JCC Biennial Celebrates History, Looks to Future

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The officials gathered to share their unique successes, discuss their concerns and look at how the continually evolving Jewish community poses challenges and opportunities for JCCs.

BALTIMORE — More than 500 representatives of Jewish Community Centers from around the world convened here May 15 to 18 for the JCCs of North America Biennial.
The officials gathered to share their unique successes, discuss their concerns and look at how the continually evolving Jewish community poses challenges and opportunities for JCCs.
“We’re constantly looking for new ideas that can inspire new programs, attract people to be involved with lay leadership and volunteer, inspire staff and create partnerships,” said Barak Hermann, president of the JCC of Greater Baltimore. “We have growing needs from our membership in our community and, like any other nonprofit or JCC, we’re constantly looking for strategies to meet those needs, to drive those revenues we need to maintain our 160 years of being a JCC.”
The biennial allowed JCC professionals and leaders at all levels and employed in all disciplines chances to connect with their peers and refine their skills. There were sessions for JCCs of all sizes on fundraising, programming, young leaders and all JCC programs, such as the Maccabi Games and Artfests, arts and culture, camps, fitness and board development.
There was a particular focus on engaging key JCC demographics — baby boomers, millennials and teenagers.
Stephen Seiden, chair of the JCC Association, noted that the 2016 biennial featured delegations from 90 JCCs, 45 participants from the Esther Leah Ritz Emerging JCC Leaders Institute, 24 overseas delegates from JCC Global and guests from 11 countries in addition to the U.S. and Canada, such as Israel, Mexico, Poland, Spain, France and Bulgaria.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to learn with Jews from around the globe. As we’re all aware, participants from some of these communities have experienced increased anti-Semitism or have endured troubled, terrible acts of terror,” Seiden said. “Being together here gives us a profound sense of peoplehood at a time that I know we all need it.”
The keynote speaker was Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the American arm of the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
Stern recalled memories of traveling to African countries and seeing the effects of malnourishment in children, watching an infant suffering from tetanus die in front of her and what it means for women to give birth in third world countries — a stark contrast to how she herself gave birth in a Manhattan hospital surrounded by family.
Meantime, the JCC Association’s interim president, Alan Mann, conducted an imaginary conversation with his eventual successor. He explained why he came out of retirement to lead the organization.
 “There’s something special about what the JCC does for people who enter its doors and the community as a whole,” Mann said.
However, he acknowledged, “We’re going to have to figure out new ways to do business as communities shift and how to stay relevant and meet the needs of an ever changing Jewish world.”
Staying relevant was a common theme, factoring into one day’s discussion about teens, millennials and baby boomers, and what makes them tick, misconceptions and their commonalities.
Dr. David Bryfman, chief innovation officer of the Jewish educational project, fielded questions about teenagers.
Bryfman, who represented what he called “the most narcissistic, egotistical” generation, related the issue to teenagers, who like millennials, are sometimes put off by organized religious institutions.
“[People who ask this question] don’t get it… [they’re] not coming back,” Bryfman said. “Stop thinking of [teenagers] as your failure, [and] start thinking of [them] as your success,” he said, emphasizing the fact teenagers have gone off and are exploring religion in their own ways, and that is a reflection of their strong relationship with religion, rather than a failure in their upbringing.
JCC directors from around the region were eager to learn from their peers.
“It is the single-best opportunity to bring the leadership of JCCs from around the world together and to hear from, learn from each other about what’s happening,” said Les Cohen, executive director of the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill. “Most of us are finding business is a little bit different than it was even five years ago, certainly 10 years ago, in terms of revenue streams. So it is good to hear what else is going on, how [others] are solving this.”
The Katz JCC was recognized for programmatic excellence and user management at the biennial.
Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, said he always looks for ideas that he can adapt in his hometown.
“You have to be innovating all of your program areas all the time, so part of that is trying to build a culture that’s always innovating at the ground level,” he said. “So one of our mantras is ‘How do we create innovation up, down and all around?’”
On the innovation side of things, Schreiber’s JCC recently started a live web chat option on its website that is staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. For messages sent outside of those hours, staffers get back to people within 24 hours.
In keeping with the sharing of best practices, executives shared some successes at a session for JCCs in metro areas.
Schreiber spoke about his JCC’s PJ Library ambassador program. In an effort to engage families with young children, the JCC hired young moms who were not working to serve as PJ ambassadors, and the program grew from five in-facility programs to 21 community programs that took place at the zoo, Barnes and Noble, congregations and homes. Families came out in droves for an afikomen hunt on city blocks and matzah pizza at a local Italian bakery.
In addition, the JCC of Greater Baltimore mentioned its community block party, which will be held for the third time on June 5. While not all stakeholders bought into the idea at first, the party saw the JCC invite secular and religious organizations, including those with competing swim programs, schools and camps.
Other topics discussed included how to attract different demographics, the forming of partnerships with leading health care systems, offering extensive arts programming and accommodating both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities in the same facility.
Marc Shapiro and Justin Katz write for the Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.

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