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Focus on Issues Jccs: the Jewish Connection

The Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) of North America are embarked on an ambitious and innovative plan to prevent ethnic amnesia from erasing the Jewish past and distorting the image of the Jewish future.

The JCCs are mobilizing their forces and resources to prevent the next generation of Jews from becoming “disappeared Jews,” Jews for whom Judaism will no longer be a matter of pride and fulfillment and no longer a matter of concern in their daily lives; Jews for whom Judaism will be a matter of irrelevance and irreverence.

There is an imperative concern among Jewish communal leaders that meaningful and planned action must be taken now to reinforce and reinvigorate Jewish traditions, culture and values.

Jewish communal leaders involved in the JCCs are of the opinion that the continuity of Jewishness in an open democratic society which characterizes the United States and Canada is not automatic nor guaranteed. There are too many enticements to assimilation, too many inducements to ignore, if not to forget, the rich heritage that is Judaism. It is all too easy in an open society for the Jewish memory gears to be stripped and for ethnic amnesia to ensue.

ASSURING JEWISH CONTINUITY

To assure Jewish continuity, JCC leaders interviewed in Toronto by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the recent biennial convention of the JWB, the continental association of JCCs, asserted that there must be a massive infusion of what several of them referred to as “Jewishkeit” into the bloodstream of the American Jewish community.

That objective, they said, can only be achieved by maximizing the effectiveness of Jewish education, and the place to do so is in the JCCs, the “home” of the Jewish community. The JCCs, they said, are the retaining walls of the Jewish community and the cement that holds the walls together is Jewish education.

The JCC leaders have, therefore, undertaken what amounts to a revolutionary effort to revamp and to restructure the JCCs in North America as institutions of intensive, all-pervasive Jewish education, not only for members but for professional staffs as well.

The JCCs must become more intensely the Jewish connection, linking the past with the future, JCC leaders told the JTA at the JWB convention which was attended by some 1,000 delegates from the United States and Canada and abroad, including Israel, many of them in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.

The days when JCCs were primarily institutions of recreational activities with relatively incidental Jewish education qua Jewish education is no longer sufficient to meet the changing needs of today’s Jewish communities in a world marked increasingly by the computerization of the human condition and the trivialization of the Jewish ethos. The old type JCC is obsolete and an albatross around the neck of the Jewish community, JWB leaders averred.

STEPS IN MAXIMIZING JEWISH EDUCATION

Thus, the JWB last year, after an 18-month study by a blue ribbon commission of lay and professional leaders experienced in Center work, Jewish education and Federations, representing a broad range of Jewish interests and ideologies, issued a report and recommendation on Maximizing Jewish Educational Effectiveness of Jewish Community Centers. It was presented to a special JWB convention in Miami in February 1985. The blue ribbon commission was chaired by Morton Mandel of Cleveland, a past president of the JWB and presently chairman of the Jewish Education Committee of the Jewish Agency.

The aim of the commission was “to examine the JCC role in the vital area of Jewish education, and to determine how the JCC can best use its unique capabilities to sustain and fortify Jewish education … and to fine-tune and intensify Jewish programs and services,” the commission stated in its report.

A Committee on Implementation was established to move the blue ribbon panel study from the drawing board into the Center field: to meet with JCC lay leaders and professional staffs in cities across the U.S. in order to exchange ideas, programs and activities and to coordinate and systematize ways to make JCCs more effective in contributing to the continuity of Jewish life. This committee was chaired by Lester Pollack, chairman of the Board of Associated YM-YWHAs of Greater New York and a vice president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York.

The committee submitted a “Mandate for Action” to the JWB convention in Toronto. The mandate was described by Pollack as “a long-term commitment to help the Center movement realize its full potential, to continue to upgrade standards for practice, and to marshal the resources necessary to encourage Centers to see Jewish education as a vital priority.”

To maintain and sustain the momentum gained in the period between the Miami and Toronto conventions, during which many of the 200 JCCs began to redefine and redirect their activities, a Committee on Jewish Educational Enhancement has been established. It is chaired by Ronald Leibow of Los Angeles, JWB vice president.

YOUNG JEWS HAVE TO BE MOTIVATED

The concern JCC leaders have about enhancing Jewish education is not rhetorical nor a matter of shibboleths. It is one of great urgency. This concern was dramatically described by Mandel in an interview with the JTA.

“In my judgement,” he said, “the young people of tomorrow are not going to choose to be Jewish because of the Holocaust or because of anti-Semitism or because they grew up in a ghetto because they are not growing up in a ghetto and they don’t remember the Holocaust except insofar as we keep reminding them of it, and they don’t run into anti-Semitism. They’re going to choose to be Jewish because they see some point, they see some values.”

Continuing, Mandel said: “The ambience we grew up in is gone. Children don’t grow up in homes filled with Jewishness. We therefore have to create an environment where people can connect with their Jewish past, and the Centers provide or must provide that kind of environment so that there will be a Jewish future. That’s the game, otherwise we’re going to lose people.” The old JCC model, Mandel observed, “where Jews came to but which was not a place of Jewish inculcation of Jewish history, Jewish tradition and Jewish thought, is not what we need today. The Center has to be the center of Jewishkeit, the place that strengthens the Jewish connection.”

TOUCHING THE ISSUE OF JEWISHNESS

The role of the JCCs as institutions of forging the links between the past and the future was also underlined by Pollack. “Throughout Jewish history, each generation has had to struggle with how best to sustain and invigorate Jewish life so that what is passed on to the next generation would be no less than what they received.

“The Jewish Community Center movement has played and is playing an important role in linking the Jewish past and the Jewish future. It’s doing this because the Center is an open door to lots of different people who want the Jewish experiential activity, whether it’s social, recreational, cultural or therapeutic.”

Many marginal, uncommitted Jews, or even some who have dropped out find that they can “touch the issue of Jewishness” in a Center, Pollack said. But this assumes the JCCs are the fountainheads of Jewish education across the board for the young and the elderly; high income or low; jocks and scholars; Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist; observant and secular, with no questions asked about one’s religious or ideological orientation.

THERE ARE NO QUICK FIX SCHEMES

The nature of the task facing the JCCs “is such that it precludes any quick fix schemes,” Pollack observed. “To help the Center field meet its obligations will require a long-term, continuing commitment on the part of the JWB and the Jewish Community Center movement. A key element in this process is upgrading the Jewish education levels of the JCC professional staff by providing learning opportunities locally in North America and in Israel.

“Some of the larger Centers have hired rabbis and other Jewish education professionals to stimulate staff Jewish education and assist in program development,” Pollack said. “Still others have made use of the scholar-in-residence concept to achieve the same end. The upgrading of professional staff Jewish education is a key component in optimizing Center Jewish educational potential.”

Pollack also noted that the newly-established Committee on Jewish Educational Enhancement will hopefully develop “a series of five-year plans” to stimulate ongoing educational development.

Center educational activities, according to JCC leaders, should be geared to attracting and involving the unaffiliated, fortifying those who are already Jewishly committed, deepening understanding of Israel and its meaning for the Jewish people, developing future Jewish leadership, helping people learn to live fully as Jews in an open society, and helping people to articulate the meaning of being Jewish.

JCC leaders at both the Miami and Toronto conventions expressed unbridled enthusiasm for the new direction in which the JCCs are moving. They are convinced that the “Mandate for Action” is a mission possible. They are convinced that the JCCs are and will become increasingly the foundries in which the chain of Jewish continuity is forged.

(Tomorrow: Part Two)

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