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Special Interview Jccs Map New Challenges and New Opportunities

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The role of the Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) as transmission belts of Jewish values and culture is borne out by the vast and multifaceted network of programs available at Centers for the young and old, poor and affluent, single-parent families and intact families; ranging from celebrating Jewish holidays to exploring the works and contributions of Jewish writers, artists, and philosophers; and dealing across the board with religious, secular and Zionist ideologies.

* In Cleveland, the JCC Family Place serves as an extended family, an alternative to the neighborhood playground, a chance to break away from the isolation of the suburbs, a first entry into the Jewish community. It is also a crisis intervention center for young families, offering consultation and education and continuing support to strengthen the family and prevent dysfunction.

* In Long Beach, Calif., the JCC has a program which unites volunteers with the isolated Jewish elderly who reside in convalescent and “board and care” homes throughout the greater Long Beach community.

* In Atlanta, the JCC has a LIFE (Living Includes Fitness and Exercise) program which integrates health and fitness with the perpetuation of Jewish principles.

* In Philadelphia, the JCC’s “Cook for a Friend” is a volunteer program designed to provide frozen home-cooked kosher meals to people who are over 60 years of age; who have low income; who are unable to cope either physically, emotionally or financially with cooking one’s own food or shopping for food; and who have no other reasonable alternative for providing nutritious meals for themselves.

* In Boston, the Israel Program Center makes Israel a reality for people between the ages of 15 and 35 through a variety of short and long term programs in Israel and by providing information and educational exchanges in the New England area.

EXAMPLE OF A GROWING COMMUNITY

In Dade County, Fla., there is an ongoing and growing demand for organized programs of Jewish content, Esther Leah Ritz, president of the JWB, the continental arm of the JCCs, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during a special convention of the JWB here earlier this month.

“We think of this area as full of retirees,” she said. “But south Dade County is full of young families, many two-career families, and some single-parent families. And it’s that generation that said to this community, “We need a Jewish Community Center here. We need a Center to link us with you, with the rest of the Jewish world to give us opportunities for our kids’. It’s almost like a whole new area in the last five to 10 years.”

Ritz pointed out that this is “a prime example of what’s happening in an exploding, growing community. These young parents say that without a Center they cannot build their community. In general, Centers are excellent in serving pre-school children and their families and to see these children through camp programs and building-based programs.”

But this is less successful with teenagers and even less so with college-age children “because these populations are in transition,” Ritz observed. These generations, she added, “are really not part of the whole community. They are rejecting ties with their families, and if their families are involved in Centers, their kids are some place else.”

She pointed out that “We have to find other ways to reach them. But some are coming back, just as the families in South Dade are coming back. I’m sure that they were disconnected from the Jewish community during their college years and maybe even during their years of marriage and career development.”

But Jews, Ritz said, do not live alone as an isolated group. “We are not individualists, in spite of everything. We are required to be in and of a community. And they (those who become disconnected) find that out themselves, and so they come back,” she said.

PROBLEM OF THE JEWISH POOR

One of the segments within the Jewish community which the JCCs are encountering more frequently and in growing numbers are the poor. In 1983, an American Jewish Committee study, “Jews on the Edge,” showed that an estimated 15 percent of the total Jewish population is economically disadvantaged and vulnerable.

The study stated that there is ongoing concern about the implications of growing Jewish joblessness for Jewish continuity and stability. “For one thing, economic disadvantage often leads to alienation or disconnection from the Jewish community,” it said. “Reports from around the country suggest that memberships are down in synagogues and communal institutions.”

Another report in 1983, by William Kahn, executive vice president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, showed that nearly 84,000 Jewish families in the metropolitan area were living on incomes of $10,000 a year or less. This, he said, has created “a major revolution” on human service delivery.

And in yet another report at the time, Herbert Bienstock, former regional labor commissioner for the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the Department of Labor, now head of CUNY Queens College Center for Urban Affairs, reported that close to 100,000 Jews were unemployed in the New York City area, and probably some 250,000 to 300,000 Jews were unemployed nationally.

Many of the unemployed, the three reports noted, are not only the traditionally low-income marginal industries workers, but now include many white collar professionals who had been in positions of upward mobility.

ROLE OF JCCS IN DEALING WITH THE POOR

The role of the JCC movement in dealing with poor Jews is vital in preventing them from becoming disheartened, alienated and disconnected from the community.

In New York, for example, Lester Pollack, who chairs the JWB committee on implementing the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel report on Maximizing Jewish Educational Effectiveness of the Jewish Community Centers, noted that poor Jews “can come to Centers to participate in activities, giving them something to do which allows them to feel that life is worth living.”

There are programs, he said, “that provide meals for them. There are programs, funded both by public and private sources, which permit them to have transportation. There are programs of learning. They have a place to go, things to do, and are given some assistance through the generosity of the Jewish community at the Jewish Community Center through the Federations, and have a place in which to be taken care of. The cost of dealing with the poor is absorbed by funding the Centers get from the Jewish community, foundation support and government programs.”

Ritz pointed out that people in economic difficulties “turn to the Centers in larger numbers than to family agencies or to other agencies. People feel comfortable in coming to Centers for a whole variety of needs.”

SITUATION IN MILWAUKEE

She noted that in her own community, in Milwaukee, for example, “we used to get subsidies and government-supported commodities which could be bought at very low prices. Most of our needs were met that way. But that’s been cut back very substantially, as have subsidies for poor kids in our camps.”

But the piper must be paid. “We have to make that up through fund-raising and membership support, Ritz said. “Scholarship subventions for members and for their activities have increased because there are increasing numbers of people who cannot pay for services at their current levels of income.”

The JCC in Milwaukee is now operating a food pantry, Ritz pointed out. “It wouldn’t have been contemplated any time in the last 50 years. Now, for the first time in 50 years, Jews and others can come and receive canned goods and other staples for nothing. We are part of a community-wide hunger task force but our operation is in an area where we can serve Jews particularly. This situation is part of what’s going on in the economy. To a degree it is an impact of governmental policy.”

ENTERING A NEW ERA

The JCCs are entering a new era and a wide arena of Jewish activities. “The Centers and Ys are not what they used to be 20 years ago,” Pollack observed. “They used to be more of gyms and recreational places. When one looks at the range of services over the last 20 years — single parents, older adults, kids — the Ys and Centers have had a tremendous evolution, and what we’re embarked on is a natural evolution of the JCCs which have tailored their programs to meet the needs of the community now and as perceived for the future.”

The JCCs are moving in uncharted areas — and without guarantees for success, as Ritz told the opening session of the JWB special convention here. “It is a test of the vibrancy and vitality of the Center movement that it is willing to explore that unmapped desert” of new challenges and new opportunities, she said.

The late Rabbi Joshua Heschel might have had the role and the task the JCCs have set for themselves in mind when he said in an address to the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in 1965:

“It is crucial to make Jewish youngsters and young adults aware that Jewish values are relevant to their daily lives, … Our young people are bewildered, perplexed about the meaning of their existence, about the meaning of being human, about the meaning of being a Jew. There is a waiting for meaning, but meaning is kept a well-guarded secret. It is we who fail them.”

The 260 JCC leaders from 90 communities across the United States and Canada who gathered at the special convention here earlier this month pledged their commitment not to fail in the task of giving meaning to being a Jew.

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