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Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor… | שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם Shabbat Shalom I 19 Adar II 5784

Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor… | לא עליך המלאכה לגמור


“It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”
—R. Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:16

Seven years ago, I began an extraordinary journey of discovery. Though I’d worked in the Jewish community for more than a quarter century, I was new to the world of Jewish community centers. Sure, I’d had some exposure to them over the years, but I didn’t know them. I’d been convinced by a friend to learn more when an unexpected invitation arrived to meet with the search committee looking for a new senior executive for JCC Association of North America. What I discovered altered the course of my life.

One hundred and seventy-two JCCs across Canada and the United States operate hundreds of sites and summer camps that welcome more than 1.5 million people a week. A million and a half people routinely come through the doors for dozens of programs, services, or activities. A million of them are Jews. A million Jews a week of every age, background, and disposition. At a time of declining participation in many aspects of Jewish life, JCCs continue to bring our community together in all its remarkable diversity. A place for individuals, of course, but also for families—generations of families. What an extraordinary opportunity. What a tremendous responsibility.

Beyond this unrivaled Jewish encounter, a half million more are coming too. They come from every corner of the wider communities we serve to be part of the JCC, week after week. In so doing they have made us the most significant place on the Jewish communal landscape at which these friends and neighbors encounter Jewish life, Jewish culture, Jewish symbols, and the Jewish homeland. It’s where they come to know us. Us. Today. Not from headlines or history but as part of our extended circle. We are theirs and they are ours. What could be more important and more meaningful for community builders?

These numbers speak for themselves, yet they don’t tell the whole story. Although every JCC is unique—a reflection of the local Jewish community’s wants, needs, and ambitions—together they operate more than 150 day camps and 24 overnight camps. They employ tens of thousands of professionals and are home to the continent’s largest network of early childhood Jewish education programs. Their expansive facilities and campuses house Jewish organizations of nearly every description, and they are the go-to place for many of the Jewish community’s largest and most important events.

Despite all the success and prosperity we’ve enjoyed as a Jewish community, we were still scuffling a bit—not nearly as cohesive nor committed as we used to be. If there was a place to try to move the needle, owing to the size, scope, and scale of this remarkable network, this was it. I had to be part of it. And as a result of the search committee’s readiness to take a chance on a newcomer, I got my wish. And what an extraordinary seven years it’s been.

Seven years of discovery as I learned the nuances of a notably diverse network of institutions and the similarly diverse Jewish communities that call them home. Seven years of relationship building with a cadre of leaders, both professional and lay, who perhaps bear the largest responsibilities not only for our present as a Jewish community but also for our future. Seven years of outreach, consciousness-raising, and engagement in and with the wider Jewish community across its magnificent array of organizations and institutions—perhaps the most expansive in the history of Diaspora Jewry.

Like me, so many had a sense of what JCCs do while lacking real familiarity and understanding of their unique positioning and unrivaled potential. Service organizations and religious institutions. Educational and programmatic entities. Funders and philanthropists. I came to revel in the opportunity to share what I’d seen and what I’d learned. How could others not have known? How could I? After all, JCCs have been in business since the first one opened its doors in Baltimore in 1854. And yet, I didn’t know, so why should we assume that others would?

All that potential and opportunity, and then came the showcase, though it was not in the manner any of us would have wanted. During these seven years, we’ve navigated a series of unprecedented crises. A wave of bomb threats found us joining hands with one another and with peer institutions in every threatened community to ensure the safety and security of all. The Tree of Life massacre and a spate of violent antisemitism brought us together in solidarity and determination in a safe space to foster resolve and resilience. The pandemic obliged us to give new meaning to safe spaces as we offered precisely that to essential workers and their families and retooled to also become distribution centers for human services of every description and the anchors for community recovery and re-emergence. Following October 7, we rallied around the flag in solidarity with Israel and have begun work on ways to contend with the disturbing rising tide of antisemitism plaguing our communities, and our societies.

In a decades-long career, I have never experienced anything like the parade of crises that marked these years. And yet, as seems to happen so often in our history, crisis brought us together, and together this network, this movement, has risen to the occasion, time after time.

This is my final Friday message as CEO of JCC Association. In the wake of October 7, I am eager to devote my time and energy to the emerging needs in Israel and to the fight with those who have put Jews in the crosshairs. As I sort out the specifics of where I’ll land professionally, Janet and I will be heading back to Israel, where we can be of greatest support for our son and his young family during this time of harrowing uncertainty.

Before I close, I want to leave you with a few final thoughts.

To the leaders of JCCs in every neighborhood, town, and city across North America: Thank you for your steadfast dedication and your tireless efforts to manage the enormity of your responsibilities. You are far more than the leaders of Jewish institutions. You are—and must be—Jewish leaders, the authors of the next chapter of American and Canadian Jewish history.

To those in the wider Jewish communal world, the agencies, institutions, and funders: We have been honored by your growing recognition of our potential, but we have so much more to do. JCCs are an unrivaled partner for you, an unparalleled opportunity for the fulfillment of your strategic hopes and dreams. I hope you’ll find the kind of inspiration I did and join hands with this extraordinary movement because together, there is no limit to what we can achieve. And we’re on the clock. There are no guarantees that a million Jewish visitors a week will always be there. Now. Now is the time to link elbows.

To the board and staff of JCC Association: Thank you for giving me two gifts of inestimable value. The chance to be part of this team and the trust and faith you placed in me to help guide and shape its work.

To the readers of this weekly message: I can’t adequately express my gratitude to you for allowing me a place in your busy lives and for taking time to hear my voice as I tried to provide a little perspective on the ebbs and flows of the Jewish world. I intend to keep writing—reflections on the dynamics around Israel and the Jewish people—and have set up a Substack of my own that will serve as the cost-free vehicle, and I humbly invite you to subscribe. It has been a privilege to be in contact with so many of you over these years, and I hope that will continue.

These are perilous times in the Jewish world, and more will be required of us.

Rabbi Tarfon, about whom we will read more in the Passover Haggadah in a few short weeks, left us a particular pearl of wisdom in Pirkei Avot (Wisdom of the Elders) 2:16: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

Am Yisrael Chai. | .עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל חַי

Shabbat shalom. |.שַׁבַּת שָׁלוֹם

Doron Krakow
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America

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