Five years and counting
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Five years and counting

How a new campus helped transform Jewish Rockland

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

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Five years ago the building was transformed from a paper company’s tech center into a hub of Jewish activity.

During a December snowstorm in 2007, more than 5,000 people showed up at the new Rockland Jewish Community Campus on West Nyack Road. Shuttling from overflow parking, they packed the 135,000 square foot former Champion International tech center, which had been transformed into a home for local Jewish organizations.

“I honestly was shocked at how successful the building was,” said Steven Kolinksy, who was president of the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, one of the campus’ tenant organizations, when it opened.

“I believed we needed a building for a Jewish center for the community, and I thought it was large, but you know the old saying, ‘you build it, they’ll show up.'”

Show up they did, and not just on opening day. Today, more than 1,000 people stream through on any given day.

“Every time I pass the building, I think how it really became a community center,” said Kolinsky. “It is unbelievable how it really is part of the community.”

The campus was something that had been dreamed of for years. The building on Route 45 that for 10 years served in that role was no longer large enough to contain the programming and the aspirations of the organizations that called it home.

The move to the new space was a source of community pride for many. The campus, they believed, would enhance the Jewish community and serve as a powerful attraction. For others, however, the campus was a source of wary concern. How would this new, flashy building – home to JCC Rockland, the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, Rockland Jewish Family Service, Hadassah and HUVPAC (Hudson Valley Political Action Committee) – impact Jewish life in Rockland?

Five years later, HUVPAC has closed and State of Israel Bonds moved in. Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School shut its doors, and the Rockland Jewish Academy, a new pluralistic day school, arose in its place, moving seamlessly into the campus.

The campus definitely has made its mark in the county, observers note, providing a central locus that was missing before. And while detractors say that it competes with synagogues and other organizations for scarce dollars and scarce members, others claim it provides just the thing to enhance Jewish life in Rockland County.

“It is hard to imagine the community without it,” said Rabbi David Berkman, of the Conservative-affiliated New City Jewish Center, who has been in the community for 22 years and has watched the campus adapt to changing times as it wandered from location to location.

“It’s become an integral part of the community in a way that any of the earlier permutations of it were not,” he said. “In this disengaged Jewish universe, especially now, it’s particularly important to have an anchor for the community. Jewish life is now packaged in a different way for young generations. Today, there is a real, particular need to have a central address in the community.”

That is a sentiment echoed among community leaders, who see the campus as a magnet, something that can attract people and put together programs and activities in a way that no one synagogue or organization can. It also provides a larger sense of belonging to community at a time when the bonds that have traditionally held Jewish life together seem to be fraying, they say.

“Truthfully,” said Rabbi Daniel Pernick of the Reform Beth Am Temple in Pearl River, “I think it is more important than ever in what I’ll call the Facebook generation. People are very fast losing their ability to communicate with one another in non-electronic ways. The campus is a place where, whether through meetings, programs, sports, working out, it really is personal face-to-face contact.

“I don’t know if people appreciate it more than they would have 20 years ago, but I think they need it now more than ever.”

Rockland Jewish Family Service was the last of the organizations moving into the building, doing so in January 2008. By that time, the U.S. economy was in free fall.

The capital campaign that funded the move raised $18 million, which included the sale of the building on Route 45. The entire project was capitalized at $24 million, leaving $6 million needed to complete it. With accrued interest, the debt has grown, hampering the campus’ ability to move forward and fundraise for new capital improvements, such as an indoor swimming pool or childcare center.

“It’s easy to look back and say that we bit off more than we could chew,” said David Kirschtel, who serves as chief executive officer of both JCC Rockland and the Rockland Jewish Community Campus Corp. “We talked to many community leaders and walked many people through the building before we made the decision to move forward. We planned well and were thoughtful and careful in what we spent. We were sensitive that we needed to build a whole building and not part of one – that it’s cheaper to build on the front end than to add later.

“We took some risks, but the risks were before a time when things became more difficult. But in five years we’ve grown and made a difference in the community.”

No one doubts that.

Rabbi Craig Scheff grew up in Rockland County and was a member of New City Jewish Center. There was no campus, nor even a JCC, or federation when he was a boy. He played basketball in a synagogue league. The campus has filled a role, reaching not only Jews who are already connected to a synagogue, but also to those who might never think of setting foot in one, he said.

“I think the campus is crucial to the growth and survival of the Jewish community here in Rockland,” said Scheff, who serves as rabbi at Orangetown Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation. “The programs and the sense of community that it promotes are just indispensible to Jewish life.

“We need to have a long-term vision and have a broader view of the community if we are all going to survive.”

To make sure that happens, plans are being developed to put the campus on solid financial footing. Organizers are planning to launch a capital campaign, although it is still in development.

Mitch Brill, a member of the JCC’s board of directors, is the chairman of that campaign. Another Rockland native who grew up in an era where the synagogues dominated Jewish life in the county and there was little else to offer, Brill sees the campus providing a special something he wishes had been there when he was young.

Ensuring its viability for his children, who grew up with a JCC, and for future generations resonates strongly with him.

“You’re connected to your shul. I’m connected to my shul. I feel responsible to society, not just to my shul,” he said. “It’s not just about my needs, but about the overall needs of society.

“I’d like there to be a future for the campus. It can’t be all things to everyone, but it can be something to everyone….I want it to be important for whatever reason, the sports, for some, the fitness center for some, Israel programming or religious programming. It creates a sense of community.”

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