The JCC reopens for business
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The JCC reopens for business

As the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades comes back to in-person life, its leaders look back — and ahead

It’s like the happy ending of a movie about the apocalypse, when the survivors emerge into the sunlight, blinking, rejoicing in the new day, marveling at what’s remained.

Okay, that’s maybe a tad too melodramatic, even for now.

But it’s been 15 months of strangeness, of isolation and fear. And now that it’s almost over, we can start looking around at the institutions that have helped us through this odd hard time. We can start to understand how they survived, how they changed, what they see as the path forward, and how we can learn from it.

We can learn about flexibility and steadfastness.

We can look at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

Steve Rogers of Tenafly — “I live a 90-second drive from the JCC,” he said — is the organization’s new-since-May-1 board chair. He’s a lawyer, a partner in Lowenstein Sandler; “I think it’s fair to say that other than my family and my working life, Jewish communal service has been the thing that has taken up most of the rest of my life.” His resume also makes that point. He’s a former president of his shul, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, and “at any given time I’m on seven or eight boards,” he said. “Which is a little bit much.” Those boards include the New Jersey-Israel Commission, where he’s just finished his service, the JCC Association, the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Foundation, and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s New Jersey cabinet, among many others. They’re all Jewish.

Why the JCC? Because of its vision, Mr. Rogers said. “It’s deeply rooted in Jewish values. It’s a place for all in the community to find their spiritual, physical, and educational connections.” Community here is defined broadly. You don’t have to be Jewish to join the JCC — “one if not the largest driver of membership is our health and wellness and cultural programs. The gym rats know they can’t come on Saturday morning” —or at any other time on Saturday, until well after nightfall during the winter; the center closes for Shabbat. “We try to have a Jewish element in everything we do,” he continued. “We are a Jewish community center. That said, people come to us for many different things. For some people, we might be your community pool, and you don’t need to be Jewish to swim there.”

The reasons that Mr. Rogers has lived his life so deeply connected to Jewish institutions, as well as why he moves into leadership roles so naturally, is both idiosyncratic and relevant to the JCC.

“I was born in Monsey,” he said. That’s the Rockland County town that’s home to a huge and ever-growing number of chasidic Jews. “I was born on the other side of the tracks, though,” he said. The non-chasidic side. His parents, Anne and Ed Rogers, were among the founders of the Pomona Jewish Center, which since has closed, “to my deep sadness,” he said. Mr. Rogers is 60, so he grew up in the 60s; his mother was what she called a “cultural Jew,” but back then, cultural Jews not only joined but ran synagogues. Pomona was a Conservative shul; “my mother was an early proponent of egalitarianism,” he said. Anne Rogers also was a born leader; she headed the youth group committee, the sisterhood, holiday celebration committees, the cookbook team — everything that was available for her to do, she did. And she taught her son how to lead; maybe more importantly, she made the act of assuming leadership natural for him.

Mr. Rogers remembers a scene from his childhood. “Originally, the shul was a house; in 1969, we were building a building. We had laid out the cement foundation, and it was Simchat Torah. There was glorious weather. So we had a Simchat Torah service on the newly laid foundation, on what was going to be our sanctuary.

“I was 8 years old, and seeing everybody dancing with the Torahs, watching my mother’s joy, left an indelible impression on me.

“When I was president of Emanu-El, the single greatest thing ever was sitting on the bimah on Shabbat morning, next to the rabbi, and watching as usually two sets of parents watched their kids become bar or bat mitzvah. It reminded me, every time, of the look in both my mother’s and my father’s eyes, of the joy I saw. I am looking to give people that same feeling.”

JCC’s board chair, Steven Rogers

So, the JCC.

“I am really committed to engaging the future generations, and also to pluralism,” Mr. Rogers said. “I don’t care what you practice or how you practice, but I just want you to be connected, whether it is religiously, culturally, spiritually, or in whatever way you want.

“I want you to think about it” — it, of course, is Jewish-ness — “and to care.

“The Kaplen JCC is the ninth or tenth largest JCC in North America,” he continued. “Every week before covid, about a million and a half people walked through the doors of a JCC somewhere in North America every week, and more than a million of them are Jewish. Of all ilks, because you can be whatever you want to be.

“Where else is there such a possibility for incredible outreach and connection than at a JCC?”

The JCC has two sides, Mr. Rogers said. One is the social-service agency part, which provides services to people who need them. The other is the side that promotes members’ physical, cultural, and intellectual well-being. The social services cost money — some of it comes from allocations from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — and some of the other programs make a profit.

Children work on art projects.

That’s how it used to work, at any rate.

That gets us to covid.

“The JCC membership at first took a significant hit with covid, because there is a percentage of people who are members because of the health and wellness center, and initially we couldn’t do it. But the staff, who had to deal with some serious cutbacks to match the diminished community base, did an incredible job of pivoting.

“I think that is one of our great advantages today, as we come out of covid. We were back in the individual personal training game before any gym in the area. They didn’t have the physical space that we have; we could do things like have the two racquetball courts become individual training rooms, so you could be alone with your trainer.

“And people were concerned with their safety and the safety of others, and there was a sense that a for-profit gym might push things to the limit for profit. We did everything strictly according to regulation. That is the Jewish way of doing things.”

Although masks no longer are required for many activities at the JCC, both visitors and staff must wear them in the halls. There are people who still are susceptive, and children under 12 cannot be vaccinated yet.

This year’s Rubin Run was in person.

The JCC offers many programs for seniors; some of them are for active retirees, but others are for people who are frail, lonely, or need supervision.

“We are committed to being a crucial connector for seniors, who felt more and more isolated during the pandemic,” Mr. Rogers said. The JCC brought iPads to seniors who didn’t have them and if they couldn’t figure out how to use them — many could, and many could not — it taught them. “One of the silver linings of covid is that we will have better permanent connections to our seniors who cannot get to the JCC,” he said. “The concept of a permanent virtual JCC has a number of benefits. We did a great job of making sure that we had so much virtual programming, so that someone whose life is centered on the JCC can continue it from the comfort — or the safety — of their home.

“It brought us a great opportunity in terms of content.” The JCC, through its JCC U and other programs, was able to offer participants — both members and non-members — access to discussions with authors, musicians, scholars, and artists who could not have come to the building. “One of the early speakers was John Grisham,” the novelist, Mr. Rogers said. “He was sitting in Atlanta, and you were in your living room in Tenafly or Cresskill or Bergenfield or Teaneck.” Or, for that matter, anywhere else.

The JCC’s Thurnauer School of Music is a profit-making enterprise, Mr. Rogers said, but it’s far more than that. “Becoming board chair has been an eye-opening experience,” he said; among the many things he’s learned is how influential the music school is. “We don’t serve just Tenafly, or just Bergen County. We are a major provider of musical education, and it is one of the top schools in the country.

“We are a feeder in Juilliard.” During the pandemic, “it all continued online, and we were able to work with kids who had moved out of the area for the pandemic.”

The music school is working on a program, to be called “Coming to America,” that will tell immigrants’ stories through a range of musical styles, including jazz, a symphonic piece, and a chorus. “I can’t say who yet, but talent from across the country will be part of it,” Mr. Rogers said.

A string quartet from the Thurnauer Music School plays.

It also has a vibrant preschool and day camp. “Our camp registration program is going to set a record this year. The numbers are higher than they were pre-covid.”

Still, like every institution, the JCC faces challenges as a result of the pandemic. “Everyone has a percentage of members who pay their dues every year but don’t really use the facility that much.” Those people don’t necessarily feel a need to continue their memberships this year (although logically, they’re not using the center much less than they had been before covid, so it really shouldn’t matter. But people aren’t always logical.)

But the JCC is up to the challenge, Mr. Rogers said. “Remember those million plus people who would walk through a JCC door every week? We have an important responsibility to them. More than 50 percent of them have no other touchpoint with a Jewish organization. They never belonged to BBYO or Young Judaea or any other youth group. They never belonged to a Jewish organization or went to a Jewish sleepaway camp. We have an important responsibility to those people. We are their Jewish town square. We are their Jewish touchpoint.”

Another vitally important role the JCC plays is in the relationship it fosters between its members and Israel, Mr. Rogers added. The JCC’s catchment area has a large percentage of Israeli expats; as a result, the JCC’s relationship with the local Israeli American Council is strong, and more than 400 kids are members of the JCC’s Tsofim chapter — that’s the Israeli version of scouting.

He’s also high on the Idea School, the still-fairly-new Jewish high school that opened in the JCC and will send its first class off to college at the end of next year. “The school is thriving, and my biggest concern about it is making sure that we are positioned for the future, to have the space that we need,” Mr. Rogers said. “The school starting here is a great example of our being able to accommodate whatever makes sense. Twenty-seven years ago, Sandra Gold,” the former JCC president who was a force behind the JCC’s creation, as she has been and continues to be a guiding force behind so much in the community, “had the idea that we should have a music school. And look where it is today.

“The Idea School is the same thing. Those two schools are examples of how we have the commitment and the people to do these things.”

Vaccinated seniors were able to go to the Yiddish concert in person; it also was streamed.

Jordan Shenker is the JCC’s CEO. He looks back on the last 15 months with pride.

“When we had to close the agency on March 13 last year, we had to pivot and figure out what programming we could do, and how we could offer it,” he said. “It’s not like we said, ‘Oh, right, we knew that this thing would be coming, and so let’s prepare and strategize.’ It was that everything shut down today. What do we do tomorrow?

“I am inspired when I think about what our staff team was able to accomplish. Literally in a matter of days we had dance classes, drama classes, music classes, group education classes, senior programming, preschool programming, and programming for special needs populations up and running.

“How did we do it? By making stuff up.” By looking at the technology, figuring out how to make the best of what they had, and just going ahead.

“We tried a bunch of stuff in ways that we would not have allowed ourselves before, and that our clients would not have allowed us. We saw what worked.

“At first it was not of the level of quality that we typically would see ourselves as offering, but it was better than nothing. If you were a parent, it was better having your 3-year-old do something in front of a screen for 20 minutes at a time than doing nothing at all. If we had told our parents before it happened that this was what we were going to do, they would have said, ‘Oh no, you’re not.’ But not only did they tolerate it, they appreciated it.”

The crowd at the JCC Sports Night stood for the U.S. and Israeli national anthems.

Like Mr. Rogers, Mr. Shenker talked about the burden that isolation placed on older people. “The impact of social isolation was enormous,” he said. “Far beyond anything that we could have predicted precovid. We already knew that social isolation was a problem for older adults and for special needs populations, but even we did not realize the depth of the challenge that social isolation would pose, both for these groups and for everyone.

“With covid, the isolation wasn’t just for a day or two at a time. There was nobody — no family, not friends — and the impact wasn’t just on seniors. It was on 3-year-olds, on 12-year-olds, on 20-year-olds, and on their parents. It was devasting. People were thirsty for social connections and community, so it was critically important for us to be able to fill in the gaps.”

Every year the JCC offers a Yiddish concert, sponsored by the Taub family, Mr. Shenker said. “When the first one came on the calendar post covid, we called Mickey Taub and said that we wanted to do a virtual concert. When we used to have those concerts, we’d have 550 seniors in the room, with standing room, and a waitlist. There were 2,250 people online at the virtual concert.” In fact, he added, probably there were more; he has no way of knowing how many people were at each screen.

“As we move forward and begin to reopen, we are figuring out what we learned during covid, and what we will keep. We realize that we might have done some things by accident, but what do we want to keep on purpose? We look at some things and we think that this was so cool, we want to maximize it.”

To that end, “we have a technology task force at work on upgrading the facilities,” he continued; among other things, he hopes that the JCC will be able to keep on producing content that can go to people not physically in the building.

“It is fascinating to be forced into an environment where we had to accelerate our planning,” he said. “Only three years ago, we implemented a strategic plan. There were four elements — outreach, engagement, innovation, and Jewish life. Prepandemic, we were already talking about how to leverage virtual content, how to engage people who are not in the building, and how to produce content. That process was exponentially hastened this year.

The JCC’s CEO, Jordan Shenker, speaks at Sports Night.

“And now, we are in an interesting space. We will have lost about a third of our revenue this year. Most of our programs were free — the dance and music school and preschool were not, but all of what we offered seniors and most of what we provided for adults was. We got whatever Medicare reimbursed us for the special needs programming, but other than that we didn’t charge for it. And group exercise classes were free, until we started to pivot back.”

So how is the JCC doing now? “It depends on if the glass if half full or half empty,” Mr. Shenker said. “Half full — we were able to retain 65 percent of our revenue while the pandemic was going on. Half empty — we lost 35 percent of our revenue.

“Seventy cents of each dollar that we spend out the door is on payroll expenses,” he continued. “We were a $22 million organization. That means that we had $16 million in personnel costs. That means that we had to furlough or terminate a third of our staff. We had to make that decision because we knew that we were not going to have that revenue.

“We’ve been slowly growing, until covid,” he continued. “In 2015, we had about $15 million in revenue, and we were on step to be at $22 million. We were on a pretty decent growth trajectory to sustain the business long-term.

“And then covid hit.

“We have a July 1 fiscal year. Our budget going into the next year is just under $18 million, and our hope is that we’ll be back up to about 80 percent of where we were pre-pandemic.”

Because part of the JCC’s income comes from the health and wellness services it provides, like every other provider of those services it has to grapple with the uncertainty about what its clients will do. “The whole fitness industry is a mess,” Mr. Shenker said. “People got devices at home. Are they coming back to fitness centers? Who knows?

“But the impact of social isolation is tremendous. We believe that community is important, even if you work out at home, you can’t get community at home. And fewer institutions are better positioned than we are to help you connect with your community.”

But even as people’s need for community has not changed, perhaps our understanding of what community means has morphed and become more sophisticated, Mr. Shenker suggested.

“We used to write Community with a capital C,” he said. “Now we used a small c. We are hundreds and hundreds of microcommunities, the Wednesday morning lap swimmer or the Thursday afternoon mah jongg players or the guys playing Scrabble or the women playing canasta.” The JCC will open to all of them. Soon, he added, the café will reopen too. “There are hundreds of reasons why people will come to the building again, and we have the opportunity to reach all of them.

“It is a wonderful privilege to be able to say that we are in the position to do that again.

“I am incredibly proud of this institution and our team and our leadership,” Mr. Shenker concluded. “They could have shut the place down. They could just have said no. But they didn’t.

“We didn’t.”

And now, it’s open again, and the community is welcome.

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