This is the home of everybody in the Jewish Community
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This is the home of everybody in the Jewish Community

Federation rolls out the welcome mat at new Paramus site

The staff of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey rose to their feet for a standing ovation Monday morning as executive vice president Howard Charish affixed a mezuzah to the door at the federation’s new three-story building in Paramus.

Monday marked the first day of business at 50 Eisenhower Drive – which staffers affectionately refer to as “50 Ike” – as employees weaved through a maze of boxes and packing crates while swooning over bigger offices, brighter lights, and more than double the amount of parking than at the federation’s former River Edge headquarters.

“This is the start of a new chapter in the history of our federation,” said its new president, Alan Scharfstein. “This move is just one step in broadening our base and expanding our reach both locally and in Israel. While we face many challenges, I feel confident we will meet them as we work to strengthen our Jewish community.”

Dan Silna, the organization’s immediate past president, said, “This sends the correct message to the community. It’s not the Bergen County federation anymore, it’s UJA-NNJ. This is the home of everybody in the Jewish community.”

When UJA Federation of Bergen County & North Hudson merged with the Jewish Federation of North Jersey to create UJA-NNJ, the new entity moved into the former UJA’s office at 111 Kinderkamack in River Edge.

“We had a merger of two federations, and we moved into either the mother or the father’s house. We didn’t move into our house,” Silna said. “It’s not good to live with the parents. We needed an identity of our own. We needed a place our community could grow into and be proud of.”

A lack of parking made the building inconvenient for visitors and expensive for the federation, which had to rent spaces across the street to accommodate its staff. Space was just as tight inside. Security was the main concern, though, particularly after Sept. 11, said Silna, a driving force for the building during three consecutive terms that came to an end in June.

The River Edge facility was elevated on stilts with parking beneath. This created a number of security problems that do not exist in the Paramus location because of its open parking lot.

“All the people in the security fields told us the building was very insecure and dangerous,” Silna said. “If people work for [a] federation they should work in a secure environment.”

UJA-NNJ received a $100,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security last year to upgrade its security infrastructure. (See related story, Jewish groups get Homeland Security grants.)

“One of the primary reasons we moved was for security reasons,” Charish said. “We now have a state-of-the-art system we hope will never be fully tested.”

Visitors to the building must be buzzed in by security, as in the River Edge facility. Now, however, visitors enter what Charish called “the man trap,” which seals the entrance door behind them, and they must check in with security personnel before they can enter a second waiting room. Once there, a guest is able to enter the stairwell and elevator area, but the doors that allow access to each floor can be unlocked only by staff members.

“This is similar to the kind of setup that [the New York-based federation umbrella group United Jewish Communities and] the Israeli consulate have,” Charish said. “Because of that unfortunate experience,” he added, referring to the fatal shooting two years ago at the Seattle federation, “and also on the advice of Homeland Security, we devised this multi-step process.”

The building itself cost $5 million, but that figure does not include all the expenses for remodeling, new furniture, and the move. Charish had previously told The Jewish Standard that the renovations would add approximately $1.5 million to the building’s price tag but that was before the federation learned it would have to replace the entire heating venting and air conditioning system. He told the paper this week that expenses are still being tallied as unpacking continues and the federation makes adjustments to the building.

The funds are coming from the federation’s capital campaign, separate from its annual campaign. The annual campaign has hovered just above $14 million since 2005. The goal for the 2008 annual campaign, for which major fund-raising efforts are set to conclude next month, is $14.5 million. Charish indicated that it is too early to comment on whether the campaign is close to its goal, inasmuch as it’s not over yet. He did acknowledge a slowdown in fund-raising success.

“We have fewer donors than at this point last year,” Charish said. “We know that we’ve been affected by the economy and the passing of some major donors.”

Still, the additional resources needed for the capital campaign have not hindered the annual campaign, he said.

“There’s no one yet who’s given us a capital campaign [contribution] who’s used it as a reason not to give or [not] give what they’ve been giving to the annual campaign,” Charish said.

The reported economic downturn and real estate slump across the country did not deter the federation from making the move, which has been in the works for three years.

The capital campaign received major gifts last year from Bill and Maggie Kaplen, Norman and Barbara Seiden, and the Silna family, who promised donations totaling $1.8 million. Gifts continue to arrive each week, Charish said, and proceeds from the sale of the River Edge building will go toward the capital campaign. There are interested buyers but no timetable for selling the facility, beyond “as quickly as possible,” Charish said.

While the federation’s staff has much more room to work, the Paramus building also includes several empty offices that UJA-NNJ leaders hope will be rented out to other Jewish organizations. Israel Bonds has already moved in to the ground floor.

Miriam Allenson, the federation’s assistant director of marketing and communications, said, “Our new building is at the geographic center of northern New Jersey’s Jewish community, easy to get to and accessible from major highways. It will serve as a central meeting place for the community in the conference center, which is large enough to hold major meetings and easily divisible.” Also, she said, “there are meeting rooms and conference centers throughout the building for other types of meetings. All rooms are wired for audio conferencing. The state-of-the-art Teachers Center will serve as a resource center for Jewish educators throughout the area.”

Silna said that he hopes the new building can house the archives of the North Jersey Jewish Historical Society, which are in storage at William Paterson University in Wayne. Also, with 33,000 square feet in the new building, UJA-NNJ can hold its large meetings and other events in its headquarters rather than offsite, as it had done in the 16,000-square-foot River Edge facility.

In November, UJA-NNJ will host the Northeast Jewish Educators conference. In December, the annual Super Sunday fund-raising day, which has been held at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly or the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge because of the lack of space in the Kinderkamack facility, will be held in the new building. Although the event is typically held in January, federations across the state have moved the major fund-raiser to December this year.

Bergen County’s blue laws, which forbid many types of business on Sundays, are particularly strict in Paramus because of the borough’s dense shopping areas. However, Charish said that before the federation bought the building Paramus officials agreed to allow UJA-NNJ to operate, particularly during Super Sunday, despite the restrictions.

“They are against commercial operations, but they understand the humanitarian purposes of the UJA and they have been very cooperative,” Charish said.

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