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JCC, amid controversy, exploring interest in childcare program

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A JCC survey gauging interest in a full-day, day care program would expand its early childhood offerings, like Camp JLand, pictured here.

JCC Rockland, looking for ways to ensure its future stability, is exploring the possibility of offering a full-day child care. The move has drawn mixed reactions among other Jewish organizations currently offering preschool programs.

The JCC distributed a survey to its membership through email in late January aimed at gauging interest in such a program, which would run from about 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. There would be an educational component, and it would reflect Jewish values, yet would be open to all, according to Josh Krakoff, JCC Rockland’s chief operating officer.

Survey results are not yet in, but moving forward “depends on need,” said Krakoff. “We won’t invest in capital if there is not the need.”

That need will be determined by a fickle demographic of parents in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, who eschew joining organizations in favor of paying for programs in more of an a la carte style.

“One of the challenges of the JCC is our members have changed,” said Krakoff. “In the past, you joined the JCC because you supported the community. People in their 20s, 30s, and 40s don’t feel the need to support it if it doesn’t fit their needs.”

The JCC relies heavily on revenue generated by the Russin Fitness & Wellness Center. It is hoping that a day care program will bolster its bottom line. Child care has traditionally been something JCCs offer – 160 of them in North America do and very few do not, said Mark Horowitz, JCC Association vice president of early childhood education and family engagement.

“I would be hard-pressed to name a city where there are enough Jews to have a JCC that doesn’t have an early childhood program,” Horowitz said.

The early childhood piece is very important to the fiscal health of a JCC because it draws people in and keeps them engaged, he said.

“Generally, we talk about three pillars of the business piece of the JCC, which are fitness, camp, and early childhood,” according to Horowitz. “Early childhood is very important for a lot of reasons. From the business side, it drives people into the building and it provides…a gathering place for families and young children. If it’s their school, they are more likely to come for celebrations.”

That possibility looms as a threat to local synagogues offering nursery school programs. While none offer full-day programs, some see the JCC as encroaching on turf to which the synagogues traditionally laid claim. Many cite a two-decades-old unwritten non-compete agreement between the JCC and synagogues regarding the issue. And the JCC, located in the flashy Rockland Jewish Community Campus, is perceived of as having an ability to reach broadly into the community in a way synagogues do not.

Still most recognize that the JCC is merely responding to the same market forces that are affecting all Jewish organizations: Younger families simply aren’t looking to join Jewish institutions in the ways they once did.

“In theory, there is no issue with a JCC having a preschool if the Jewish community is united and has a shared vision,” said Rabbi Brian Leiken, of the Reform Temple Beth Sholom in New City. “There’s no problem between the synagogue and the JCC in that regard.”

Temple Beth Sholom has approximately 50 children enrolled in programs it offers to children from 1 to 4-years-old. While the younger children’s programs run from morning until noon, programs for 3- and 4-year-olds have extended day options until 2:30 p.m. in the nearly 30-year-old preschool program.

“Everyone has a role to play, and some people are going to be able to do that better than others,” said Leiken, whose mother taught for 25 years at the JCC in Cleveland. “The JCC will always have better camps than the synagogues. They have the ability and resources, the connections, and facilities. A synagogue will always run a more successful nursery school program from the vantage point of keeping young families engaged, especially if the nursery school is run as part of the whole synagogue with a holistic sense of making sure those children are exposed to the synagogue.”

Across Route 304, Conservative New City Jewish Center (NCJC) is eyeing the JCC somewhat warily. NCJC offers a nursery program that begins with a free mommy-and-me program and runs through pre-kindergarten. In all, the programs serve about 50 children, and include an early drop-off option, and an extended day until 2:30 p.m.

But as President Alyce Kitt pointed out, there is a big difference between day care and nursery school, and parents looking for one are not likely to be looking for the other.

“It’s a really different entity,” said Kitt, who understands the JCC’s need to expand its revenue base and that times have changed. A young mother, she said, may not have the luxury of using a program that lets out in the early afternoon as she did when she was working part time nearby when her children were young.

“It might take a few people from our program,” she said of the JCC, were it to begin day care. “But the majority who want to go to the nursery school over day care, it won’t affect them.”

She has confidence in the NCJC program, which she described as a thriving one. “I stand behind our program. I think it’s great.”

Feedback from the JCC’s survey at the fledgling Rockland Jewish Academy (RJA), a new day school in the campus that uses the JCC’s playground and gymnasium, was decidedly mixed, according to Robin Grosser, vice president of the RJA’s board of directors.

“I’ve heard from both ends of the spectrum from the parent body,” said Grosser. “I’ve heard ‘We’re supportive,’ and I’ve heard ‘How could they do that?'”

The board, however, is taking a “wait and see” attitude, she said. The survey results will tell whether there really is a need for full-day child care. Grosser thinks there could be a decided upside to having a JCC program with much younger children enrolled. She would like to see families attend such a program because it might make the RJA.

Grosser can relate to any heat the JCC might be taking. When the pluralistic RJA opened ­- it enrolled about 20 children in the 3- and 4-year-old programs for its inaugural year – synagogues were not that pleased it would be a preschool with hours stretching well into the afternoon, with extended day options.

“The shuls were not happy the RJA opened a preschool,” she said. “And our response was very similar to the response the JCC gave us.

“The JCC needs to secure its financial viability. We get that.”

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