Clifton Passaic Jewish institutions undergoing massive changes

Clifton Passaic Jewish institutions undergoing massive changes

Y to close its doors, programs to be relocated or phased out, federation in flux

The Jewish Community Center at 199 Scoles Avenue, Clifton, is being phased out.

By 1904, teenagers in Passaic’s growing Jewish community were finding that synagogues – the traditional center of Jewish life for their European-born parents – no longer met their needs. And so, following a pattern emerging in Jewish communities across the country, a group of high-school students formed the city’s first Y. Three years later, The Young Men’s Hebrew Association of Passaic was formally incorporated under state law. It eventually merged with a YWHA formed in March, 1905. The story is recorded in “Jewish Roots: A History of the Jewish Community of Passaic and Environs,” published in 1959 by the Jewish Community Council of Passaic.

Last week, the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic announced the closing of its YM-YWHA – the direct successor to that institution. Doors to the Y’s pool and fitness center at 199 Scoles Ave., Clifton, will shut today, June 24, and the rest of the Y’s operations will phase out during the month of July.

“The Y Nursery School has ended its program for the year and will not re-start,” said the federation’s president, Joan Gottlieb. “Day care will continue at its present location through July 22.” Only the day camp – the most profitable of the Y’s programs – will make it through the summer, ending on Aug. 19 as scheduled, with no home for the foreseeable future. The day camp, all of whose campers are Orthodox, reflects the changed demographics of the area’s Jewish community. While profitable, the camp is self-supporting, providing no funds for other federation activities.

When the Y – also known as the Tri-County JCC – moved from downtown Passaic to Clifton in 1976, the transition was funded by contributions from a then diverse and generous Jewish community. “Since then, a lot of our big givers either moved away or passed away,” said Gottlieb, “and the new [Orthodox] Jewish community has neither the financial ability nor the willingness to support the federation and the Y. We’ve been running at a deficit for years,” she added.

Recognizing its problems, the federation pursued efforts to merge, first with the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest – encompassing Essex, Morris, Sussex, and part of Union counties – and later, the Jewish Federation of North Jersey in Wayne. Neither effort was successful.

The Y’s closing is the latest chapter in a saga that officially began a year ago when the financially strapped federation put its 60,000 square-foot building on the market. The property sits on seven acres, comprising a playground renovated just a year ago. The sale has been under contract to a prospective buyer (The Learning Center for Exceptional Children) since early this year. Both parties say they expect closing this summer, and the buyer has indicated it will open the fitness center and pool to the public at what Gottlieb called “reasonable rates.”

The building will not be vacated until the closing occurs, and in the event it does not, the JCC says it has other options to pursue.

Real estate negotiations are also at the heart of the Y’s closing. “It’s a disappointment because a month and a half ago, the federation voted to continue funding the Y for another year,” said Mark Levenson, who ended eight years as federation president last year and is president-elect of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations. “We felt strongly about providing the Y’s resources to the community for another year, and we were helping Y chairman Kenneth Mandel with negotiations to continue to operate in a different building, retaining many of the services it provides with day care in one building, senior services in another.”

When negotiations with a third party fell through two weeks ago, a letter went out informing the community of the closing of day care and the Riskin Early Learning Center. The Y’s senior services program will be administered by Jewish Family Service, a former federation division that, according to Levenson, was deliberately spun off as a separate agency so that it could continue its work regardless of the federation’s financial status or location. In fact, JFS is also negotiating to rent office space in Clifton with enough room to house the federation, originally scheduled to relocate with the Y. The Holocaust Resource Center, which occupies space in the JCC building, is also looking for a new space. “We are in the midst of finding an appropriate home for their art collection and book collection – hopefully in the same place,” Gottlieb said.

When Ed Schey, the federation’s executive director for 10 years, announced his retirement as of July 1, rumors circulated that the federation would cease operations.

“The federation will continue to exist, but in a different form,” Gottlieb explained. “What I’m hoping is that without the overhead of the building, Super Sunday and our fundraising efforts will enable us to build up our funds and increase support of our beneficiaries which, in recent years, have been considerably reduced.” At the end, Gottlieb added, “We didn’t give any money to Israel or other institutions we used to support.”

The Scoles Avenue building was reportedly put on the market for an asking price of $6 million last year. The federation, Gottlieb said, will realize far less than that amount.

While the board is still in the process of deciding how to use any profits, “First of all, we have two very large lines of credit to pay off, and second we will be helping JFS to get up and running in its new location,” she added.

Reflecting on the conditions that brought the Clifton-Passaic JCC to this point, Gottlieb recalled the social conditions that led to the Y’s creation more than a century ago.

“One of the reasons we needed a Y was so that our children could meet and socialize with other Jewish children. That doesn’t seem to be a concern in the Orthodox community,” she said.

Added Levenson: “Everyone at the federation level worked very hard for a different kind of outcome, but it just wasn’t possible. We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on this – looked under every rock, went to every constituency. We kept going longer than many people thought we could, but the federation has been on a changing ground for the past 15 years. Evolution and change happen.”

Still, as he prepares to assume the presidency of the state association, Levenson remains optimistic. “The final chapter has not been written,” he said.

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