By Doron Krakow
Enduring Challenges, Crucial Conversations
On Monday evening, I was privileged to participate in a conversation with Debbie Sosland-Edelman, executive director of the Sosland Foundation and one of Kansas City’s leading Jewish philanthropists. The event, one in the “Enduring Challenges, Crucial Conversations” series, is helping the Jewish community of Kansas consider the road ahead. It was held at the community’s magnificent JCC and moderated by Ethan Helfand, director of Jewish Experiences, a programmatic collaboration between the Jewish Federation and the JCC.
The Sosland family has been in leadership of the Jewish community for decades, and the foundation’s commitment to Jewish and other interests is exemplary. I’m told it is most unusual for Debbie to participate in such public fora, but the questions at hand and the anticipated gathering of community leaders convinced her of this one’s importance. Hers is a voice of remarkable thoughtfulness and wisdom, infused with an abiding commitment to ensuring a brighter Jewish future.
The 2021 Kansas City Jewish Community Study, the first since the 1980s, revealed that the population has grown from 19,000 to 22,000, its median age has increased, and the community has sprawled somewhat, with a growing number of people living further afield from neighborhoods that had been more central to Jewish life. These findings, among others, were focal points for our conversation. Debbie and I spoke about trends in philanthropy; the need for a greater commitment to risk taking if we are to build beyond longstanding paradigms; the talent pipeline related to lay and professional leaders, as well as philanthropic funders; and the overriding issue of declining participation in Jewish life, which also is addressed in the community study.
Monday evening’s program was at the outset of my two-day visit to Kansas City, and to my surprise, was a topic people returned to again and again during my stay. The leaders of the Kansas City Jewish community are wrestling with plans and priorities at a time of great promise and possibility.
The JCC is among the most impressive I’ve seen. A recently completed capital campaign resulted in major upgrades to the fitness facilities and a significant facelift to the interior of the 180,000+ square-foot facility—the centerpiece of a Jewish community campus that is home to the Jewish Federation, several foundations, and the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, the community day school. A prior campaign created the Lewis and Shirley White Theatre and its 500+ seat auditorium, which routinely overflows throughout a season replete with community productions, including, most recently, “The Jewish Nutcracker.”
This JCC has more than recovered from the pandemic. The early childhood center operates at capacity, with roughly 225 children in attendance full-time, and has a waiting list of more than 100. The day camp had record enrollment this past summer, and 2023 registration is well ahead of last year’s pace. Membership, too, is at an all-time high and ambitious efforts to add more outdoor facilities, including sports fields, pickleball courts, and a covered pavilion are underway. What’s more, notwithstanding declining levels of Jewish engagement elsewhere, Jewish participation at the JCC has never been higher. Still, there was some sheepish conversation about the fact that as a percentage of overall membership and utilization of the JCC, the proportion of Jews has declined somewhat. It seems the JCC’s growing success is increasingly drawing a crowd.
In several discussions, introspection about these demographic trends and their implications for the evolving vision of the community and the JCC were notable, and I found myself reflecting on prior conversations I’ve had during my five-plus years at JCC Association. How many times have significant voices in the Jewish community questioned the legitimacy of JCCs as instruments for building and strengthening Jewish life, given the often-substantial proportion of non-Jewish members and users? Such questions sometimes were accompanied by others about the perception that JCC content is “Jewish lite.”
Such questions stay with me, especially because at one time they reflected my own thoughts about this field. Prompted by a friend’s encouragement to consider becoming a candidate for my current position, I took a deep dive into the nature and impact of JCCs that profoundly affected my outlook. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own change in disposition and how it made me realize that if I wanted to be part of the most significant engine for the pursuit of something better for the North American Jewish community, the JCC Movement was the unrivaled place to be. That sentiment was quite apparent once more in Kansas City this week.
The J KC, as it is known, is a profoundly Jewish place. The richness and diversity of Jewish programming and content is found in every corner of the facility, which is replete with Jewish art, Hebrew, and a palpable love of Israel and the Jewish people that envelopes members and visitors from the moment they come through its doors. The visual elements are brought to life by the warmth and graciousness of the staff and the seemingly routine presence of board members and lay leaders—at one and the same time, members, ambassadors, and hosts.
The achievements of this great JCC are these: In the face of the odd juxtaposition of a growing Jewish population and broadly declining participation in the wider Jewish community, the number of Jews and Jewish families who engage at the JCC has never been higher and continues to grow. That larger numbers of their friends and neighbors from other faiths and backgrounds also come in droves is a sign of great strength, not weakness. Under the leadership of CEO Jim Sluyter and Board Chair Diane Azorsky, this JCC is the most powerful instrument for the pursuit of a brighter Jewish future in greater Kansas City. It is the preeminent platform for collaboration and partnership across Jewish institutions and organizations and the warm and welcoming living room of the Jewish community—the place where people come to be together. Its overflowing programs and long waiting lists compel a conversation about the need to do more—and I was honored to confer with Jim, Diane, and other leaders about opportunities to do precisely that.
Kansas City is home to a great JCC, but it is far from unique in that respect. JCCs across the continent welcome more than a million and a half people through their doors each week—a million of them are Jews of every age, background, and description. These agencies are unrivaled in their reach—and in the extent of their engagement with the Jews who make up their communities.
The more than half a million friends and neighbors from beyond the Jewish community—who, each week, choose JCCs to do things they might do elsewhere just as easily—make JCCs the largest platform for grassroots community relations. Their experiences with us inform their impressions of the Jewish people and the part we play together to make our communities great places to live our lives. Their involvement is the dividend on our investment in strengthening Jewish community and enhancing the vibrancy of Jewish life.
May we go from strength to strength.
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America