Special Interview Jccs Map New Challenges and New Opportunities
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Special Interview Jccs Map New Challenges and New Opportunities

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The Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) in the United States and Canada are embarking on an imperative venture: to maximize Jewish education to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people on this continent. It is an awesome task of trying to reintegrate what has become a split personality, a dichotomized consciousness of the Jew as an American and of the American as a Jew.

The task of resolving this dichotomy-by maximizing Jewish education in the form of a cohesive, integrated, sustained and pervasive programatic structuring of the JCCs to provide a total Jewish life-style-was the focus of a special JWB convention here earlier this month of 260 JCC leaders from 90 communities across the U.S. and Canada.

This special convention, the first in the history of the JWB, the continental association of the JCCs, dealt with ways to implement a two-year study by a blue ribbon panel headed by Morton Mandel, former JWB president and now the chairman of the Jewish Education Committee of the Jewish Agency.

The delegates, many of them in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s, engaged in intense discussions in workshops and forums for three days in an effort to concretize ways to implement the study, the JWB Commission on Maximizing Jewish Educational Effectiveness of the Jewish Community Centers. These delegates were convinced that their task is a mission possible.


While the immediate objective of “asserting the role of the Centers in the purposeful survival of the Jewish people,” as Esther Leah Ritz, JWB president, told the opening session of the convention, was explored, a number of questions remained at the end of the conclave.

Was the weekend effort, in the final analysis, an exercise in futility, in wishful thinking that the JCCs can be more than islands of Jewish content and continuity in a sea of assimilation in America’s open society?

Is it really possible for the JCCs, which were started 130 years ago in Baltimore, Md., to devise the kind of programs and semblance of a total Jewish life style that will attract not only the committed Jews but, more so, the uncommitted, marginal Jews who have made it in the non-Jewish world and no longer feel they have to be Jewish?

What can JCCs do for those Jews, young and old, single-parent families and intact families, who are living on the fringe of poverty or subsisting below the poverty level and cannot afford the $200 to $300 annual fee to belong to a JCC?


In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency here, both Ritz and Lester Pollack, chairman of the JWB Committee on Implementation of the blue ribbon panel’s recommendations, underlined the crucial and special nature of the JCCs in attracting Jews of all ages; committed and uncommitted; observant and non-observant; Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox; Zionist and diaspora-oriented; poor and wealthy; liberal and conservative; community activists and non-affiliated. “The important thing about the Center for many people who do not have a Jewish tradition is that it can be an avenue to people who will not first go to the synagogue or to the rabbi,” Ritz said. “That is our special role. The Center is probably the least threatening avenue to the Jewish community, the easiest way to find out what it means to be a Jew.”

Pollack, who is also 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, pointed out that the Center “is an open door to lots of different people who want the Jewish experiential activity, whether it’s cultural, recreational, social, educational, therapeutic.”

“In lots of instances, he noted, “people who made their first entry into Jewish experiential activity in the Jewish Community Center found their way ultimately into Jewish organizational life, be it in synagogues, temples, and formal educational activities.”


Pollack observed that this is the way many marginal, uncommitted Jews “came in and touched the issue” of Jewishness. “In commercial terms, if you will, they kicked the tires and then decided that they enjoyed, they liked the experience and they continued their Jewish Center experience and then went into synagogue life.”

The report by the blue ribbon panel also found that the JCCs, as well as the YM-YWHAs, while part of the Jewish educational network, “are distinctive because they have the ability to appeal to all segments of the Jewish community,” are able to “stimulate people to broaden their understanding and commitment to the Jewish community” and “attract Jews who are otherwise unaffiliated,” helping them “to participate in Jewish educational programs.”

Both Ritz and Pollack emphasized that they do not see the JCCs as islands in a sea of assimilation. Ritz declared that she views the JCCs “as timbers of a raft with the synagogues, with the Federations, with the (Jewish) schools and all other institutions and the home which together will carry us through this sea of assimilation.”

Both stressed that the task of maintaining and intensifying Jewish identity and consciousness has to be a collaborative effort between all the Jewish institutions — secular and religious, communal and private. The JCCs, Ritz observed, “can be an important feeder into some of these institutions.”

Ritz, who is also president of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers and a vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, noted that there is a theory that 50 years from now there will be a very small scholarly, very traditional Jewish community left and nothing else. “I don’t believe people in the Center movement believe that that should happen or will happen,” she said. “But to the extent that it might happen, we want to make sure that there is someone for them to speak to, someone for them to teach.”


The basic problem, Ritz and Pollack said, is not assimilation — a characteristic of the Jewish people since the beginning of its history — but, as Ritz phrased it, “fragmentation in terms of assimilation vs. isolation vs. participation” in the societies in which Jews lived.

“We have always been a rather small part of this (American) nation; we have always been an infinitesi mal portion of the population of the whole world,” Ritz observed. “We are a fly speck. But the one thing that is remarkable about the Jewish people is our influence over the millenia in spite of that fact.”

“I am not quite sure qualitatively whether we are much worse off now in terms of assimilation than we were in any other era,” she added. “Now we have an opportunity in our time to be separate but also part of the whole society.”

In the past, efforts to raise the consciousness of being Jewish has been haphazard and unstructured. Jewish identity was strengthened and heightened by the birth of the State of Israel, the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War.

But this was a consciousness that was linked to specific events — a consciousness that was marked by pride, and alternately, by anxiety and apprehension that the Jews remain an endangered people, depending on the turn and outcome of the specific event. When a given event ran its course, the consciousnessness that was Jewish waned and levelled off, and once again many American Jews receded into the rubric of being merely Jewish Americans.

This was perhaps best personified by Henry Kissinger when he was Secretary of State. Meeting with then Israeli Premier Golda Meir, he told her that he considers himself first of all an American, than a Secretary of State, and finally a Jew. Meir, always swift with repartee, countered by telling him, “Remember, Henry, I read from right to left.”

It is this type of split personality, this dichotomous consciousness, that the JCC movement is committed to reintegrate. In the past few decades the JCCs have begun viewing themselves as the instruments best capable of maximizing Jewish identity and continuity, as the transmission belts of Jewish values and culture from the older generation to the younger generation.

(Tomorrow: Part Two)

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