Focus on Issues Jccs: the Jewish Connection

The Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) of North America are reaching out and touching more and more people. The Centers are trying to stem assimilation, intermarriage, apathy, and indifference among a greater number of Jews.

The JCC lay leaders and professional staffs are revamping existing programs and formulating new ones to provide for the changing needs of the Jewish community. The Centers are in a new stage of momentum and dynamism. Of the 200 JCCs, 55 are being enlarged and there are plans for 14 new Center buildings. The total budget of the JCCs is some $6-$7 million. They are the largest beneficiaries of the Federations.

Despite the adverse economic situation in the United States, JCC leaders do not foresee a decline in the number of Centers or in their effectiveness in reaching out to greater numbers of Jews. Some have noted in passing that the Gramm-Rudman balanced budget amendment, which became law last December when President Reagan signed the Balanced Budget Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, might curtail some of the JCC programs which receive federal funding.

But these programs, JCC leaders note, are relatively few; most of the programs are funded by the communities. In fact, the impact of the Gramm-Rudman law on JCC programs was not a topic for discussion or concern at the JWB biennial convention in Toronto last month.

On the whole, with few exceptions, the JCCs are going from strength to strength, attracting more Jews, especially young Jews, strengthening the professional staffs, and intensifying and maximizing Jewish education, said Leonard Rochwarger of Buffalo, who was elected president of the JWB at the Toronto convention, succeeding Esther Leah Ritz of Milwaukee.

‘TOUCHED BY JEWISHNESS’

Rochwarger, who is a successful businessman, a leader in the Jewish and general community, an educator and economist, a former president of the Jewish Center and United Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo, and who served a six-year term as JWB vice president, sees the JCCs as institutions of socialization wherein all who are active in them or even attend programs occasionally “are touched by Jewishness. They are the principal architect of the quality of Jewish life.”

The JCCs, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview during the Toronto convention, have a vital role in Jewish education, “not formalized classroom education per se but experiential. The JCCs on a daily basis interface with more Jews than any other Jewish group in the world. The impact of that interfacing affects the life of the Jewish community. It is a commonality of ground where Jews with differing attitudes and ideologies can meet, exchange experiences and strengthen the bonds of Jewishness.”

As a result, Rochwarger said, “I believe that the Jewish communities today are more vibrant than they were in the past. Frequently we look back with nostalgia at our grandparents and how that community operated. I see a dynamic of Jewish community and communities developing, and more young people involved in the community process.

“JCCs reach out to all — the young, the elderly, religious and secular, athletes and homebound. A process of socialization with peer groups takes place. Just coming to a Center is making a statement, not a religious statement as happens when one joins a synagogue but a statement of Jewishness, a statement of belonging or wanting to belong to the Jewish community.

“From my point of view, I am not one of the soothsayers of doom and gloom. I have no patience with that about the Jewish community. It’s been said since Biblical times that the demise of the Jewish community is imminent. But we are still here.”

JEWISH LEADERS NEGLECT JEWISH EDUCATION

A similar view was expressed by Morton Mandel, a past JWB president who chaired the blue ribbon commission which last year issued the report and recommendations on Maximizing Jewish Educational Effectiveness of Jewish Community Centers.

“The basic task before us today is to use every opportunity we can to instill Jewishness, and the Center is one beautiful instrument to create the environment where people can connect with their Jewish past and Jewish values, so that there will be a Jewish future,” he told the JTA.

The Jewish educational thrust of the JCCs is of vital importance because “Jewish education in the community generally is not quite as far along as in the Jewish Community Center,” Mandel said. “It’s in a state of disarray. You can’t just be Jewish. You have to worry about Judaism. A lot of things that go to create the soul and the strength and the backbone of the Jewish community have been neglected by mainstream American Jewish leaders who have been working on fundraising or involved in defense organizations.

“But very frankly, Jewish education, qua Jewish education, has been neglected. We’re now seeing some signs that are so ugly that it’s making us realize that some mainstream American Jewish leaders had better go into the field of Jewish education” so that there will be a community in which to raise funds and which will need to be defended.

NOT AN OVERNIGHT TRANSFORMATION

JCC leaders note that the role of the JCCs as pivotal educational institutions is not an overnight transformation. It’s been evolving in that direction for many years, but not in a systematic and planned fashion. Two studies prior to the one on maximizing Jewish educational effectiveness in JCCs, one conducted from 1946 to 1948 and another from 1967 to 1969, laid the foundation for the present endeavor.

The first established that “the central objective of the JCC must be the promotion and nurturing of Jewish identity and continuity.” The second “examined and clarified the meaning of ‘Jewish content’ in JCC programming as requiring a conscious effort by boards and staff to focus Center programming on the complementary objectives of deepening the self-awareness of individual Jews and positively affecting Jewish survival.”

According to Mandel, “The JCC has not changed in direction, it’s changed in intensity. The sense of urgency, the sharpness of focus is much more on Jewish continuity than it ever has been. Centers are now sending whole staffs to Israel, immersing their staffs in Jewish thought, Jewish knowledge, Jewish history. That’s news. The degree of visibility is new.”

The evolution of the JCCs was also noted 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, who chaired the Committee on Implementation of the JWB’s blue ribbon panel on maximizing Jewish education.

“Looking back to the original view of the JCC, it was always regarded as a recreational place — you swam, played basketball and handball — it was a place to play. That’s still true, but the evolution over the past 10-15 years is that the stakes of the JCCs are broader in its services to the community. The recreational activities have not been replaced but they have been put in context by the addition of the cultural content, large health-related content, large educational content and the widening of the community it serves from the young to the elderly. The JCCs are tailoring their programs to meet the needs of the community now and as perceived for the future.”

A JEWISH WORLD WITHOUT JCCS

Could there, nevertheless, be a vital Jewish life without JCCs, JWB leaders were asked. Who would really care and who would really suffer if for some reason the JCCs went out of existence?

“The members and the million people who attend the Ys and the JCCs for a myriad of reasons,” Pollack said. “They would care because they would lose the range of certain services–social services, health services, services to the young, the elderly, the single parents, all of those people including those who receive phys-ed and musical services.

“The community at large would suffer because of the intangible intrinsic benefit for people who may not otherwise have a connection with Jewish organizational activities, to Jewish life. Without it, those people and their children would not be exposed to the values a Jewish institution can instill.”

Mandel said: “When a tree dies, does the world change? No. But it is a little poorer. I would say that the JCCs are now so institutionalized in American Jewish life that their disappearance would have a very wrenching effect on the psyche of Jewish communities, very wrenching. Will the world come to an end? No, I don’t think we would stop living. Substitute mechanisms would have to be found. The Jewish community would have to find a way to fill the void, it would have to find a way to fill the very basic need the JCCs now provide.”

Rochwarger’s response was: “The basic task of JCCs is the purposeful survival of the Jewish people. Individuals may not die if there are no longer any JCCs, but communities will.”

That, the JWB leaders agreed, is what the JCCs are about.

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