A Year of Progress, A Time to Remember
Twelve months ago, we had barely begun a new year with seemingly enormous promise. Increasing recognition of the unique potential of the JCC Movement, the largest platform for Jewish engagement on the continent, was reflected through burgeoning innovation, notable partnerships, and an infusion of philanthropic investment, along with a sense that our future seemed without limits.
Only a few weeks later, the specter of the pandemic was already visible, and before long, it became clear the virus would define the days, weeks, and months ahead in ways that ever so gradually came into focus.
Wholesale closures from coast to coast dealt a hammer blow to Jewish Community Centers as we confronted the impact of lost fee-for-service revenue, the source of roughly 80% of our income. Jewish Community Camps chose to cancel the 2020 overnight season out of an abundance of caution for the still unknown implications of COVID-19. Yet, true to our community service ethos, JCCs sought and pursued avenues that allowed them to continue to provide critical support for members, families, and entire communities in need. Blood drives, food banks, meal delivery, childcare for essential workers, and a host of other efforts gave expression to our commitment to serve as an anchor for the Jewish community amidst the storm.
As we began to recover our balance, JCCs established guidelines to govern renewed in-person programs and services. Coordinating our efforts with local hospitals and public health authorities, we invested in additional staff and training, as well as in retrofitting our facilities to make them safe. One by one, then increasingly in bunches, JCCs welcomed back growing numbers of those who needed us. By summer’s end, nearly every JCC in North America was open for business, the only institutional sector in the organized Jewish community to make that claim. In the face of what was needed by the wider Jewish community, in which so many of the major Jewish institutions remained closed, JCCs opened their doors to congregations; expanded childcare to meet the needs of Jewish day school families and teachers; launched “All Day at the J,” full-day opportunities for school-aged children learning remotely; and hosted community meetings of every stripe and style.
Financial pressures grew, and we sought opportunities for partnership and collaboration, both within and across JCC communities. Shared wisdom and experience flattened the learning curve for JCCs striving tirelessly to attend to their communities’ needs. As ever, innovation in the face of crisis spotlighted opportunities that otherwise would have remained in the shadows. Virtual J, born in Toronto at the Schwartz/Reisman Centre and Prosserman JCC, quickly became an online platform cooperative for dozens of JCCs. Other remarkable collaborations include the National JCC Literary Consortium hosted by the Marcus JCC of Atlanta, Georgia, in which nearly 100 JCCs are participating and the National JCC Adult and Senior Alliance, an online program for isolated seniors, in which 39 JCCs have joined with the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, California. These notable successes showcase the possibilities that come from working ever more closely, a process that looks to accelerate this year.
The onset of the pandemic was another instance in which the metaphor of a pebble in the pond seems apt. This time, though, it was as if the pebble landed squarely on our heads. There were many who worried we would not get back above the surface. Make no mistake: calm waters are still a way off, and the ripples from that initial splash continue to affect far too many of our peers and partners in Jewish life. But, as we reach the one-year anniversary of COVID-19’s devastating impact, not only is it fair to say we are still here, but thanks to a greater commitment to partnerships and collaborations, we have enhanced our place in the community and our opportunities to lead.
Access to vaccines continues to grow, and there is reason to expect the summer of 2021 to look more like 2019 than 2020. JCCs’ growing body of experience in running programs and serving the community in the face of a pandemic provides us with understanding and wisdom, both of which we will bring to bear—for our own programs and constituents but also in our role as the town square of Jewish life, benefiting all who share our commitment to greater Jewish community.
Anniversaries are a time to look back—and to look ahead. Rabbi Mark Sokoll, president and CEO of the JCC of Greater Boston, Massachusetts, teaches:
Each year on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, we celebrate themes of liberation, learning, and journey. Each also represents the marking of a harvest at that unique time of year. And in every instance, marking the holiday includes a solemn service of remembrance [Yizkor | יִזְכֹּר].
This tradition reminds us that we cannot look toward the future, nor to the bounty of the harvest, without also recalling what we’ve lost.”