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Focus on Issues: Jccs Strive to Add Community to Business of Pools and Schools

A staff “buddy system,” a message board for commemorating happy occasions and condolences, and a few new chairs outside a nursery school entrance may not seem like revolutionary developments at your local Jewish community center.

But for the JCCs of Greater Boston, these are some of the components of a new effort that they — and the larger national JCC movement — are describing as a fundamental shift in the way they do business.

The aim is to foster connections and networks among members as a way to create stronger ties within Jewish life.

This is not the first conceptual shift in American JCCs, which were founded largely to acculturate newly arrived Jewish immigrants and have long been known primarily for their three “core businesses”: gym facilities, early childhood programs and day camps.

In the past decade, in an effort many described as “putting the J back in JCC,” the centers have sought to beef up their Jewish content. Guided by their umbrella group, the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, JCCs have hired Judaic educators, sponsored adult Jewish education courses and enriched the Jewish curriculum of the nursery schools.

Now, seizing upon research findings that show many American Jews live far from their families and the Jewish neighborhoods of yore and — like many Americans — are yearning for a greater feeling of community, the centers’ new focus could be described as “putting the community back in the JCC.”

“Meaningful Jewish Community” was the theme of the movement’s biennial convention in Boston last week.

JCC leaders from 130 centers around the country gathered in small groups to talk about just what community means and how the centers can do a better job facilitating connections among their members.

An estimated 1 million American Jews are members of 206 JCCs around the country and another million attend occasional programs, and approximately 2 million belong to a synagogue, according to the 1990 population study done by the Council of Jewish Federations.

Social activist and syndicated Jewish columnist Leonard Fein kicked off the biennial with a keynote address outlining the new approach.

“Bigger pools and better early childhood education programs are important, but they are not how we’ll be measured,” he said.

“We can’t be satisfied to remain in health and hobbies, as important as they are. If that’s all there is, the center becomes a cafeteria with only appetizers and desserts.”

Fein is one of the authors of a study commissioned by the Boston JCCs calling on the centers to see their services as “effective means to generate the numerous relationships and feelings of attachment that are at the heart of well-functioning intimate communities of Jews.”

Steven Cohen, another author of the study and a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said, “In the past, JCCs used to reflect the community. Now they’re about creating community.”

The initiative comes at the same time that American synagogues — through new initiatives like Synagogue 2000, the Reform movement’s Experiment in Congregational Education and a new philanthropic partnership of mega-donors Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman called Synagogue Transformation and Renewal — are also talking about making themselves more welcoming, and more vibrant, communities.

At the biennial here, JCC leaders repeatedly emphasized that they want to cooperate, not compete, with synagogues and that many JCC members are also active in their synagogues.

However, proponents of the initiative note that when it comes to building community and reaching out to the unaffiliated, JCCs can fill a niche that religious institutions cannot.

The JCC “cuts across all categories of Jewish life,” said Sherry Israel, a professor at Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service and one of the authors of the “Meaningful Jewish Community” study.

“When we did research, people were saying, `I like the JCC because no one is judging me there and I can’t do anything wrong.’ For some Jews, the barriers in other institutions are more formidable than many people realize.”

Although to some JCC leaders, the initiative sounds like a marketing spin on things they are already trying to do, proponents say it is not just a new gloss on business as usual.

Burt Garr, executive director of the JCC of Greater St. Paul, Minn., said when he first learned of the new initiative, he thought, “Gee whiz, that’s already happening,” but later decided the new effort is significant because it is about being proactive.

“This is not just about customer service,” said Fiona Epstein, director of Boston’s Leventhal-Sidman JCC, a bustling Jewish center in the affluent suburb of Newton.

Rather, said Epstein and others involved, it is about taking “naturally occurring communities” — the friendships that often develop among parents in a nursery school class, for example — and actively promoting them, while encouraging participants to deepen their Jewish commitment.

“We want a relationship with members, to see members not as customers or a commodity,” said Epstein, adding that the variety of classes offered “are not just about making money or giving skills but building relationships.”

Such concepts are much more abstract than the traditional issues with which JCCs have concerned themselves, like swimming pools and building expansions.

On a concrete level, the initiative in Boston, begun last year and being promoted nationally, is so far focusing on small changes.

It is working to convince staff to buy into the idea while strengthening community among nursery school parents.

New staff now get “buddies” to show them the ropes and mentor them, and all staff participate in periodic social events, such as a Passover “chametz blowout,” when they wipe out all the non-Passover products.

“For staff to help create community with members they need to be part of a community, too,” said Alan Mann, executive vice president of the JCCs of Greater Boston.

In the Striar JCC, in a suburb south of Boston, changes are still in the beginning stages.

Chairs placed in the center’s small lobby are periodically filled with people stopping to chat, and a bulletin board for mazel tovs and condolences is prominently displayed.

In addition, nursery school staff have worked closely with a graduate student in Jewish communal service to create more opportunities for parents to get to know each other and learn more about Judaism.

A school-wide membership directory lists hobbies, to encourage families to get together outside school. At parents’ request, the school offered a session for parents on Jewish mourning practices and helped create a babysitting co-op for families to use on days the school is closed.

When Carole Neitlich, the early childhood education director, went on an exchange trip to visit Jewish educators in Ukraine, she organized a family education program in which participants made two ceramic mezuzah cases — one to take home and one to send to Ukraine.

“We’re looking at existing programs we’ve been doing forever and finding ways to make them more meaningful,” explained Neitlich.

It remains to be seen whether the ideals and theories of the “Meaningful Jewish Community” initiative take hold nationally, or even reach their lofty goals in Boston.

Susan Shevitz, director of Brandeis’ Hornstein Program, described the effort as “profoundly important,” but questioned whether any institutions, including JCCs, can fulfill peoples’ yearning for community while also recognizing American Jews’ “powerful need for individualism.”

“We live in a consumer environment and to change from being a customer to a member to a chevra is hard,” she said, using the Hebrew term for community.

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