When Stuart Raynor, executive director of JCC MetroWest, paused long enough to digest the covid challenges of the past year, he immediately was confronted with memories of another crisis. The floods, freezing, and outages in Texas took him back to his days as a communal professional at the JCC of Houston and his experiences with the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.
Mr. Raynor, schooled in public health and with a 20-year career in leadership posts at acute care hospitals in Texas and Las Vegas before making a career change to nonprofit Jewish organizations in 2000, didn’t mince words commenting on the situation.
“My wife and I” — Stuart and Barbara Raynor have been married for nearly 39 years, live in South Orange, and have twin daughters in NYC and Chicago — “have talked to family and friends and fortunately they are all OK,” he said. “However, this is very tough. And for a large part, the damages were avoidable with better state leadership and planning. I hope the weather will warm soon and FEMA will supply immediate needs for food, water, and shelter, and hopefully the state will begin to carefully examine how to reverse some of their decisions and better prepare for future weather events.
“I feel for those, primarily with low incomes from underserved communities, who have really suffered over the last week. Texans are tough and they will rebound, but they must be getting tired of so many weather challenges.”
The Houston JCC, according to Mr. Raynor, was about 10 percent larger in operating budget and physical space than JCC MetroWest. He was its assistant executive director, with responsibilities for the early childhood center and arts and cultural programming, for seven years before becoming chief executive officer at the Robert E. Loup JCC Center of Denver.
And after a decade, “When I left Denver, it was probably two-thirds the size of JCC MetroWest in terms of both budget and space. I’m not sure about that now,” he said, acknowledging one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. Mr. Raynor arrived at JCC MetroWest in August 2017. His journey has taken him from Baltimore, where he grew up, to McDaniel College in Maryland, where he majored in history and studied during his junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to Washington University in St. Louis for a master’s in health and planning. Mr. Raynor is a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, the San Antonio Spurs, and the University of Texas Longhorns, reflecting his professional odyssey. Concerts, reading, and travel round out his busy life, at least before covid.
The New Jersey Jewish News asked Mr. Raynor to respond to a series of questions. His answers have been lightly edited for space considerations.
New Jersey Jewish News: Looking back over the past year, would you name some of successes and, alternately, some of the setbacks for JCC during the pandemic?
Stuart Raynor: Concerning successes, I think we’ve done a very good job in terms of protecting our children, our staff, and everyone who’s come into our building. We prepared well and executed well on covid-19. I think we’ve been open and transparent whenever we had a challenge or setback — and our members and families have appreciated that. Summer camp and school registrations are up for this summer and next fall, and many of our members, including our fitness and aquatics members, have told us that as they get vaccinated, they plan on returning. While many of our adult and senior programs have been forced to operate remotely, we feel good that we’ve been able to maintain contact with a significant number of our members and offer them programming that they’ve enjoyed, albeit from home.
Concerning setbacks, we feel disappointed that despite what we’ve done to help, there’s been a loss of time, connection, and prolonged social isolation that the elderly experienced, and we feel this quite viscerally.
NJJN: Without giving away specifics, talk about security precautions at the JCC to the extent you can. Visitors see the electronic enhancements, visibility of the personnel, and strict covid protocols.
SR: We always make the safety and security of our members and visitors our number-one priority. We enjoy excellent relationships with local law enforcement officials and constantly update our plans.
NJJN: How do you think the pandemic will change JCC and its community going forward?
SR: For the short term, we think it’s possible that some of our members will choose to continue in our programs remotely, until such time they feel more comfortable being indoors with more than a few people in their immediate circle. In fact, the pandemic has inspired us to rethink how we facilitate connections with our members — and between them. It’s enabled us to connect with people in their own homes — and to offer them a wider variety of programs, including musical performances, speakers, and films (the Jewish Film Festival is just beginning) than we otherwise might have been able to. Over the longer term, we believe this prolonged shutdown has created a real hunger in people to connect — socially, spiritually, intellectually, Jewishly — and once they feel comfortable, we look forward to welcoming our members back with open arms and celebrating our community with vibrant programming that offers them even more ways to connect than ever before.
JCC MetroWest is grateful to serve more people on an annual basis than any other single agency across our community, and it’s possible that this extended period of isolation and separation will stimulate an even greater demand for our programs and services than ever before.
NJJN: How will the JCC pivot to maintain strong leadership in the Jewish community in years to come?
SR: We consider JCC MetroWest already to be seen as a strong leader and convener for the Jewish and broader communities, so I’m not sure a “pivot” per se is called for. What the covid-19 pandemic has reminded us of, however, is the importance of remaining agile and responsive as an organization, so that we can most effectively meet the needs of all those we serve. We’ve created and/or adapted our programming to meet those needs. This shutdown has provided us with an opportunity to spend time reflecting on other unmet community needs and begin thinking about ways we can address them — and we look forward to taking a leadership role in meeting those needs in the months and years to come.
NJJN: Why is the JCC important to our community both now and even more so in the years ahead?
SR: If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from this prolonged period of social isolation it’s that connection — namely personal, professional, in-person interactions — is vital to everyone’s physical and mental health and well-being. Perhaps of all the benefits JCC MetroWest brings to the community, providing a forum for those types of connection is most important — and the most meaningful. Whether people are learning together, working out together, playing together, creating together, traveling together, celebrating a holiday or simcha together, or sharing a meal together, JCC MetroWest creates and provides the space and the opportunities for people from across the community to convene and connect in ways that truly matter.
NJJN: What is your vision for the Jewish community as a whole?
SR: The mission of JCC MetroWest is to strengthen our community and add meaning to the lives of those we serve by connecting them to — and through — shared Jewish experience. Our vision is that families in the Greater MetroWest will demonstrate a greater sense of connection to each other and to their Jewish community — and will celebrate and embrace the beauty of a Jewish life. In keeping with our Jewish heritage and values, JCC MetroWest is a community of communities, inclusive and welcoming to all. That pretty much synopsizes my vision for the Jewish community as a whole: a place where people can connect in meaningful ways, where those connections illuminate the beauty of Jewish life, and where everyone feels welcome, included, and valued.
NJJN: If you could have three wishes come true for the JCC, what would they be?
SR: To be financially stable and independent so we can continue to serve our community in perpetuity. To connect younger generations to Israel and the beauty of Jewish tradition. And to bring our community together in ways both large and small once this pandemic is finally over.
NJJN: You just mentioned Israel, and we understand travel is one of your favorite activities. How often have you visited.?
SR: I have been to Israel many times, between 15 and 20, and spent my junior year of college at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I never miss a chance to go to Israel, I never feel better than when I am in Israel.
NJJN: What’s on your favorite book list?
SR: I have so many books I like that it’s hard to name favorites, but I loved “The Devil in the White City” by Eric Larsen. “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates was very powerful. I just finished reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which was fun, and “The Last of the Just” by Andre Schwartz-Bart is a book I will always remember.