Finding new meaning in new work

Finding new meaning in new work

Steve Rogers of Tenafly puts his law career aside to become the CEO of the Kaplen JCC

Steve Rogers
Steve Rogers

It’s rare for someone to put his money where his mouth is.

That’s an odd phrase, isn’t it?

Steve Rogers of Tenafly already has done that. He’s a lawyer with a huge resume full of Jewish communal volunteer positions; most recently, he undertook the position of board chair of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

That’s never an easy job; it’s not all handshaking and smiling at fancy dinners and shmoozing at elaborate sports nights and getting to be the most powerful voice among many powerful voices at board meetings. And as true as that always is, it’s even more true during this covid-bedeviled time we’re living through.

Mr. Rogers took that job last May, as the JCC, like all other nonprofits, was struggling with serving its constituents and somehow managing to stay afloat, dealing with new technology and older people who were uncomfortable with it.

But now, Steve Rogers is putting the rest of his body along with his money and his mouth. (That phrase gets weirdly tangled, doesn’t it?) He’s left his day job — his legal career, at which he has flourished — and he’s also left his position as chair of the JCC’s board.

On March 1 he will become the JCC’s new CEO.

Steve Rogers speaks outside at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

Although it’s a step that people generally don’t take — it’s rare for someone with a well-established career in a professional field to become a Jewish communal professional in middle age — it’s a logical one for Mr. Rogers.

“The simple fact is that for the past 25 years or so I have been deeply involved in Jewish causes and Israeli causes,” he said. “At any given time, I was serving on six, seven, maybe eight boards of directors. Christie” — that’s former Governor Chris, a Republican — “appointed me to the New Jersey-Israel Commission, and I continued there under Murphy” — Governor Phil, a Democrat. He’s been on the boards of the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Foundation, the JCC Association, and the New Jersey branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and he’s a former president of his synagogue, Temple Emanu-El of Closter.

“Other than my family, I don’t have other hobbies,” he said. “I don’t golf. I do Jewish and I do Israel.”

So when the JCC’s CEO, Jordan Shenker, recently left to take a similar job in California, Mr. Rogers was recruited to become CEO.

His inclination to do Jewish, as he put it, comes naturally to him. He grew up one county north of where he lives now, in Monsey, then home to a large chasidic population that has grown enormously more recently. He and his family were not chasidic — his parents were among the founders of the since-closed Pomona Jewish Center. The Conservative shul was a focus of his parents’ lives, and therefore of his as well.

Meanwhile, for 35 years Mr. Rogers “had a meaningful and successful career as a lawyer,” he said. But things always change. “In 2018, the company where I was chief legal officer was ready to be sold.” He’d worked with the law firm Lowenstein Sandler for many years; in 2019, he was invited to join it, and he accepted. “It was three months before covid,” he said.

Mr. Rogers had been a general counsel, so “I know a little bit about a lot of things,” he said. “I would say that I am a corporate lawyer, problem-solver, and a crisis manager.” At least two of those three characteristics qualify him to be the JCC’s CEO.

When covid hit, Mr. Rogers, like everyone else, found his life altered, and he had time to think about what that meant. “I expected to be out in the street, talking to people, meeting people” as part of his new job, he said. But no. “So I started thinking about Jewish communal service — but nothing came out of it.”

Children and their teacher work together at the Early Childhood Center.

In early October of 2021, “I am now in my seat as the board chair, but the JCC is a professional organization, run by Jordan Shenker as its CEO, and by its robust professional staff,” he said. “And then Jordan — with whom we have a lovely professional relationship — announced that he was resigning to head to the West Coast.

“He was taking a similar position at a JCC in the San Francisco region. He’s from Oregon, and his children, his parents, and his in-laws all live on the West Coast. For him, it’s coming home.”

That was great for Mr. Shenker, but what about the Kaplen JCC?

“I immediately started to convene a search committee,” Mr. Rogers said. “We interviewed various constituencies, the board, the staff, about what they wanted in their next CEO. I was on the subcommittee that was interviewing potential search firms.

“And then one day a couple of the elder statespeople on the search committee, who are members of the board, whose families have been involved for generations, came to me and said, ‘All of the work that’s being done in our view is pointing toward someone like you. Do you have any interest?’

“And I certainly didn’t say no.”

Taking on the job of CEO hadn’t figured into his long-term plans for his future, Mr. Rogers said. “I really hadn’t thought about it very much. I sort of was preparing to maybe step into an interim CEO role. The day that Jordan told me he was leaving, I said, ‘Okay. We have to make sure that everything you do is documented. He gave us 90 days notice” — which is entirely appropriate, he added, and Mr. Shenker “is a mensch” — “and I know that the typical search takes six to nine months.”

Girls face off on the JCC’s travel basketball team.

Mr. Shenker’s last day was January 21; Mr. Rogers assumed that it would be summer, or perhaps fall, before a new CEO could be ready to take over. He was prepared to devote a few fulltime months to the JCC.

But “I was at an inflection point in my career,” he said.

“I was coming from a law firm that was deeply involved in social justice and civil rights, before the rest of the world came to it. One of the partners, Alan Lowenstein, was at the fore of the diversity, equity, and inclusion movement, before it was called that, 50 years ago. This is a documented record, not PR. I was thinking of taking a leave of absence to be interim CEO, and although we never got to that stage, I think it would have been supported.

“I was deeply committed to both my law career and my Jewish communal service.”

But he was 62 years old, and there was a choice being presented to him. Both options were resonant with his deepest values. What should he do?

“The biggest thing was that everyone had heard from all the constituents that they wanted someone who is familiar with the community. And obviously I am familiar with the community. I have lived here for 30 years. I am intimately involved with the community.

“It is my community. Sometimes that is a negative” — sometimes it’s better to have someone from outside come in, all clear-eyed and emotionally disengaged from the generations-long stories — “but the natural inclination is to swing the pendulum. To get something different from what we had.” Jordan Shenker did not come from the East Hill and northeast Bergen community.

“When Jordan came in, the most important thing was to have someone from the JCC movement who understood the JCC world and the JCC finances, and Jordan has a financial mind — he could be CFO of a public corporation. He has a high level of financial acumen.”

Women practice yoga in a light-filled JCC studio.

Although Mr. Rogers’ background has taught him about finances, “I don’t think that I will be as deeply involved in the day-to-day of the finances as Jordan was. We have Miriam Chilton, who is our very capable COO, and is interim CEO until I take over. We have a very capable CFO in Kevin Cunningham.” The rest of the staff also is exemplary, he added.

“This is a pluralistic community. Before covid, we had 5,000 people walking through our doors every week. We have tremendous reach and an important role in this community.

“We are not just a JCC,” he continued. “We are 16 different businesses. We have an early childhood center, a summer camp, a health and wellness facility, a music school, a senior program, a special services program.” He paused for breath. “We take care of you from infancy until literally triple digit ages.

“Maybe our most important role in the community was what we did for folks at the opposite ends of the spectrum over the last two years, from the youngest to the oldest, keeping them engaged.

“Particularly in the senior services program, that enrolled hundreds of people 65 and older. That demographic is growing quickly. We have literally hundreds of people in that cohort. With the support of the federation” — that’s the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — “we are serving them meals, giving them someplace to go. The buses roll in all day long. We have a fleet of minibuses. And particularly during covid, we had an iPad program, we gave them the technology, gave them programming, and taught them how to use it. It is particularly important to serve that community.”

And he looks forward as well.

“I am not interested solely in continuing to maintain the services and experiences that we provide to the community now,” Mr. Rogers said. “I want to think about what it will look like five and 10 and 20 years from now, and how we can be in the best position to do that.”

The drama department offers the musical “Annie.”

The pandemic has forced change on the JCC, as on every other institution; that’s both a challenge and an opportunity.

The JCC is coming back to life. “Most of our programs and services have reached 75, 80, even 90 percent of their pre-pandemic levels, with the exception of health and wellness,” Mr. Rogers said. “We have 65,000 square feet of gym, aquatic, and athletic facilities that have not come back to the same extent. That’s because online workouts are the new rage, and will be the new future — although I know that a Peloton stockholder would not think so right now. But still, clearly people have moved in that direction.”

Part of that had to do with the specifics of the pandemic. “It’s different to sit in a classroom with a mask on than to touch equipment”; equipment, moreover, that someone else will have sweated on. “The surveys are not definitive,” Mr. Rogers said. It’s not clear how this will work out. “But we have to be agile, to support the community and to understand what it wants.”

One of the latest additions to the JCC is the Idea School, a project-learning-based Orthodox day school that is about to graduate its first class. “It is thriving, and it’s great,” Mr. Rogers said. He was able to watch one of the school’s presentations. “The intellect and sophistication of what they are doing is mind-blowing. I don’t think I could have kept up with it until I was 45. And the school is booming.”

One of the challenges Mr. Rogers plans to confront is the way that families tend to age out of the JCC — until decades later they age back in again. “It’s much like shuls, when families leave after the last bar or bat mitzvah,” he said. “How we engage that population is at the top of my mind. It’s a very important population.

“I put all of this together. How do we do this? How do we continue to provide exemplary services in different areas? How do we get ready for the future?”

Financially, the JCC is stable, thanks in large part to its board. “Many organizations had special campaigns due to covid. We didn’t do that. We went to the board. It’s a large board, and everybody participated. We raised in excess of $10 million, just from the board. Our building is going on 40 years old, so there are some major capital expenditure items that we need to take care of, and we don’t want to hit the operating budget for them.”

The last two years have been hard. “We could not have operated revenue-neutrally. We would have had significant losses to maintain the level of services that we did provide. But the government stepped in with the PPP loans; with the loans being forgiven and with employee tax credits, we were able to operate revenue neutral. That, again, is thanks to government assistance. I don’t expect that in the new fiscal year there will be that government assistance.”

Children sing, even through their masks, at the JCC’s Thurnauer music school.

Membership took a hit during the pandemic. “It was down by more than 50 percent. It has come back strongly, but we still have a long way to get back to where we were,” Mr. Rogers said. “That’s probably standard for most JCCs, and I think that we’re matching them in terms of return to prepandemic levels with health and wellness lagging. I think we’re closely aligned with the national trends.”

As life has continued, so has the JCC.

“We are doing a tremendous upgrade to our building and our technology. We have to make sure that remote programming becomes part of our future. We have state-of-the-art audiovisuals, so we have to make sure that we provide engaging content.”

The JCC’s Thurnauer music school, one of its jewels, benefits from the technology. “While the school is part of the JCC, it competes with every music school in the country,” Mr. Rogers said. “It is the number one music program among every JCC in the country. No one argues with that. We may be a top 10 music school nationally.” Because the technology now allows it, Thurnauer’s performances, both by students and by visiting artists, can be streamed across the country.

The technology also allows JCC members to benefit from programs streamed from elsewhere. “For example, the first author in the book club this year was John Grisham. He was sitting in Atlanta, doing a program at the Atlanta JCC that we could beam to our membership because of the great state-of-the-art equipment that the Atlanta JCC has.

“So it’s about both maintaining our current level and being better in the future, being innovative, looking at new ways to serve the population.”

Demographic breakdowns of that population show that before covid, about 30 to 35 percent of the people who came to the JCC were not Jewish; that’s a statistic that had remained stable for some time. “We are a Jewish community center, and our mission, vision, and ideals are reflective of that, but we welcome everybody,” Mr. Rogers said.

A child learns about Shabbat at the Early Childhood Center.

There are now more older people among the JCC’s users. “That mirrors the general population; the senior population is booming,” he said. “That’s because people are living longer, even with the temporary dip that we saw when they put in the sad covid numbers. In general, some might need a walker to get into our building, but then others are doing the samba. Literally dancing.

“That’s a significant change in the demographic.”

There is another demographic category that he does not want to measure because he does not want to label or divide, Mr. Rogers added. “It doesn’t matter if you’re ultra-Orthodox or unaffiliated. We want everyone to feel welcome, to be engaged. We love everyone. The culture here is that everyone is welcome to do it their own way. We just want everyone to do it in some way.

“The enemy is not other religions. The enemy is no religion. We want people to find meaning, and to do it their own way.”

To that end, “the JCC has an outstanding Judaic program, with an outstanding scholar in residence.” That’s Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, who teaches rabbinic literature at Brandeis and uses technology to teach at the JCC as well.

“So much of what we do, so much of what drives us, is tikkun olam,” the desire to fix the world, Mr. Rogers said. “That’s why we have a mindset of being revenue neutral. That’s why we operate some things that we do as a business, because that has to drive the train — that’s how we can provide scholarships, feed the needy, take care of the elderly, provide special services. All these things are expensive.”

The JCC is many things. “We are a social service agency, but we’re more than that. We’re a place where kids can play basketball, with outstanding gym facilities. And our dramatic arts department!”

A few weeks ago, Mr. Rogers said, he was in Florida, when a dance troupe from the dramatic arts department performed, by invitation, at Disney Springs. He drove down from where he was staying in Delray Beach, a few hours away, to see them. They were seriously good, he said.

A woman arrives for senior programming.

“I’m continually amazed by the intellectual depth of the speakers at the JCC,” he said, and when the JCC brings someone in, “we go big. We are having our fifth annual sports night on May 2, and our guest will be Eli Manning.”

The last two years have been hard, Mr. Rogers said, “and the staff has gone above and beyond, knowing how important a role we played in this time period. It has been draining. It is very important for me to have the entire staff know that I am their biggest cheerleader. They are amazing, what they do is amazing, and I want them to know that they have my support.”

Staffing has been an issue, he continued. “Staff had been furloughed; in terms of full-time staff we’re back close to where we had been before, but things are much sketchier with the part-time staff. It’s difficult to find people for these positions.”

As in everything else, though, Mr. Rogers is optimistic. “The JCC is a great place to work!” he said. “If you like days off — we get federal holidays and Jewish holidays, so we get more days off. And it is local.

“A lot of our best employees are people who were topnotch at doing what they were doing, but they had to commute to Manhattan to do it. They are happier driving to the JCC than they were getting on a train or a bus to midtown.

“And you can’t work at the JCC and not see that we are changing people’s lives. You see a 5-year-old playing a violin, you see a 95-year-old participating in a program. You see that every day.

“This is a great place for people who want to find meaning in their work. That’s what attracted me.”

Mr. Rogers had one last thought on his JCC work. “The word that has struck me from Jewish communal service is ‘hineni.’” It means “here I am.” In the Bible, it’s a response to God’s call; it’s a pivot point in a story. It’s been used ever since as a fierce statement of absolute dedication, as Mr. Rogers is using it here.

And it will be a pivot point for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades as well.

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