Covid Diaries 5.0 — Heading back to the JCC
First Person

Covid Diaries 5.0 — Heading back to the JCC

How I reactivated my membership after a reassuring in-person visit

Children in the Early Childhood Center are masked but happy.
Children in the Early Childhood Center are masked but happy.

I missed the expansive campus, the modern fitness club, the too-narrow parking garage, the lines of preschoolers wending their way from classroom to outdoors with their fingers on the wall. I missed the camaraderie of kibitizing with my buddies in the locker room or in the workout area or watching basketball games from my bird’s eye view on the gracefully banked and elevated track in the gym.

In short, I missed my JCC MetroWest.

Notice I call it MY JCC, not THE JCC, as a sense of ownership, even entitlement, creeps into the equation. And although I live only a short distance from the complex on Northfield Avenue in West Orange, I viewed it during the last eight months strictly as an “outsider” as I drove by, the car seemingly wanting to make the familiar turn into the driveway on its own. I had frozen my membership at the fitness center eight months ago, in the dawning of a covid universe, and in so doing lost a positive, healthful activity that helped this retired newsman stay connected.

My own yichus with JCC MetroWest dates to the early 1950s, when it was known universally as the Y in Newark. I would take the bus downtown from my home in the Weequahic section, walk up High Street (now MLK Boulevard) past Father Divine’s Hotel Riviera, past the domed splendor of Temple B’nai Jeshurun (where I was bar mitzvah), past St. Barnabas Hospital, past Temple Oheb Shalom, and reach my destination at the corner of West Kinney Street. This grand edifice, reflecting the pride of a growing, prosperous Jewish population and the generosity of benefactors Louis Bamberger and Felix Fuld, opened in 1924. But by the time I was introduced to the rigors of its gym and the heavily chlorinated smell of the swimming pool (or more properly nowadays, the aquatics department), the location had become problematic as changes already underway in the city’s population and outmigration patterns intensified.

I continued as a Y member after the building was sold and the organization moved to tiny temporary quarters on lower Chancellor Avenue while a new facility was contemplated up the street next to Weequahic High School. But as so often happens when you’re a teenager, your interests change. Mine ran elsewhere, and when my family moved to West Orange in 1957, I let my membership lapse.

For the next 20 years, I patronized the YMCA of the Oranges on Main Street, a sturdy, sterile structure that saw me through high school, college, the Army, and the early years of my newspapering career.

But the lack of a haimish atmosphere began to gnaw at me, and when the YMCA shut its building in the late 1980s, I returned the JCC, and I have been a satisfied patron ever since. During that period, I’ve witnessed membership outgrow two workout sites (the first was really an afterthought: a tiny downstairs room with a few mats, wall rungs, and an exercycle) and expand into the modern center that today offers 60 cardio and 38 strength machines, racks of free weights, and personal training and group exercise studios. Add to that a magnificent gym, a soft-surface track and a second Olympic-size swimming pool, and the JCC presents a formidable athletic-conditioning-fitness experience. And that doesn’t even begin to factor in a host of other programs — a complete menu for the Jewish community and the greater community beyond.

And yet I’ve held back on unfreezing my membership, out of an abundance of caution because of my age (I’m 78) and pre-existing conditions. The harsh fact that a second wave of the virus is upon us also complicated my decision. And I’m sure that from the JCC’s point of view, reopening the facility has been a challenging sell even after heroic efforts to be cleaner, smarter, nimbler, more security-minded, and more responsive in recapturing the trust and participation of the membership, who range from toddlers to octogenarians.

Recently, I decided to check out situation for myself in preparation for this piece, and I discovered that the reopening effort is succeeding in large part because of dedicated staffers like Arbell Noach and Dana Gottfried — Arbell as the explainer and Dana as the implementer.

“Metrowest’s philosophy has always been safety comes first,” Ms. Noach, the director of the JCC’s marketing and communications department, said. “Everything from PPG, to signage, to separate entries, drop-offs, pick-ups, digital screening, and temperature checks are part of our daily routine for all who enter. We have thought through the most logical ways to ensure that our members and community may arrive at our JCC buildings as expediently as possible. We start with clear signage and instructions, informing and reminding each person that we are a community and each of us has both personal and communal responsibility for our health and well-being. Kol aravim zeh bah zeh, every Jew must take care of each other, is a well-known proverb.

“We are one JCC community made up of micro communities, each of which is in turn made up of caring, loving individuals who make us the special place we are,” she continued. “The JCC’s responsiveness to the ever-changing dynamics of covid are coordinated by one individual and communicated as soon as possible to our staff and community as needed. Transparency is a hallmark of effective community dynamics, which we do our best to practice.”

Dana Gottfried, left, and Arbell Noach

Before my meeting with Ms. Gottfried, I had to complete an online health screener that was valid only for the day of my visit. It asked about possible symptoms, contacts, and travel. I was instructed to use the south parking lot instead of multideck garage, for both security and logistical reasons, as part of that structure was being repurposed with heaters. When I entered the building, a security representative checked my phone to insure that the screener date showed the right day. Then I stepped in front of a thermal monitor for a temperature reading. Masking and distancing were strictly enforced.

Ms. Gottfried greeted me and smiled (behind a mask, of course) when I told her that she was affectionately known as the czar of covid initiatives. She earned those stripes last summer as director of the JCC’s Camp Deeny Riback in Flanders, where not one day camper tested positive for the virus. As we began the walk-through, I was struck by how gleaming and fresh the complex seemed. After talking about deep, constant cleanings and a new air filtration system, Ms. Gottfried showed me the lobby café, with only one chair per table, and pointed to an upstairs area under renovation for displays of Judaica and artifacts.

Although I had visited primarily to inspect the fitness facilities (spotless, spaced machines with green and red tags, a well ventilated, cheerful workout area operating strictly by appointment with a limit of 25 at a time during morning and afternoon hours, and, joy of joys, the track accessible just ahead of the cold weather), I quickly realized that the JCC was earnest about being open for business and operating creatively to serve its various constituencies. When I asked about the unique vulnerabilities of seniors, Ms. Gottfried assured me that they “hadn’t missed a beat since March,” and reeled off the roster of programs tailored to the elderly.

“We provided myriad services to seniors prior to the outbreak of covid,” she said. “We ran Kosher Meals on Wheels; a four-day-a-week senior center (discussion groups, classes, lectures, exercise, films, and entertainment) with a kosher subsidized lunch for independent adults; a three-day-a-week supervised respite and dementia program; open games of mahjong, canasta, and bridge; a separate program for women’s fitness members (Women in Sync); the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival; Life Long Learning lectures; concerts in our Levin Theater; and day trips and overnight trips to domestic locations such as New Orleans and New Mexico, as well as international trips to Israel, Cuba, and South Africa, all out of our West Orange headquarters. Our adult department also staffed and supervised satellite senior centers in the Whippany Federation building and at various synagogues in Morris and Essex Counties.

“We are continuing with Kosher Meals on Wheels, increasing the client base, and serving over 10,000 meals since March,” she continued. “We ran an eight-week virtual New Jersey Jewish Film Festival, continued our Margulies Senior Center and Littman Memory Center programs via Zoom three to four days per week, and are engaging our satellite members though Zoom and personal phone calls. We have provided Life Long Learning lectures via Zoom every week and we send out an events and community resource email two to three times a week to over 500 recipients, referring those in need to the proper resources in our community such as Federation or JFS. We have also collaborated with the Central JCC in Scotch Plains and the Bridgewater JCC to share online programming and the Film Festival.

“We plan to continue with all these activities through fall, hoping to evaluate and determine when we can resume in-person programming safely. We are now meeting with some of the seniors in small groups and had a larger outdoor concert during Sukkot. “

Ms. Gottfried noted that before much of this could be set in motion, the JCC provided seniors with online classes to make them more comfortable with technology. Apparently the move has had its intended effect, to judge by some of these comments:

“I just want to take a moment to applaud the dedication of the senior adult staff in this time of crisis,” Lois Jacobs of West Orange said. “It has been heartwarming to see what you all have done and are doing to keep our minds and bodies active.”

And from Sheila Miller of Cedar Knolls, “I appreciate the efforts you’ve made to help us all through this difficult isolating time. You’ve provided such a variety of opportunities to keep up our spirits. Thank you.”

“Living alone can get quite lonely and I rarely have visitors,” Elaine B wrote. “I really look forward to seeing my driver Carlos every morning and chatting with him. He is a bright spot in my day. The meals are a life-saver because I can no longer stand to cook for myself.”

At the other end of the chronological spectrum is the Early Childhood Center, enrolling children ranging in age from 3 months to 5 years old. The staff drew up new protocols and decided to stagger drop-offs and pickups to minimize risk, without sacrificing the personal greeting and send-off each child receives. Classroom sizes were reduced; children, all of them masked, worked in smaller pods; and outdoor time was maximized so the kids could be with their friends in the healthiest environment possible. The center in effect has become a bubble within a bubble, off limits to visitors. Protocols are reviewed daily to determine if changes are needed or emphasis shifted, but always with an eye to “joy,” according to Ms. Noach.

The JCC screens visitors before they are allowed into the building.

And parents have responded affirmatively. “You all have been put in an extraordinary situation,” Jessica Kashanian said. “Thank you for all you have done to make a safe and loving environment for our daughter.”

“Words cannot express how much we appreciate you opening those doors, enriching and educating our community’s children,” Caroline Harris of West Orange commented. “We can’t imagine any of this was easy for you either, so we also promise to do our part to make this a happy, healthy and safe experience for you as well.”

And from Rabbi Meirav Kallush of South Orange: “We are grateful to you, to your team, to your courageous leadership and forward thinking in opening the ECC. We cherish every moment of warmth, learning, care and love that our child and we receive.”

In another area, the JCC Day Habilitation program for adults with special needs has been providing virtual programming since April. It reactivated its onsite services in October for three days a week, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Small groups and staff were welcomed back to a modified regimen incorporating safety protocols mandated by the CDC and DDD (Division of Developmental Disabilities). Participants engage in social and fitness activities from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., work on skills related to staying healthy during the pandemic, and learn how to gain access to community resources using technology.

“It’s wonderful to have some of our participants back in the building, socializing with peers and shooting hoops in the gym,” the program’s director, Marisa Cohen, said. “It’s a little glimpse of normalcy during this uncertain time.”

I closed out the tour by returning to fitness and aquatics. Ms. Gottfried noted that reopening both programs involved lots of critical thinking before all parts of the puzzle began to fit, and the situation continues to evolve. New protocols limit capacity on the fitness floor to 25 members and allow no more than nine lap swimmers in the pool at one time. Reservations must be made in advance through the JCC website or the MetroWest app, and members must complete the health screener before entering the building.

Participants can remove their masks only while they’re in the pool, or if wearing one during a workout would pose a real health risk. Machines are cleaned between workouts, and a nightly deep cleaning of the entire fitness facility is done with electrostatic sprayers that put a positive charge in the disinfectant and coat all surfaces. Equipment and spaces also are treated with an antimicrobial solution that neutralizes covid germs on contact. Hand-sanitizing stations and antibacterial wipes are placed strategically throughout the fitness center and the entire JCC.

Additionally, HVAC equipment has been updated with a plasma air purification system to reduce airborne coronavirus by 99 percent; it’s rid of 80 percent of those viruses on surfaces within 10 minutes. And the JCC has been consulting with an epidemiologist provided by its partner, St. Barnabas Medical Center, who remains on call for consultations and walk-throughs.

The basketball courts and elevated track also have reopened. Runners, walkers, and joggers must be masked and stay six feet from the nearest person. Reservations aren’t needed for this activity. But hoop rules are more restrictive. It’s one person, one basket — games still are not permitted — and each person must make a reservation and bring his or her own basketball. Group exercise classes are now in session outdoors, indoors, and on Zoom. Aqua-cycle and cycling classes are being reintroduced, along with virtual Tai Chi and stretching, and rescheduled Zumba.

Patrons seem delighted. “We returned to our workouts a few weeks ago, on the recommendation of a friend of ours whose positive experience encouraged us to come back,” Michele Christian of Livingston said. “That first day back, as we entered the fitness center, we felt particularly comforted when we spotted two of our beloved gym regulars, who apparently returned just as soon as the JCC had reopened. For so many reasons, it feels great to be back, and we hope to see more familiar faces soon.”

“The JCC is my home away from home,” Serena Solomon of Livingston said. “It is a respite from all the craziness that is going on around us. The people that work there are delicious and it’s just our happy place!”

And from swimmer Julie Locke of South Orange: “I’m very happy with the phased reopening of the JCC. Everyone has been very helpful and responsive to questions. The reservation system for the pool is working well. I prefer it this way, as I know what to expect, rather than showing up only to find it too busy or some event taking place that I wasn’t aware of, so I hope the new system continues. It’s clear that everyone has worked hard to put the new systems in place to ensure everyone’s safety.”

I hadn’t intended to unfreeze my JCC membership, but the visit changed my mind. There are so many good programs guided by so many good people taking extra precautions, and doing so in a helpful, health-directed manner. As Dana Gottfried summed up: “There’s a circularity involved here. You give us membership and support. In return, we hope we give you a feeling of community and belonging.”

I will no longer miss MY JCC and all that it offers. It’s back.

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