Erica Danziger, the program coordinator for the Jewish Community Center of Northern New Jersey, was very clear about what she wanted to accomplish during the JCC’s transition to digital programming.
Going online, she told her members — even with all the possible glitches that might entail — is necessary. Still, “we promise connection, not perfection.” Fortunately, she said, the glitches have been few, “and we’ve been able to continue bringing community members together to create Jewish moments of connection. When the internet staggered, or they couldn’t find the right link, they were greeted with warmth and a hello.”
The JCC, where she works as supervisor not only of arts and culture but of operations as well, has four distinct units: active seniors; Open Hearts, Open Homes; arts and culture; and the PJ Library. In some cases, she said, programs that were presented pre-covid have been continuing, “seamlessly transforming” onto an online platform.
For example, seniors once met every Tuesday and Thursday at Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Sholom for fitness classes; now, they meet on those same days, but online. “Homebound, isolated adults are thrilled to see friends and the instructor they know,” Ms. Danziger said. And pre-covid, “we often brought members Manhattan-based experiences like the Israeli Artists Project. We can continue those, and highlight local artists.”
Pandemic programming also has strengthened interagency relationships, as well as the JCC’s geographical reach. “Distance is no longer a barrier to participation,” she said. One Jewish yoga program attracted a woman from Canada. “It was a very niche experience; the woman” — whose mother lives in this area and told her daughter about the program — “said it was very meaningful, and she really enjoyed it.
“We have developed a model where we enter into conversations” with other JCCs based on two questions, she continued. The questions are What are we trying to accomplish? and Are we in a position to give or to receive? “A large metropolitan JCC like Chicago or Toronto can hire a celebrity speaker,” Ms. Danziger said. “We love being able to share that with our own community.”
The JCC of Northern New Jersey and the JCC Rockland cohosted a musician for a Mother’s Day brunch. “Since the musician was a member of the local community, it felt intimate and localized,” she said. “It’s very special to me personally to be able to offer the community engaging Jewish programming, because when this JCC was a YM/YWHA, my mom worked there.”
After the Y, which was in Hackensack then, closed — and after some changes in both location and operating procedure — a new Jewish community center was created. It kept the “Y” in its name to remember its past but adopted the title “JCC” in line with the wishes of the Jewish Community Center Association, becoming the YJCC of Washington Township.
Sadly, the new institution, facing a huge operating loss in an aging and poorly maintained building, was forced to close in 2015. Ever hopeful but always realistic, the board resolved to use the money from the sale of that building as well as funds received from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey to continue providing programs and services to the community. Without a building, these services became more mobile and more targeted to specific local needs. The exercise program in Fair Lawn, for example, was deemed necessary after surveys were done in the local Jewish community there.
“Being a part of a family of JCCs” — by being a member of the Jewish Community Center Association — “gives us the opportunity to connect in a unique way with JCCs here and in Israel and Canada,” Ms. Danziger said. “We have regular Zoom calls and a listserve we use to email each other.” If one JCC has a lot of music, or foodie events, or a great speaker, these now are seen as resources for other JCCs.
“We’ve developed a bit of a cohort among suburban and New York JCCs,” Ms. Danziger said. “A few such micro-networks are developing around the country.” The local cohort includes the JCCs of Middlesex County, Central New Jersey, and Rockland, “and we’re starting to open up conversations with Metrowest and the Kaplen JCC. We let each other know what’s coming up.”
While her own agency “quickly pivoted and rolled out online weekly programming at the end of March, some were not quite ready,” or didn’t yet have a plan, Ms. Danziger said. Now they’re up and running, able to share some of their programs. “Beyond our cohort of haimish suburban JCCs with a similar style, we’ve also done a one off with the JCC of Northern Virginia and with the one in San Rafael, California.
“We used to debate the right time of day, the right day, the right week, not to conflict with holidays. Now it’s a different game, and we can leverage what else is happening in the community. It’s a blend of creating a unique experience and curating what we can get.”
She’s also making new friends through these interactions, Ms. Danziger, who lives in Bergen County with her husband and two children, said. And at a time of layoffs and furloughs —her agency is making do with a four-person staff, she said — that is a welcome development. “Everyone is being asked to do more with less while managing family at home during the pandemic. Co-workmanship feels good.”
Relationships aren’t confined to other JCCs, Ms. Danziger said. In the fall, she will be reaching out to local synagogues to see who wants to partner going forward. She also has put out feelers to the Hadassah of Pascack Valley/Northern Valley. While it’s not uncommon for synagogues “to struggle with programming or the technical aspects of high-quality programming, we’re staffed for that,” she said. “If they want congregational members to attend a joint program, we’ll do the majority of work behind the scenes to make it work.”
Another collaboration, which started in April, has involved Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey. The JCC has partnered with JFCS to provide kosher meals on wheels to its most vulnerable seniors. “The meal service continues to this day to these additional clients that JFCS has added to their roster of deliveries to ensure everyone in our community is safe and well cared for,” she said.
Different programs attract different participants, Ms. Danziger continued. “Some enjoy opera talk, others live for cooking demonstrations, while others want to view a performance, with a glass of wine in hand. Still others want to get together and interact.” One program, where a crossword maven works with attendees to solve a New York Times crossword puzzle, has created its own set of regulars.
“We’re looking around the community and seeing that families with kids at home are taking advantage of the warm weather,” Ms. Danziger said. “We’re not trying to retrofit programming into that. Seniors, on the other hand, love programming and could attend all day every day. We have to find the balance between our offerings and not spending our energy on drawing people into programs when it’s nice outside. We save our fire power for not-nice weather.”
From March through May, all arts and culture programs were offered for free as a service to the community, “In the fall, we will start to charge a suggested donation of $10 per household,” Ms. Danziger said. Seniors and front-line workers can attend for free. The agency also will continue its policy of “helping Jewish and Israeli artists and entertainers who are suffering at this time.”
Community feedback has been heartening, “not only in words but in donating,” she said. Program participants are asked to consider a donation of $18 or $36, if they’re so moved, and they are making these donations.
“We feel validated,” she said of her planning committee. “We’ve reached out to members to see if they like our programs” and to solicit new ideas.
The response has been positive. Ruth Beckman, supervisor of active adult programming, who has been providing daily emails to her seniors, received the following note from member Mona Scheraga: “Ruth, you have my admiration and my thanks for the wealth of information you provide each day. It’s one thing to have a job: it’s another to make that job so worthwhile to so many. Thank you from a grateful senior.