Gary Lipman has been at the helm of the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township for only a few weeks, but he already seems comfortable in his new surroundings.
Dressed in a suit and tie, Lipman strides into a classroom for two-year-olds in the organization’s nursery school, kneels on the floor, and gets down to business – finding out just what went into the toddlers’ morning pot of pretend chicken soup. He takes time to ask each child his or her name and marvels at the large paper carrot the group made to hang up in an indoor sukkah in the Y’s lobby.
“I really believe that in the 21st century Jewish community that JCCs have the potential to be one of – if not the – most powerful forces in building community when Jews are looking for ways to connect,” said Lipman, who has been on the job as the Y’s chief executive officer since Sept. 13.
Affable and enthusiastic, Lipman believes that Jewish community centers have a strong role to play in this era of Jewish disengagement. But they have to do it by being smart and responsible, targeting resources where they are needed, and striving for excellence if they want to attract members in this consumer-driven age, which is marked by heavy competition.
Lipman, who arrived as the organization marked its 25th year in Washington Township, would like to restore the luster to a solid organization that continues to run excellent programs.
A stellar nursery school, a variety of special needs programs geared for people of all ages, and wellness projects that reach beyond the fitness center and into other programs, are all things about which the Y truly can be proud, according to Lipman. What the YJCC needs, he said, is to make sure that within the area it serves, which includes such towns as Ridgewood, Paramus, Mahwah, Montvale, Woodcliff Lake, and Fair Lawn – affluent and demanding places – the YJCC is doing those things better than anyone else is.
When the Y moved to Washington Township, he said, there weren’t dozens of fitness centers competing for members, as there are now. How should he deal with the changed situation? “I can say ‘woe is me,’ or I can say, ‘What do I need to do to be the very best?'” he said.
“Competition should strengthen you,” he added. “We will never be a monopoly again.”
Lipman replaces Harold Benus, who led the organization for more than 30 years. Lipman comes to the YJCC at a time when the organization, founded in 1917, has undergone a strategic planning process to reinvigorate both the facility and its programming. That process has come at a time when JCCs have sought not only to become not only better fitness providers in a crowded field of exercise centers, but also to redefine themselves as purveyors of Jewish life and culture.
The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly recently completed a six-year fundraising and construction project, which brought in $32 million from the community. Meanwhile, the Wayne YM-YWHA turned over its operations to a chain of YMCAs based in Livingston.
The YJCC has struggled with fluctuating income over the past few years, with revenue from dues dropping from just over $1.04 million in 2009 to $956,000 in 2010, the last year for which its tax forms are available on Guidestar, a charity evaluating website. Revenues overall, however, have remained fairly steady, and donations have increased from $1.48 million in 2009 to $1.88 million in 2010.
This summer, the YJCC opened its fitness center, pools, and gymnasium on Saturdays; in early September it closed for some refurbishing, including the addition of a new playground for the nursery school. Both changes were made based on recommendations in its new strategic plan, which was completed earlier this year.
That plan highlighted that northern Bergen County is home to 30,000 Jews, who can be served by YJCC programs, according to Jeffrey Tucker, the organization’s president.
“Like all JCCs, we need to renew ourselves and bring a set of offerings that are consistent with our mission and that are relevant to all of the Jewish members of the community,” he said.
He believes that Lipman is a “world-class CEO” who can do just that.
Most recently, Lipman was executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Jewish Community Center Association, the international umbrella organization for the entire JCC movement. Lipman saw that, he said, as a sort of “two-year doctorate in studying JCCs.” In that position, he traveled to more than 40 of the more than 350 JCCs served by the association, and saw the variety and scope of programs that worked – and what did not work.
Before that, for more than a decade Lipman was the CEO of the JCC in Stamford, Conn. According to Robin Frederick, who served as president while Lipman was there, he “turned our center around and took it to the next level. He brought a level of energy to it that had not been there.”
From implementing new programs to creating high expectations about fundraising, Lipman was a standout, Frederick said. In 2006, during his time there, the JCC hosted the JCC Maccabi Games in 2006, infusing the community with a can-do spirit.
“He is a great leader and a great CEO,” she said. “He inspires people to do their best, both lay leaders and professionals. He really worked to create a partnership.”
Lipman’s own connection to JCCs stretches back to his childhood; he went to nursery school at the JCC in Cincinnati. He spent 12 years at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, serving in a variety of positions, first as chief financial officer, then as head of marketing and communications, and finally as associate executive director.
The YJCC reminds Lipman of the Stamford JCC when he first arrived, a place ready to do the hard work needed to improve. The future will hold a great deal of change, including a capital campaign to update an aging facility and a hard look at which programs should continue and which will not. He also will look at better ways to deliver programs through the YJCC and at partnerships with synagogues and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, he said.
JCCs were post-denominational before that word became fashionable, Lipman said. They have the ability to reach out broadly to all Jews and provide a sense of belonging to the Jewish community.
“It’s a different way of thinking, moving from parochial and prescriptive Judaism – and accepting that there are many ways to live and practice and be Jews,” Lipman said.