How do you know what people in the community want?
You ask them, said Abby Leipsner, chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Center of Northern New Jersey, formerly the YJCC.
Over a six-month period last year, Ms. Leipsner and other YJCC leaders — the group changed its name in November — conducted a survey and ran focus groups in the community. Members met with representatives from synagogues, “those active in the YJCC and those who never went, those who know about us and those who don’t know,” she said. “We really listened to what people had to say.”
Now, based on those findings, the JCC of Northern New Jersey is moving ahead, with a clear direction in mind. To help build community, one of its main goals, the organization has created the j. family Ambassador program, “to help welcome and serve as a resource for young Jewish families in Bergen County.”
Comprised of four young staff members who will work within designated neighborhoods, or “micro-communities,” to engage with new parents (with children up to the age of 3) and with parents-to-be, the four ambassadors will work in Mahwah and Ramsey; Woodcliff Lakes, Montvale, Upper Saddle River, and Saddle River; Washington Township, Westwood, River Vale, and Hillsdale; and Oradell, Paramus, and Ridgewood.
Of course, these are just general guidelines, Ms. Leipsner said. Other towns in the area will be included as well. For example, she said, “Park Ridge is not listed, but could fall under Hillsdale.”
“We know that northern Bergen County as a community is an area that is geographically spread out in terms of the Jewish community, so it’s more challenging for Jewish families to make social connections with other young Jewish families,” Erika Ehrlich, the organization’s coordinator of young family engagement, said. JCC leaders hope that the ambassadors can bridge this gap, helping to find programs for babies and toddlers, introducing young families to one another, and providing information on Jewish programs throughout the community.
“Research shows that social interaction and networking play an important role for young families who are joining a new community or are making decisions with regards to Jewish life,” Ms. Leipsner said. “Early engagement can increase the likelihood of families getting involved in communal activities, whether it is choosing a Jewish preschool, becoming active in a Jewish community center, or sending their kids to Jewish day school.”
In discussions with the four ambassadors, Ms. Erlich has learned that “what works best when approaching families to participate in programming is to first gear the program to best meet their requests and be the best fit for their children. It’s important to ask them what they would like and try to create programs around what they want.”
Following last year’s survey and focus groups, “We found that there was a need for parents in our community to connect with each other and with the Jewish community,” Ms. Leipsner said. “We heard from parents who were having trouble meeting and engaging with other families since the YJCC closed.” The need was “to create programs allowing people to meet each other, and get a greater feel for the wider community.”
The research uncovered a number of unmet needs, she continued, including one for an early childhood education program geared to the particular needs of respondents — different hours, for example. While the need for other kinds of programs — such as those for teens and people with special needs — are no less important, at first the JCC will focus on early childhood. “We need teen and special need programs but we can’t do everything at once,” Ms. Leipsner said. “We want to ensure extremely high quality, and to give the community what it deserves.
“We have Mommy and Me classes, we’ll be re-launching the PJ Library in the spring of 2018, and we’re exploring the idea of opening an early childhood center — though there’s no formal decision” on whether to proceed, or whether such a facility would be run solely by the JCC or in partnership with other organizations.
“We’re in the process of determining the next step,” Ms. Leipsner said.
In choosing their four ambassadors, she continued, “we wanted people who were connected and involved and who understood Jewish values, but also saw the need for families to connect. Their job is to go out and plan grassroots programming and events, such as a meet-up in a play area or a park — where they might bring kosher snacks for the children — or, say, a meeting at Wegman’s community room to do Chanukah crafts. We’re going to try to bring all the groups together monthly or bimonthly in order to do a bigger program.” The JCC’s Chanukah crafts and music program drew 160 people, she said.
The ambassadors find target families in a variety of ways, from word of mouth to Facebook. Ambassadors call the families and invite them for coffee as well as to local programs and events at the JCC, at other Jewish communal organization, and at local synagogues.
“We had a lot of people who said they’re not necessarily comfortable going alone to a new synagogue or other Jewish institution,” Ms. Leipsner said. “The ambassador serves as an organizer, and part of her job is to invite her cohort to go to other Jewish activities so people aren’t going alone. They all have a friend to make the introductions.”
The ambassador program is not unique to Bergen County, she added. She heard about a successful program in northern Virginia and began to do some research. “We like the idea of not trying to get people into the JCC building but building community outside,” she said. “We thought this was a great idea.” As in northern Virginia, “We don’t have a central town square where our people were congregating.”
Ultimately, Ms. Leipsner said, “This can have a great impact on the wider community. It can bring more people to programs and activities,” whether in the area of social action or Jewish programming. It might even increase shul membership.
The j. family Ambassador program is funded through the Josh Herman Endowment Fund and the Weinberg Endowment Fund at the Bergen County Y, a JCC Foundation, and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. For more information, call (201) 666-6610 or go to www.jccnjj.com.