The Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington’s guiding values — Jewish peoplehood, inclusivity, treating people with respect and fostering wellness, to name a few — put the “Jewish” in JCC for CEO Josh Bender.
They also call upon the institution to serve not only the local Jewish population but the community as a whole.
“I think that piece sometimes is lost,” he said in a phone interview on Monday. People are familiar with the JCC in Rockville for its fitness classes and swimming pools, its preschool and summer camp and varied cultural offerings, but a major donor recently cited the JCC’s values as one of the inspirations for his support, Bender said. “He viewed the JCC and our camp as a place that really is focusing on inclusion and welcoming in our community in the broadest sense.”
That role has become clearer to Bender through the course of the pandemic, which was already in full swing when he began his tenure as CEO in 2020. (He is not related to the Bender family for whom the JCC is named.)
One pandemic-era project that he thinks “really resonated” with JCC staff and members was Delivering Good, a partnership between the JCC, Montgomery County Public Schools and the Montgomery County Food Council aiming to combat food insecurity.
The Montgomery County Food Council collected food and the school system provided buses — readily available, with classes taking place via Zoom at the time — to transport it to the JCC for packaging and out for distribution. Over the course of 2020-2021, the JCC recruited 220 volunteers between the ages of 4 and 74, who packed and shipped out a total of 60,500 pantry items and 13,750 pounds of produce, according to Bender. The deliveries, made twice a month, supported 180 families.
“We learned a lot through that about how to best serve the larger community and how we can reach out in a new way,” said Bender. This experience and others like it during the pandemic inspired the creation of the Bender JCC’s new social action arm, the Delivering Good Network, launched in the fall of 2021. It focuses not only on food security but a range of social issues such as housing, the environment and inclusion, as well.
The value of fostering wellness in the community has also gained new significance for Bender and his staff. At this year’s annual Imagine event on May 18, the JCC is not presenting its civic achievement award to a prominent local couple or individual activist but to health care workers from four Montgomery County hospitals.
“We are honoring healthcare heroes because we understand the heroic work they did through the pandemic. We also understand that there are many organizations and institutions in the community who are supporting wellness — the JCC is one of them — [but] our healthcare heroes, in a different way, are supporting wellness in our community.”
For the JCC, supporting wellness during the pandemic was sometimes just providing opportunities for normalcy in a world turned upside down. “I often think about a conversation I had with a member who was swimming in our outdoor pool,” said Bender. “She came up and she said, ‘You know, I just want to thank you for being open and for the JCC being here during the pandemic.’ This was somebody who was caring for some family members who had medical needs at home and so once a week or a couple of times a week she would get out and come to the JCC and swim — she called it her respite — and it kept her going through the pandemic during a really hard time.”
Bender said the JCC membership is at about 75 percent of its pre-pandemic size and growing. “We probably went down to almost 50 percent membership, and some members put their membership on hold,” he said. “To see so many individuals returning to the community to work out or to attend concerts and do everything that, you know, feels a little bit more like normalcy.”
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