [them] as your success,” he told them.
Photo by David Stuck
More than 500 representatives of Jewish community centers from around the world convened in Baltimore this week for the JCCs of North America Biennial.

They gathered to share successes, discuss concerns and look at how the changing Jewish community poses challenges and opportunities for JCCs. The event also served as an early kickoff to next year’s centennial celebrations.

The gathering, which ran May 13-18, allowed JCC professionals and leaders to connect with their peers and refine their skills. There were sessions on fundraising, programming, young leaders, the Maccabi Games and Artfests, arts and culture, camps, fitness and board development.

There was a focus on key JCC demographics. Baby boomers, millennials and teenagers were the subject of Monday morning’s sessions.


“We’re going to have to figure out new ways to do business as communities shift, and how to stay relevant and meet the needs of an ever-changing Jewish world,” said JCC Association’s interim president, Alan Mann.

In a panel discussion, Alexis Abramson, a trend-spotter for those over 50, represented baby boomers; Baltimore Rabbi Jessy Gross spoke about millennials and David Bryfman, chief innovation officer of the Jewish educational project, fielded questions about teenagers.

When moderator Stuart Raynor, a JCC Association board member, asked how society can more effectively care for the baby boomer population, Abramson stressed communication.

“Ask them what they want. We have been neglectful [about] talking to boomers. For some reason, we don’t ask them about their voice or opinion,” said Abramson. “Boomers want to understand their next step in life. More than just staying healthy, they want [us to take an] interest in what is happening in their lives.”

Gross said that organized Jewish institutions have not yet come to terms with the lower affiliation rates among younger Jews.

“When are [millennials] going to come back to the way we have been doing things?” asked Gross. “The difficult thing to engage with is that they’re not returning.”

Millennials are not seeing institutional involvement and membership as an obligation.

“For most millennials, we’ve already started [this change] that won’t let us return to where we came from,” Gross said.

Bryfman, who represented what he called “the most narcissistic, egotistical” generation, related the issue to teenagers, who like millennials, are sometimes put off by organized religious institutions.

“[People who ask this question] don’t get it … [they’re] not coming back,” said Bryfman. “Stop thinking of [teenagers] as your failure [and] start thinking of [them] as your success,” he said, emphasizing that teenagers are exploring religion in their own ways, which he said reflects their strong relationship with religion and not failure in their upbringings.

New ideas, best practices

JCC directors were seeking ideas from their colleagues for how to adapt to changes in their respective Jewish communities.

“It is the single best opportunity to bring the leadership of JCCs from around the world together and to hear from, learn from each other about what’s happening,” said Les Cohen, executive director of the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, N.J. “I think most of us are finding business is a little bit different than it was even five years ago, certainly 10 years ago, in terms of revenue streams. So it is good to hear what else is going on, how [others] are solving this.”

Felicia “Lisie” Gottdenker, chair of the board of directors at the JCC of Greater Washington, came to the biennial looking forward to sessions geared for JCCs of varying sizes, saying that similar operating revenues and size lead to similar challenges to overcome. But more than any one topic, Gottdenker was interested in the exchange of ideas.

“One of the best things about biennial is being able to hear what’s going in the movement on a continental basis,” said Gottdenker, who has served on her JCC’s board since 2004. “You can engage with other leaders and you can try to maximize on your own good ideas as well as what’s going on across the country and continental arena.”

The JCC of Greater Washington was recognized for attracting and retaining the best staff.
Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, which was honored for JBrand implantation and execution, said he always looks for ideas that he can adapt in Pittsburgh.

“You have to be innovating all of your program areas all the time, so part of that is trying to build a culture that’s always innovating at the ground level,” he said. “So one of our mantras is how do we create innovation up, down and all around?”

Schreiber’s JCC recently started a live chat option on its website that is staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. For messages sent outside of those hours, staffers get back to people within 24 hours.

Barak Hermann, president of the JCC of Greater Baltimore, said some good results came from “opening up the market” with the JCC’s community block party, which will be held for the third time on June 5. He said that the party has led to the formation of new partnerships and expansion of others, and that the JCC added members through the block party.

Not all stakeholders bought into the idea at first. The JCC invited secular and religious organizations, including those with competing swim programs, schools and camps.

“We thought that anybody who saw us as not being territorial about our program would value the J,” Hermann said. “We’re not competition anymore, we’re one big community.”

Past, present and future

Historically, as Jews came to America in droves in the late 19th century, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, Young Women’s Hebrew Association and Jewish Community Center movements helped immigrants adapt to life in North America.

During World War I, the Council of Young Men’s Hebrew and Kindred Associations made sure Jewish soldiers had rabbis serving them as chaplains. The organization called a conference of Jewish bodies in 1917, which gave rise to the Jewish Welfare Board, which in turn became the national association of JCCs and YM-YWHAs.

“JWB stressed unity in the Jewish community for a largely urban population, focusing on Jewish summer camps, youth programs and cultural and recreational aspirations of an assimilating tribe,” said Lisa Brill, chair of the upcoming centennial. “They created a lecture and concert bureau, trained camp counselors and helped JCCs find qualified staff. And then they brought the staff and the leadership together much like we’re doing today. So, sometimes the more things change, the more they actually stay the same.”

Brill said the JCC Association of North America, as the umbrella organization of JCCs, will mark the centennial in a variety of ways.

Among them, the military siddur created and printed in conjunction with the 2014 biennial will see a second printing, including a large-print version for veterans. A digital registry of chaplains who served has been created, and chaplains and their families can submit information for it. Eventually, that database will be part of the centennial website.

A new grant program, “Making Music Happen,” will award sums of up to $7,500 to JCCs to bring music programs to their communities.

“This is a celebration of all JCCs and we hope you will share the joy and pride of this wonderful movement,” she said, “that hopefully what you’re feeling tonight you will take back to your communities.”

Justin Katz is a staff writer for WJW. Marc Shapiro is senior reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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