The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly has a multilayered name.
It’s got highly specific components on both sides of its core.
It begins with Kaplen. That’s for Bill (more formally Wilson, but he was Bill) and Maggie Kaplan; he was one of the institution’s founders, and together they nurtured it and supported it, eventually becoming so basic to it that it took on their name.
It ends with the Palisades. That’s the very local, breathtaking cliff, the national historic landmark that guards the west bank of the Hudson. The JCC is very close to it.
The Kaplens and the Palisades are safeguarding the jewel between them. That’s the JCC, the Jewish community center. Like shuls and schools — but for everyone, people of all ages, of every religious stream and none at all — JCCs are at the heart of the community.
So what happens when a viral threat forces a JCC to close?
It closes the building, but it doesn’t stop doing what it does. It doesn’t stop being itself.
The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades has gone online.
Every crisis of course is inherently different from all other crises in some ways, but this one is particularly unusual, the JCC’s CEO, Jordan Shenker, said. Usually a crisis hits some people but not others; the farther you move from its center, the less it’s felt. Everyone feels this one. You don’t have to explain.
“Everyone understands that this is a new reality, and everyone is experiencing it in a very personal way,” Mr. Shenker said. “There is no need for a contextual conversation about what’s going on. And there’s also an appreciation for whatever anyone can do. There is a real desire for people to cling to optimism and hope and connection in a way that is really unique to our time.”
The JCC’s staff very much wants to continue to offer connection and hope. That’s easy to say, but there are many highly practical issues to overcome. “We are a very large and complex institution, so moving on a dime is not something we typically do,” Mr. Shenker said. “But over the past week, I have been inspired by the creativity, innovation, and commitment of our staff, as we think differently about how we can engage, connect, and build community.”
The early childhood program has gone online. “The kids cannot go to school, but I have seen videos of a child, sitting in a child-sized chair, looking at a computer screen with 16 images on it, looking at every other child in his classroom, and they and the teacher are doing an activity in real time. That’s building community, and it’s beautiful.”
There are different kinds of technology available, and an art to choosing which to use when.
“Our exercise classes are being taught on Zoom, not on Facebook live.” That means that everyone on the screen can interact with everyone else. “We might be the only vendor in the area who offers exercise programming online now,” Mr. Shenker said. “The way we’re doing it, it’s not just about being in an exercise class. It’s also about being part of the community.
“It’s not just about delivering a yoga class. It’s not just about the yoga. It’s also about the relationship between the student and teacher. It’s also about the relationships between the students in the class.”
There might in fact be an advantage to offering classes on Zoom; when you use that platform, you can choose whether or not to turn on your microphone or your camera. People can see that you’re on because it shows your name, but nothing else. “Some of our staff have hypothesized that we may get greater participation because of the reduced barrier to entry,” Mr. Shenker said. “I don’t have to get into my car. I don’t have to shlep anywhere.” And of course you don’t have to let anybody see what you look like when you try to work out.
The JCC now is online with the music, dance, drama, early childhood, fitness, senior adult, special services, and adult services department. “All we are not doing is basketball and swimming, and even the athletics and aquatics people are putting some exercises out, for when people can get back,” Mr. Shenker said.
And users don’t have to pay for fitness or arts and culture programs.
“It is free and open to the public,” Mr. Shenker said. “We are happy to have everyone participate.”
It’s all part of community building.
“I have a deep appreciation for the outpouring of support from this community,” he continued. “People are asking, ‘How can I support it? How can I be part of it?’ I am moved that folks called to ask what they can do.”
One thing that everyone can do is learn from this experience, he suggested.
“What we are trying to do now is reimagine what virtual community-building looks like, and to a large extent we are making it up, day by day,” Mr. Shenker concluded. We are learning to pivot, change, rinse, and repeat, and we will be doing it for at least the next several weeks — and it looks like it might be for the next several months.
“One of the ways that I feel optimistic is that we will come out of this — we as a society, we as a community, we as an institution — knowing more how we can engage people beyond our walls far more effectively than we ever knew that we could before we had to close. That is a powerful reality that we will have when this is behind us.”
One of the departments that’s kept going online is senior adult services. “We are specifically geared for older seniors who want to remain at home and age in place,” its director, Judi Nahary, said. During normal times, “we provide all the resources that make it possible — transportation, breakfast, lunch, entertainment, music, educational programming, lectures, intergenerational activities, and preventative health programming.
“We have three programs — the senior activity center, for people who are older and need some assistance, they might be isolated or no longer able to drive, but cognitively they are fine. There’s the Club, for people with the beginning stages of cognitive decline. And then ARC, the senior adult reach center, for the middle to late stages of dementia.”
The senior adult department offers 24 clubs, which are “designed to enhance the senior’s sense of purpose,” Ms. Nahary said; they center around such things as art and music and finance, and are adjusted depending on specific people’s interests. “To get people engaged you have to give them what interests them,” she said; engagement can stave off decline. The department usually has about 80 to 90 unique participants during the course of each week, she added.
So now there are all these frail, declining, memory-impaired elderly people at home, with caregivers who are not prepared to help them as intensively as would be ideal. What to do?
The JCC is beginning to offer some of the clubs to seniors, through Zoom, and it is also stepping up its programming to caregivers — something it has provided for some time.
“We looked at everything we can offer, to see what we can do,” Ms. Nahary said. “We have five caregiver support groups and a memory café every week. Our instinct is that the caregivers need it even more now. They need some outlet, and they can get ideas from each other.
“I really worry about caregivers,” she continued. “It is overwhelmingly taxing, physically and emotionally draining for them. We want to continue to provide some respite for them. We also are worried about seniors being isolated. The less engaged they are, the more quickly they decline. If we can continue to be engaged with them, we can provide some stimulation.”
The senior center has what it calls a “grandfriend” program; it matches its members with early childhood classes. It’s continuing that program online, along with the clubs.
Caregivers can help their elderly charges with the technology. “We are working with them,” Ms. Nahary said. “The first call always is the hardest.” And it doesn’t work for everyone; for one example among many, older people often suffer from macular degeneration, which makes it hard for them to see images on a screen.
The JCC helps provide physical help as well. “Volunteers will deliver meals on wheels for seniors who do not have resources at home,” Ms. Nahary said, and even those seniors who do not need meals delivered every day will get Shabbat dinners.
Like Mr. Shenker, Ms. Nahary sees some good coming out of this very hard time.
“The majority of the staff has had to challenge themselves technologically,” she said. “That is one of the most amazing things. People who normally would have been unwilling to try new things are forcing themselves to do it, because it is the only way to do it.
“Everyone has risen to the occasion.”
Learn about the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades’ online programming on its website, jccotp.org.