Relaunching a community

Relaunching a community

Jewish Community Center of Northern New Jersey launches its new model

Abby Leipsner
Abby Leipsner

The tagline of the newly launched Jewish Community Center of Northern New Jersey is “Community/Connections/Values.”

The group is the virtual successor to the brick-and-mortar Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, which closed in August 2015.

“We are creating a unique JCC model, which will go into our neighborhoods and communities to create and implement programs,” Abby Leipsner, the center’s chief executive officer, said on conference call on Monday that announced the new initiative. “We’ll have no membership fees, because we will be operating as a virtual organization.”

She said that the new JCC-NNJ will develop “top-notch, innovative, and meaningful programs.” Those are the programs in which people who live in the JCC’s catchment area have expressed interest during the discussions and focus groups held over the last two years.

Those programs will be delivered in public and synagogue spaces in “micro-communities” of 2,000 to 6,000 Jewish households, rather than in a central location.

“Over the next five years, our goal is to increase our events and classes to provide programming from Mahwah to Hackensack, New Milford to Oakland, and all 34 towns in between,” Ms. Leipsner said. “We believe in today’s society we need to meet you in your neighborhood.”

Participants will pay per program or activity. A Friends of the Jewish Community Center of Northern New Jersey organization will accept donations in return for discounts on programming.

The new venture is to be funded with grants, donations, and the proceeds of the $9 million sale of the 80,000-square-foot Pascack Road YJCC building to Bethany Church last June. An additional fundraising campaign is planned.

Ms. Leipsner said that a $1 million budget for the upcoming year will be directed toward new or relaunched programs for young families, tweens and teens, adults, and seniors, with a particular emphasis on the first and last categories.

Senior activities, including holiday parties and group fitness classes, held at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township for the past two years, “are more popular than ever,” she said. Because the synagogue building is up for sale, alternative venues are being sought for the future.

One new program beginning in the JCC-NNJ is called JFamily Ambassadors, in which volunteers will engage with new parents and introduce them to other families raising Jewish children in the same neighborhood.

To further serve young families, the center’s board is working with educational consultants to create for-profit early-childhood centers in four or five communities over the next few years. Ms. Leipsner said that “everything from infant care to extended day options” is being considered.

Although JCCs traditionally have been associated with physical fitness facilities, the new virtual entity will emphasize social and educational programming.

“At recent focus groups with new moms, the word ‘connection’ was seen as the most vital part of our future,” Ms. Leipsner said. “Many people met lifelong friends at the Bergen County YJCC. We will continue to build connections by bringing people together, establishing real relationships, linking people, places, and thoughts, connecting you to a fantastic speaker, book or idea about Judaism, and providing volunteer opportunities for you to enhance your life and the life of others.”

The YJCC’s roots go back 100 years to its first location in Hackensack. For the last two years, the administration has been “realigning its goals” and “reimaging its future” through surveys and meetings with residents, Ms. Leipsner said.

At its height, the YJCC had 1,800 member units. That number had dwindled to less than 800 when the YJCC closed, in the face of more than $1 million in operating losses.

Ms. Leipsner said that there are 25,000 Jews in the catchment area, but the Jewish Community Center of Northern New Jersey also seeks to serve “Jewish” and non-Jewish residents, “so the numbers are really unlimited.”

Two Chanukah programs are coming up — one, for young families, on December 10 at the Westwood Community Center and another, for seniors, on December 14 at Beth Or. Smaller grassroots Chanukah gatherings also are planned through JFamily Ambassadors.

Ms. Leipsner announced that the Open Hearts Open Homes program is continuing for its 17th summer. Twenty Israeli teens affected by terrorism will stay with local host families for three weeks.

“We strongly believe that there is an important place in our community for our organization as a central resource for Jewish programming for all residents,” the JCC-NNJ’s board chairman, Barry Kissler, said.

The JCC-NNJ will distribute updates and any other news that develops through its social-media and grassroots networks in coming weeks.

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