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There was good reason for celebration in the board room of the Kaplen Jewish Community Center on the Palisades on Tuesday night. Two weeks before, the JCC had received a check for $1.5 million from the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation – marking the successful conclusion to six years of fundraising and construction that renovated the JCC’s 40-year-old building and brought in $32 million in donations from the community.

The board members had reason to drink champagne. They had succeeded in an audacious fundraising campaign – one whose scope had sparked heated discussions over the years. And they had reached into their own pockets to grow the institution they loved, that many of them had grown up in, giving to the original capital and endowment campaign and then, this past year, to what was called the Taub Community Challenge. That, in fact, had been a condition of Henry Taub, when he agreed, on his hospital bed shortly before his death last March, to donate $1.5 million: The JCC had to come up with $3 million from other donors, and within a year. “Henry wanted the community to step up and take ownership,” recalls Pearl Seiden, president of the JCC.

And those donors had to include all of the members of the JCC board.

In the end, more than 700 contributors stepped forward.

Tuesday’s meeting, however, was not just about congratulation and looking backward. The members that night began what they expect to be a series of discussions on how to make the JCC as relevant for the next generation as it has been for them.

“We always said that we are going to renovate and revitalize, not only our building but all of our programs,” says Seiden. “We’re in the process of doing that. We are looking at everything we do and saying, should we continue doing it, should we not, how can we do it better, how can we make it more relevant.”

When it opened in 1950, the heart of the JCC was “its athletic program,” recalls George Hantgan, the JCC’s founding executive director.

It stood in contrast to the nearby “shul with a pool” Jewish centers – in Teaneck and Fair Lawn. Now, Seiden sees the JCC’s mission as it moves forward as “infusing Judaism throughout the center. I want people to see it in every department. I want them to smell it when they walk in the building. I want them to hear Jewish music. I want them to learn about Jewish cooking. I want them to see Jewish artwork. I really want to stimulate all their senses in a very Jewish way, to create a real Jewish ambiance.

“You may be walking in the center to the gym to exercise, but along the way you’re picking up this Jewishness.”

How this would work is still being worked out. “We’re in the process of talking about it. The executive committee has been talking about it. The Judaic department has been talking about it.”

Ultimately, says the JCC executive director, Avi Lewinson, “We’re really looking at how Jewish values will become a part of every department.” He cites as an example the JCC’s Teen Adventures program of summer day trips for teens. “Now tzedakah programs are part of the schedule. Every week they volunteer in the community.”

A heightened focus on Jewishness at the JCC will mark a sharp contrast to the direction being taken by one of the region’s two other Jewish community centers. Last year, the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne came under the operational control of a regional chain of YMCAs and was rebranded the Wayne Y. This came in response to declining membership, and with the stated goal of appealing to a wider, non-Jewish audience.

Meanwhile, the YJCC of Bergen County, in Washington Township, is undergoing a self-evaluation as it considers new directions, including program cutbacks (although it has ruled out the sort of non-Jewish collaboration taking place in Wayne)

Up on the Palisades, Seiden says that a process of information gathering coupled with self-evaluation has been under way for a couple of years.

“We started having casual conversations. I would meet with different groups of people in the community, members and non-members. I would go with Robert Fried, director of the membership department, to talk to people, to find out why they join the JCC, what they like about it, why they retain their membership, why they don’t,” she says.

“The real purpose is to come back with ideas. We’ve had many ideas we’ve put into place to be more accommodating to our members, to serve them in a better way, to give them the programs that they want.”

Such discussions have already had an impact on an important measurement of the JCC’s health: membership figures.

“Last year, we finished the year with over 3,500 membership units,” says Avi Lewinson, the executive director. “That’s a thousand more than before we started our capital campaign.”

“We’ve made it easier to join. We’ve removed some barriers to entry,” such as the building fund.

Lewinson also attributes the increase to the JCC’s renovations, “the fact we’ve renovated the health and fitness facilities.”

Health and wellness continue to be a strong focus of the JCC. In fact, just as the JCC wants every department to be infused with Judaism, it is looking to make wellness a principle throughout all of its programs – not just the fitness center.

“In terms of obesity being an issue in today’s world, a healthy lifestyle is becoming more important. We’ve dedicated substantial staff time in looking at how we can build a focus on a healthy lifecycle through all age groups. It starts in early childhood, teaching children to respect their body, to the teen fitness center, to programs for seniors. Promoting wellness, healthy lifestyles, is a priority,” he says.

Lewinson says that he is also looking to increase the JCC’s work with “families in distress, populations at risk.”

“We’re trying to do more programming for adults and children with special needs. We’re really looking at all the populations – like single parent families – to welcome them, to serve them, to make them part of our larger Jewish community,” he says.

The JCC has also increased the availability of scholarships, to make membership available to those who would not otherwise afford it.

“Some of the people who are now our largest donors,” says Lewinson, “are people who couldn’t afford JCC membership when they were growing up. One shared with me that membership at the time was five dollars a year and his father couldn’t afford it. They provided a scholarship and that made a difference. He’s given a lot more to help us than the the three dollars he needed to make up membership.”

The JCC, however, is not only hoping to expand the populations that it serves; it is looking to expand its impact on the community through developing collaborations and relationships with other Jewish organizations.

Currently, it provides music education programming to the Moriah School in Englewood, and it is discussing a relationship with the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. “We’re looking to build those collaborations,” says Lewinson.

This comes as collaboration between Jewish organizations has become a priority for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The federation is planning to shift from providing block grants to the JCC and similar agencies to funding specific programming proposals – and agency collaboration will be a plus as proposals are evaluated.

In short, with the construction no longer disrupting the JCC’s daily activities and with the six years of the capital and endowment campaigns coming to a conclusion, the JCC does not want to settle down into mission complacency.

“We are reorganizing staff,” says Lewinson. “We have created new positions. We’ve looked at the staff that we have and how best to use them to do some of the things we want to do. We’ve brought on some new staff with new expertise. We’re looking at how we can be on the cutting edge of serving the community and better serve our members with the programs we’ve always had.”

Lewinson recalls his conversation with Taub, in which the philanthropist explained why he wanted to donate the money in a time-limited challenge grant, only payable if $3 million was raised within a year.

“I want this to be finished so you can go on with the more important work of running the center,” Taub told him.

“This” is finished. Now the work begins.

From generation to generation
For Pearl Seiden, its president, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades is clearly a multigenerational endeavor.

“As a child,” she says. “I attended the Englewood JCC and my parents were considered among the founders of it. I watched them go through the process of building this JCC,” the Tenafly campus where the JCC relocated in 1982, after being founded in Englewood in 1950. “They were envisioning it, talking about it, looking at the blueprints.”

When she moved back to town after leaving for college, a mother of young children, she joined the JCC “right away. I got involved in the early childhood program, where my four children attended nursery school. That’s where I made my friends. It’s a very typical JCC journey story.”

Now, her children are grown (and too far from Tenafly to be members), and it is her granddaughter who attends summer camp at the JCC and often accompanies her there during the year.

“It is not unusual that I might have my granddaughter with me and see my mother in the hall coming from the gym,” says Seiden. “My mother does a lot of rehab in our fitness facility.”

Yet despite being a link in a four-generation chain of JCC involvement, Seiden believes the JCC must constantly be changing. Anything less is a threat to that generational link.