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Behind the Headlines Beset by ‘fuzzy’ Image, Jcc Group Tries to Make Centers More Relevant by Joe Be

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They are the sleeping giant of American Jewish life.

JCCs reach 800,000 homes with 1.7 million Jews — one-third of the entire U.S. Jewish community — surpassing even the burgeoning Reform movement’s membership rolls, according to a new report for the JCC Association of North America.

Yet few Jews realize it.

“JCCs need to be seen as serious players impacting people’s Jewish experiences,” Allan Finkelstein, the JCCA’s president, told JTA. “We know that, but I’m not sure everyone else knows.”

The JCCA, which represents 350 JCCs, YMHAs and Jewish camps across the continent, is trying to change that perception. At its 150th biennial in Montreal this week, the group unveiled a new strategic plan dubbed “Hagshama: Inspiring Jewish Journeys” that calls for repositioning JCCs within the Jewish world.

“Hagshama,” Hebrew for “fulfillment,” urges JCCs to see themselves as one institutional stop on the road many American Jews follow to map out a complex identity. Other measures may include joining synagogues, attending camps or day schools and participating in cultural activities.

“We want to help people on every journey they want to take,” said Leonard Rubin, JCCA’s executive vice president of program services.

In part, JCCs are being urged to blur the traditional lines of organizational life by forging closer ties with other Jewish institutions in hopes of encouraging Jewish activity. The idea is to “promote collaboration with other Jewish institutions, like synagogues and federations,” Rubin said.

That will be crucial in coming years, said Robert Hyfler, senior vice president of research and development for the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations. UJC is one JCC funder.

“The key to the future in the 21st century will be dynamic partnerships,” Hyfler said, as public institutions such as JCCs, federations and synagogues — and their individual donors and major philanthropic supporters — change how they do business.

These groups must “appreciate their unique strengths, while breaking down institutional egos that prevent us from getting the collective job done,” he added.

Hagshama also is urging JCCs to undergo a “re-branding” that plays up their Jewish content alongside their preschools and fitness centers.

The JCC should be a “community within a community” that encourages “the spiritual, emotional and physical development” of members though all stages of life, the plan states.

“We intend to build a strong image for the movement, a public statement about what we stand for Jewishly,” Finkelstein said.

This isn’t the first time the JCCA has attempted to raise its profile.

Over the past century, JCCs evolved from urban settlement houses for immigrants and places for young men to play basketball, to gleaming suburban centers built around camps, preschools and gyms, much like YMCAs.

During the 1990s the JCCA tried to “put the J back in JCC,” publicizing the fact they also offer adult Jewish education and Jewish cultural events.

But “the world has totally changed” since then, Finkelstein said.

First there was a 1999 shooting at a Los Angeles JCC, followed by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Both events underlined the need for tighter security.

Then the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey came out, showing that nearly 20 percent of the 4.3 million most Jewishly active members of the community — out of some 5.2 million Jews in the United States — belonged to a JCC.

That study reaffirmed the notion that many Jews have stepped into a JCC in recent years, Finkelstein said. Working from the NJPS figures, the JCCA plan estimated that 28 percent of Jewish households — amounting to 1.7 million Jews, or one-third of American Jewry — either belong to a JCC or have participated in an activity at one.

The JCCA then hired a leading branding firm, Landor Associates of New York, to retool its image. The firm, which has led campaigns for Hewlett-Packard, Federal Express and the Department of Homeland Security, interviewed more than 100 educators, rabbis, Jewish communal professionals and others about JCCs.

The interviews showed that JCCs had a “fuzzy” image that needed more focus.

Some at the biennial welcomed the move.

“It gives me a guide as to what I can look to as my vision,” said Richard Comiter, president of the JCC of the Greater Palm Beach area.

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