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Place Is a Strategy, Not a Mission

From time to time, JCC Association of North America invites leaders from the movement to share their ideas and insights with our constituents. In this week’s Shabbat Shalom message, we are pleased to feature Mark Sokoll’s words of wisdom.


By Mark Sokoll

Like many Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), synagogues, and other Jewish organizations, we have big plans for this Sunday. We will host 500 kids and adults at our Hanukkah Festival and Marketplace here at the Leventhal-Sidman JCC in Newton, Massachusetts. The festival will feature local artisans, live music, games, candle lighting, sufganiot (donuts), and hot chocolate. Being the hardy New Englanders we are, we’ll bundle up to enjoy these events—most of which will be outside! This celebration will mark the culmination of a series of regional programs run by our Family Engagement and Jewish Life (FEJL) Department across cities and towns in Greater Boston.

Born more than a decade ago, the department launched with two staff members and 75 subscriptions to a new program called PJ Library. On the eve of the pandemic, FEJL had 23 staff members managing 9,300 monthly subscriptions to PJ Library and with the incredible support of our local federation and the brilliant innovators at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, we believe we are filling the pipeline for the future of the Jewish community. A rising tide that will raise all boats.

We are thrilled we will be back at the JCC for Sunday’s Hanukkah homecoming. Hinei ma tov u’mah na’im, how good it will be to be together—back in our shared place.

“Place” is an extremely important concept to the Jewish people, especially for those of us who spend so much of our volunteer and professional careers working at and for JCCs. In Jewish tradition, one of the names for God, the Source of all creation, is “HaMakom,” which can also be translated as “The Place.” Place grounds and gathers us, reminds us of home and traditions, helps us look across generations and time, makes us feel good.

However, JCCs are in the business of Jewish identity and community building; we’re not in the business of place. Place is a strategy, not a mission. In her 2001 book, “Evolve!: Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter states: “Community is an idea, not a geographic location. A community exists because many people think it does and define themselves as part of it.”

CJP, JCC Greater Boston, and the local Solomon Schechter Day School undertook an intensive study of what families need and want from the Jewish community in Greater Boston. It revealed that families are hungry for family-centered experiences and market-driven quality that make their participation worthwhile time and time again. They want experiences that are in their neighborhoods, are easy to navigate, make them feel welcomed, and include personalized options for what they can do next. Fortunately, PJ Library’s subscription trends provide us with a zip code map of where families with younger children are living, moving to, and moving from—giving us actionable data so we can design and deliver programming directly to families and their communities.

This contemporary way of defining a community that families want to be part of is transformational. It demands that we shift our thinking from being place-centric in providing programs and services to becoming a platform that connects, mobilizes, and empowers people in ways that work for them, wherever they are geographically and demographically and based on their psychographics about what motivates them to engage in Jewish life. The study also found that ease of access, physically and digitally; consistently high-quality content; and a collaborative, supportive, and non-judgmental network of organizations are paramount to effective, successful community building.

Our job, as in the days of our teachers, Abraham and Sarah, is to keep the tent flaps up as a sign of audacious hospitality and welcome; to be ready to repeatedly assemble and disassemble the tent all along the journey; and to make sure it is always close by—ideally within walking distance or only a short ride away.

Tonight, we will light two sets of candles, one for Shabbat, one to celebrate the sixth night of Hanukkah.

The Festival of Lights teaches us about the profound sacrifice required to protect places that are sacred and central to the community—like the Temple in Jerusalem—even though a fractured society faces much uncertainty about the future. Yet the story is about much more than the restoration of a place. Hanukkah is also a legacy, like so much of our history, of resistance and adaptability and of the inevitability of change.

I am certain that together we can rise to these challenges, bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, in these days and at this special and unique time.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach,
Mark Sokoll

Mark Sokoll is the president and CEO of JCC Greater Boston in Newton, Massachusetts.

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