Complex Web of Challenges Tests Jewish Community Centers

As Baltimore prepared for the second jewel in horse racing’s Triple Crown, much of Jewish Baltimore was getting ready for its third jewel: this week’s convention of the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America.

The JCCA biennial convention, Baltimore’s third major Jewish event in five years, brought to town more than 1,200 professionals and volunteers involved in strengthening what has become one of the most important institutions for Jewish cultural life.

“I think it’s really exciting because it gives a lot of small JCCs, all over North America, the chance to come, to listen, to find out what’s going on in the whole movement,” said Marcy Kolodny, who chaired the Baltimore Host Committee for the event.

“It’s the third jewel, so to speak, for us in the Triple Crown,” said Kolodny.

The first two came in 1991, when Baltimore hosted the Council of Jewish Federations’ annual General Assembly; and 1993, when the finals of the Maccabi Games, the Jewish youth Olympics, were held here.

The JCCA convention, which runs from May 14 to 19, comes at a time when JCCs across the continent are trying to adapt to new demands, said Allan Finkelstein, the association’s executive vice president.

The six-day meeting was to be the official launch of a two-year process aimed at developing the JCCA’s long-range plan for its members, he said. That plan is scheduled to be unveiled at the 1998 biennial event in Houston.

No longer content in its limited role as “the shvitz,” the Jewish alternative to the “Y,” the JCCA has laid out an ambitious mission statement for its members. The goal is “to welcome all Jews, to help each Jew move along a continuum of Jewish growth, and to build Jewish memories.”

Ultimately, the JCCA wants to “create a community of learning Jews who are consciously Jewish, are committed to Jewish values and practices, and who manifest their Jewishness in lifestyle, “thus creating a Jewish community capable of continuing creative renewal,” according to the association’s mission statement.

If all this sounds a bit airy, Finkelstein points to a series of specific programs and initiatives aimed at better incorporating Jewish values and practices into the JCCs.

One is to increase the educational content of each center.

In an age when continuity tops the list of institutional Jewish priorities, the JCC “movement was literally transformed” starting in 1982, said Finkelstein. That’s the year the JCCA launched a project called the Commission on Maximizing the Jewish Educational Effectiveness of JCCs.

Since then, the number of full-time professional Jewish educators on staff at North American JCCs has grown from two to 70.

Another strategy is to work more closely with synagogues, including possible joint memberships; shared staffing, especially for youth programs; and a conscious effort to avoid redundant lesson plans for preschoolers and children in daycare who attend both institutions.

With 72 percent of JCC members also joining synagogues, according to a JCCA study, “the old argument about one competing with the other isn’t true anymore,” Finkelstein said.

At the same time, JCC executives are faced with a new set of fiscal demands. Fund-raising campaigns at most federations are on the decline and expected federal budget cuts would place more pressure on federations to shift their resources to basic services, such as food, shelter and medical care for the most indigent Jews.

While North American JCC’s aggregate annual budgets have nearly doubled in the decade since 1984, to $425 million, the share of those budgets provided by federations and the United Way has fallen to 17.5 percent in 1994, from 28 years earlier, according to the JCCA.

“The JCC’s challenge now is to be as self-sufficient as it can be,” Finkelstein said. “And those are tricky words in the non-profit world, because it doesn’t mean generating profits. It means charging what it costs to provide these services.”

For Kolodny, and other volunteers and executives in Baltimore, one answer to these sometimes conflicting challenges is to use the JCC to recreate the feel of an old Jewish community that provided safe harbor for people to express their Judaism.

“I think the concept is so great: to go back to a Jewish neighborhood,” she said. “We want to make “the J’the place to go.”

NEXT STORY