Goodbye Y

Goodbye Y

The Washington Township institution moves out, hopes to move on, and we look back

Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township
Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township

Last Wednesday, the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township closed.

It was an abrupt move, the result of a decision that its board had made just a short time earlier and shared with no one. It was shocking to the community; it evoked the grief and anger that generally accompany loss.

It also was a well-thought-out business decision, aimed at cutting the institution’s losses and leaving it with enough capital to be able to regroup, rethink, and try again.

According to the email sent to members announcing the closing, “Unfortunately efforts to secure the required funds for next year and to improve our building and programs were not successful. We feel strongly that it is no longer feasible for us to continue when we are facing such a substantial operating deficit and without an adequate facility and the full complement of programs and services that our community desires and deserves. The total required funding exceeded $15 million.”

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There are many threads to this story — the YJCC’s long history in various incarnations, the shifting demographics that took it from Hackensack to Washington Township, the way tastes and attitudes change as time passes, the effects of changing tastes and attitudes on architecture, best and worst practices for institution closing, how to build, maintain, and demolish community, and the role of the Jewish community in nurturing its elderly, its infirm, and its children — the vulnerable among us.

It is also, the board of the YJCC and the leaders of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey hope, a story of hope and rebirth.

But a phoenix doesn’t arise from the ashes — assuming that this phoenix will rise — without undergoing the pain of the fire first. And there was real pain involved at the YJCC.

First, some history.

The YJCC began its life in 1922 as the Hackensack YM-YWHA (which stands for the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association). Hackensack was one of those Jewish communities that passed under most outsiders’ radar screen, but for decades it was a vibrant and welcoming place for immigrants, their children, and the next Americanized generations.

“Hebrew school, services at the synagogues, basketball at the ‘Y,’ and corned beef sandwiches — that sums up my life as a Jew during the 1950s,” George Kirsch wrote in his memoir, “Six Guys from Hackensack.”

Dr. George Kirsch
Dr. George Kirsch

Dr. Kirsch, who is a professor of history at Manhattan College in the Bronx, later said, “I remember the youth basketball league, and swimming, and my father going there to play handball, and swimming there on Monday nights. I remember going to camp there one summer.

“There occasionally were movies there on Sunday afternoons,” he added. “My mother and father took me to see the ‘Wizard of Oz’ there, so I saw it for the first time not on television but at the Y.

“It was one of three central institutions in Jewish life in Hackensack. There were family celebrations, there was the synagogue, the Hackensack Hebrew Institution on State Street, and there was the Y, on Essex Street.”

This schedule of activities — very busy, highly gender-conscious, multi-generation — is evocative of its time.

By the 1960s, most of the Jewish life drained out of Hackensack as most of its Jews left the small city for the suburbs. Eventually the Y left too. For a few years it rented space in Paramus, and then it roamed from office space to office space as its needs, resources, and demographics changed.

That was the Y Without Walls.

Although its leaders yearned for a building, they found that the flexibility its homelessness gave them was useful; that is a piece of historical knowledge that leaders now are considering carefully.

In 1988, the push to build the Washington Township building that closed last week began. Julie Eisen of Upper Saddle River tells that story.

Julie Eisen
Julie Eisen

Mr. Eisen, who is 78, grew up in North Bergen; his only connection to the Hackensack Y was through his older brother, who would take a bus there with his youth group. But when he married Susan Rukin in 1960, he married into the Y. His father-in-law, David Rukin, was very involved there. “By the early ’60s they were not doing so well, but they were still hanging on, and I felt it was my responsibility as a Jew in the community to support it,” Mr. Eisen said. “I don’t think that I ever used it. I think I once went to one of its auctions, though, and my father-in-law was a major user of the health club.” His brother-in-law, David Rukin, also was a local Y supporter.

Hold onto that idea — of responsibility for the community. It will resurface.

“When the Y moved from Hackensack to Paramus, I was president of federation, and I was very engaged with them,” Mr. Eisen said. “When the time came to move to Washington Township, I chaired the capital campaign.” The Washington Township building’s first CEO, Harold Benus, who was there until about two years ago, “got a room and a telephone to start to process.”

“We raised $11 million.”

The building was designed to accommodate the needs of its community; the idea that those needs would change radically in less than a quarter of a century did not occur to them. “The community’s attitudes and needs have shifted, and our requirement is to move forward, not to stick with what was,” Mr. Eisen said.

“We have to be sure that we don’t waste the assets we still have, but to move on to the next phase, which will probably look very different than what we have now.

“Our job — and I intend to stick with the process, and so does my brother-in-law and many of the other original members — is to involve younger generations, generations that I am not part of. It may be my children’s generation, but definitely it will be my grandchildren’s.”

Miriam Rinn
Miriam Rinn

Miriam Rinn, the Jewish Standard’s film critic, now lives in Englewood, but until recently she lived in Westwood. “I became a member as soon as it opened,” she said. “I was a freelance writer, and like most freelancers, whose houses become offices, I found that it was wonderful to have a place to go that was not my house. My kids were little, and there was a lot of fun stuff for them to do there.”

She worked on the adult committee, arranging such varied fare as comedy nights, brunches, and a speaker on female circumcision in Africa. The “feather in her cap,” she said, was getting Arthur Schwartz, the food writer whose WOR lunchtime radio show was her addiction, to speak at the Y. “It was packed,” she said. “They were lining up! It was a terrific event.”

Ms. Rinn was on the board for a few years. “I can’t say that it was as much fun as the adult committee,” she said. “You know how most boards are.” As her sons grew up, and lost interest, and eventually her life changed, she took a full-time job, and her connection to the Y dried up. “But it was a great community institution, and a very happy time for me,” she said.

Jayne Petak, president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey
Jayne Petak

Jayne Petak of River Vale is the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s newly installed president. For many years she was on the YJCC’s board. “This was a very strange beginning to my job as president, and very personal to me,” she said. “And it is very sad.

“My son Derek started nursery school in September 1987, when it first opened — my older son, Aaron, was entering kindergarten then, so he missed it. My first memories there are of walking Derek into the building. He still has a friend who he met at the Y, and some of my husband’s and my closest and best friends we met through Mommy and Me or nursery school or karate. It was a very important part of our lives.”

Incidentally, Ms. Petak was able to answer one of the small mysteries about the YJCC that has plagued many of us outsiders. What’s with the name? “The JCCA” — that’s the Jewish Community Center Association — “asked us to move toward the JCC name, so we changed our name. But the Y name meant so much to so many of us that we kept it too. We wanted to hold on to that part of our identity.”

But the problems were clear. “The building was in desperate need of repair,” she said. The heating and air conditioning didn’t work. It was falling apart. “What happened — what had been happening for many years — is that the model that had been set up had become totally unworkable,” she said. “It didn’t meet reality.

“Very often we just take it for granted that our shuls and Ys and JCCs are going to be there,” she said. “You just have to snap those fingers, and there they are. But you need enrollment in a program to have it run. If you need 20 people, and you only get 10 or 12, you keep losing money.” Eventually, you lose the program too.

Although she is saddened by the building’s closure, and the loss of the programs, staff, and community that brought it to life, she is hopeful about the future. “I don’t believe that this is a final closing,” she said. “And I don’t believe that the board looks at it that way either. They are looking at it as a way for the YJCC to reinvent itself.”

Jeffrey Tucker of Woodcliff Lake, who has been a member of the YJCC for about 18 years and on the board for about 15 of them, recently began his fourth term as its president.

Jeffrey Tucker, president of the YJCC board
Jeffrey Tucker

His commitment to the institution is deep, and it is that commitment that led him inexorably to the decision to close the building in order to keep the core alive, he said.

“The YJCC has been in decline for many years,” he said. “Just before I became president, we set a strategic direction that was aimed toward the realities of the YJCC’s space today, toward becoming relevant and vibrant in today’s Jewish community.

“We recognized that we needed to raise a substantial amount of money to reinvest back into our staff, our programs, and our facility. We began doing so, and we started to reinvest. We made some rapid progress — and then we hit a wall.

“As we began reviewing our budget for the new fiscal year, which starts in September, it became clear that we needed to invest very heavily in a new facility, hire a new CEO, and invest in new programs and services.” (Harold Benus retired in 2012. He was replaced by Gary Lipman, who left after about a year and a half; Abby Leipsner has been the acting CEO since then, and she remains in that position.)

“Over the last four weeks, we have been speaking to our largest donors. There are about 25 families who have given us the vast majority of our financial support over the past six or seven years,” Mr. Tucker said. “As we met with those donors, it became very obvious that there were real reservations about investing at the order of magnitude that was really required to make this JCC great. It would be north of $15 million.

“This time, we went at this in a very systematic and serious way. We touched every historic large donor in our community. And when it became apparent that the money was not going to be available to our community center, the board had to regroup and decide what to do.

“In the end, we faced what would in all likelihood have been a million dollar or more operating loss last year. So the board made a very prudent and fiscally responsible decision to preserve the assets that this JCC has available to enable us once again to reinvent ourselves.

“So while it is sad that very shortly we will no longer have the building in Washington Township, our hope is that we will  have the opportunities to use the proceeds of the sale of the building, plus the investment income from our endowment, to reinvent ourselves as a new YJCC.

“Our hope is that we can continue to create Jewish community in the Pascack Valley.

“This isn’t the end. It is a transition. This agency has been through transitions before. Communities evolve. Our YJCC has the chance to evolve. We look forward to engaging the community as they help redefine what our YJCC should be.”

Choosing to close now was prudent, he added. “The way I understand it, most JCC that have closed have been insolvent. In essence, they ran out of money. They spent everything they had borrowed, woke up one day, and said ‘Our liabilities exceed our assets. We’re done.’

“I’m very proud of the board. It took its fiduciary responsibility seriously. It’s sad that it happened, but I am inspired by the possibility of going forward.”

All of this is both sad and convincing, but why did it have to happen as it did? Last Wednesday seemed to be a normal day, until the staff was gathered, told the center was closing, told they no longer had jobs, and told that they had half an hour to leave the building. A few off-duty, out-of-uniform police officers stood by as the announcement was made.

Alan Abrams and Gary Plotnick look at drawings of the new building which opened in 1987.
Alan Abrams and Gary Plotnick look at drawings of the new building which opened in 1987.

First, why the abrupt timing? Once Mr. Tucker and the board learned that the large donors could not rescue them one more time, “we were driven by the fact that nursery school was about to begin. The board felt that starting the school year creates a commitment to the families in our community, so we would be committing to a full year of operations, and potentially risking the loss of over a million dollars.

“So we put the pieces together. We knew that the money wasn’t available to us. If we hesitated, we would be in for another year. That made for a pretty rapid decision. And once we made the decision, the board felt it had to take quick action to enable the young families to find the best alternatives for their children.”

Why were the employees told in that way? “As a board, we treasure our employees,” Mr. Tucker said. “We wanted to be sure that we could communicate directly with them. We sought professional outside advice on how to treat our employees in the most dignified way.

“The advice was to be very discreet, and to have our senior lay leaders be able to make an announcement simultaneously to everyone.”

Why the security? “We had almost 200 employees,” most of them part-timers, “and our special needs program was going on at the time. We were very concerned about the safety of our employees.

“It was purely a safety thing. We followed the advice of our advisers.”

What about the staff? “We have retained a small team of permanent employees to help us wind down the building,” Mr. Tucker said. “And we have hired an outplacement firm to assist our employees in preparing them for today’s job market, and helping them to be in a position to find the best next opportunity. We feel very good about that.” There is some severance pay, he added. And what about health care? After all, Cobra coverage, which usually is available to fired or laid off employees, depends on the employer continuing to pay into a health plan. “No comment,” Mr. Tucker said.

And ongoing programs? For nursery school programs, “We partnered with the federation, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, the Rockland JCC, and Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley,” and there are places available for all the children who were enrolled in the school in one of those institutions, he said. Senior programs are complicated, because much depends on state and local funding, but efforts are under way to make sure that all vulnerable seniors have a place to go, where they will be safe and cherished.

Barbara Merker of Hackensack is an active member of senior groups, and she and her friends are heartbroken and enraged over what they see as a betrayal.

Barbara Merker
Barbara Merker

“We don’t fault them for closing, but the way they did it!” she said. “It was done in such a poor way. I was at the Y that day, and I even asked what was for lunch the next day, and she told me. The staff had no clue. None at all.”

Members were informed by email, soon after the staff was let go, but not all seniors have email. “The next morning, I understand that a lot of people, older seniors, came and were turned away at the door.

“This was a Jewish organization. It was horrible.”

There was a real community of seniors, Ms. Merker said, but they met at the YJCC, often three days a week. “We would have been able to stay in touch with each other, but we don’t even know everybody’s last name.”

She is not surprised that the YJCC had to close, she added. “You could see it was going downhill.” Often programs were moved from room to room, depending on where the air conditioner seemed to be working most effectively. And the numbers of seniors in the program had dwindled; as some moved away, lost interest, or died, they were not replaced by new people. Things change, she knows. But still, she said, “it was the way it was done — it was cold, nasty, and unconscionable. It’s like a friend knifed you in the back. Friends don’t do that to friends.”

The federation’s CEO, Jason Shames, diagnosed the situation that led to the YJCC’s decision.

“From my view there are the four reasons why the organization is in its current predicament,” he said. “One is the building itself — both its layout and its condition. It was built in the early ’80s, for a different form and function that what is needed today.  The upkeep and repair is also very problematic and fraught with costly needs.

“Its location is the second problem. There is very little Jewish demographic density on the immediate north side, east side, or south side of the facility. There is, however, Jewish demographic density on the west side, particularly in Woodcliff Lake.

“The third problem was 25 years of passive management in response to capital and physical plant needs in a changing marketplace.

“The fourth problem was that the lay leadership was not aware enough of the situation to take the actions they would have taken had they known. They were generally aware of the severity of the challenges facing the building and of the financial problems, but they were not well informed  or positioned enough about the specifics to be able to discuss alternatives.

“It’s hard to blame anyone for the combination of these four things,” Mr. Shames continued. “The only way we will be able to move forward and do this right is to take a step back and really absorb the pain now.

How to fix it? “Flexibility is the key,” he said.

The federation is working closely with the YJCC.

“We opened ourselves significantly,” Mr. Shames said. “Our role on this was to assist Jeff and the board with professional services that they were not able to do in-house, reviewing the financial situation, finding homes for programs, consulting on appropriate language for messaging, finding the consultant to help them with the layoff packages, and generally be the voice of support and reason as needed.

“But decision was not ours. I support the decision, but what I  am more concerned about is what happens next, and federation’s role in that process.

“That is the big push for us. Everything that happened so far was beyond our control, but now we are a vital partner in the process.”

Are other JCC’s experiencing problems similar to the ones that felled the YJCC of Washington Township?

No, according to the JCCA’s president and CEO, Stephen Hazan Arnoff. “It is a unique local situation,” he said. “I do not see this as a trend.

“We have only been engaged with the YJCC for the last eight weeks. For a decade, the Bergen County YJCC has not been affiliated with the JCC association, so we have not had access to it and we are not as familiar with the situation, but it is not any kind of trend.”

And anyway, he added, although some JCCs have closed in the last few years, “each one has its own local story. Each has its own local stakeholders and flavor and story. This is an isolated and very unfortunate outcome. There is no thread that ties them together. The national story is one of growth and opportunity, which is exciting.”

Mr. Eisen thinks that there is a wider issue than Mr. Arnoff acknowledges. “The JCC has as part of its mission the traditional Jewish community notion that we have responsibility for each other,” he said. “I’m not sure, but it seems that culturally that has shifted.

“Our services to seniors, people with special needs, programs like Open Heart Open Homes — those programs take staff time, building space, have lots of costs, but they are at our core.

“I never exercise at the Y. I don’t like to exercise. I only show up there for meetings. But I see it as a place where we do powerful, important work. It’s much like federation — we have an important job to do, creating a strong and caring Jewish community.

“Like synagogues, Ys provide spirituality, but a more practical spirituality. It’s all a continuum. If people drop out of the Y because they don’t want what it offers, the people who are left can’t support it. So why not just remain a member and support something that is of great value to others? You can’t just abandon things.

“I view myself as part of the community. My place in life is not only to meet my own personal needs, but also to make sure that I am part of a caring, inclusive community. My job is not to derive the best personal outcome just for me. That’s not where my head is at. That’s not my mindset.

“I grew up in a different world, where the strength and bonding of the Jewish world was different. We are dealing with a different mindset. What does it mean to them?

“These are all intertwined pieces. Everyone has to negotiate a new way of doing things. I think that in the next years, as we work without walls, we will reinvent what it means to be a YJCC.

“That is our job, and I don’t want to shirk my responsibility. God’s been good to me, and as long as I have the time, the energy, and the wherewithal, that’s what I intend to do.”