It’s been a busy year for Abby Leipsner, chief executive officer of the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township. For anyone who might ask why — after all, the facility closed its doors in August 2015 — Ms. Leipsner has a ready answer. While the organization may have shuttered its building, she says, “we never closed our business.
“We spent the first six months cleaning up a lot of the past, paying bills, getting out refunds, and doing logistical stuff,” she said. “The next six months we did a survey and focus groups out in the community. We 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. We really listened to what people had to say.”
Over the past six months, “we started posing scenarios to figure out what worked, developing a strategic direction for moving forward in the future. What we’ve been doing,” she said — when she says we, she is including the board of the YJCC and many community members– “is putting together a plan for our future, then going out and starting to present it to many people.” In advertising these meetings, organizers have urged potential attendees to “join us on our journey as we redefine and realign with our community.”
So far, Ms. Leipsner and several of her board members have met with more than 100 people throughout the community, presenting a PowerPoint program on possibilities for future directions. Meetings have been held in diverse locations. “We’ll meet with people wherever it is convenient for them to meet,” she said. They’ve been in synagogues, offices, houses, and at Starbucks, she said, estimating that she and her group have held about 10 meetings so far. “Great suggestions come out of it,” she said.
The YJCC also conducted “a huge survey,” she continued. “We hired an outside consultant who came back and gave us statistics and facts. Then we met with the long-term planning committee and put together action steps to move forward. We took those and expanded them to show people what we would look like.”
The organization has several different goals, Ms. Leipsner said. “Next year will focus on young family engagement and teens”; while the YJCC will still offer activities for adults and children, it will pay particular attention to creating programs for young families and teens. “Our intention is to be a JCC with many walls,” she said. “At this point, we don’t have plans to have a building or central location; we’ll be building community by meeting people where they are. We’ve divided our catchment area into six micro-communities. Each is very unique and has different characteristics.”
One of the issues being studied is why people decide to move to a particular community. For example, “Why choose Fair Lawn and not Upper Saddle River?” The YJCC planning group has examined the characteristics of each microcommunity, hoping to create programs to meet their needs.
“We have divided our catchment area into six microcommunities, each with between 2,000 to 6,000 Jewish households,” Ms. Leipsner said. “Each microcommunity has its own characteristics, need for services, and realistic price points for services. As we move forward, we hope to serve each one, taking into consideration that people from one end of our catchment area will not necessarily drive to the other end of our catchment area.”
The microcommunities are Woodcliff Lake and Upper Saddle River; Mahwah and Ramsey; Franklin Lakes and Wyckoff; Hillsdale, River Vale, Westwood and Washington Township; Paramus, Fair Lawn, River Edge, and Oradell; and Ridgewood and Glen Rock. The lines are not firm; n each case, the microcommunity includes both the towns and the surrounding communities.
For example, Ms. Leipsner said, one microcommunity “is very interested in young family engagement and social action programs but doesn’t care about a gym or fitness facility. Another microcommunity has an older population and is more interested in low budget adult and senior adult activities.” For them, the YJCC provides what they call a Mind, Body, and Spirit Program.
“Each community is different, and we hope to serve all six in the way they need to be served. We know in the JCC world how far people will drive for different kinds of activities — 15 minutes for early childhood, farther for a camp facility. There is really no one location where we could serve the entire catchment area.”
Ms. Leipsner said that she was surprised by the number of survey respondents who reported not feeling happy with their options for early childhood programs. “There are so many great early childhood centers around,” she said. “But a lot of parents said they were lacking, especially when the parents were intermarried or ‘not as religious.’ Those who defined themselves as Reform or ‘somewhat Jewish’ or ‘just Jewish’ had a lot of concerns about the early childhood options. We’re definitely looking at that and exploring” the situation.
Ms. Leipsner describes the YJCC’s path as “innovative.
“Most JCCs have a building,” she said. “We’re a little unique because we’ve made imaginary lines of what our Jewish community exists of. It’s not like the federation catchment area of Chicago,” which is, in fact, Chicago. “Within Bergen County we’re one federation but so many different communities. We need to be able to know the difference between those communities” in order to respond to them.
“People are definitely liking the YJCC’s new direction. We’ve had a great success rate of people who want to sign up and be involved. It’s a work in progress. We hope that in September we can do a relaunch of programming and activities and have a greater list.” Her group, she said, also has been in talks with various synagogues about partnering to provide long-terms programs “for holidays, Jewish values, and socialization.”
In the meantime, several of the YJCC’s signature programs have continued, with the senior lunch program, based at Temple Beth Or, serving about 60 people on any given day. In addition, “we’ve brought in some speakers, attracting a great number of seniors, and we’re looking more for more seniors to join us.” Over the course of the year, “We’ve served more than 750 unique individuals,” said Ms. Leipsner, pointing out that the ‘Tween Scene has more than 150 fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders who participate.
“We’d like people to know that we’re still open, active, and have a great future ahead. It’s really going to take the whole community to make it successful. It’s not something only a couple of board members can do. We know we can have a huge impact on the greater community.”
For more information, call Abby Leipsner at (201) 666-6610 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.