In 2022, Jewish Community Centers remain what they have always been: community centers.
Or, as several local JCC leaders explained, whatever their communities need them to be.
The only difference is, nowadays, JCCs do not need to provide safe spaces for Jewish residents who aren’t always accepted in the broader community. Luckily, Jews today don’t face that kind of discrimination.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t need their old, reliable community centers. In four regions of the Philadelphia area, at least, they very much do.
On the Pennsylvania side, the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood and KleinLife in Northeast Philadelphia, which is not technically a JCC but serves a similar function, help nearby residents of all ages. In New Jersey, Cherry Hill’s Katz JCC and Margate’s Milton & Betty Katz JCC do the same.
Each organization, though, has a business model that is slightly unique compared to the others. After all, different populations in the region have different needs.
The Kaiserman JCC largely serves a Main Line area with wealthy families, so it caters its programming to core family needs.
Kaiserman’s most successful programs are its summer camp, Camp Kef, and its preschool, The Robert J. Wilf Preschool. Kef welcomed between 450 and 465 kids last summer, and Robert J. Wilf has its highest enrollment in years in 2021-22.
Beyond those two needs, Kaiserman leaders are still figuring out what else their families might want. In 2022, CEO Alan Scher, who started there last July, is in the process of meeting with more than 100 members.
So far, the Wynnewood JCC is working in fitness classes for older adults, cultural events like Chanukah parties and local partnerships like a spring plan to host games and practices with the Lower Merion Little League.
Scher has worked at five JCCs across the country. When he was just starting out, he called Brian Schreiber, the CEO of the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, for advice.
“He said, ‘The JCC in Pittsburgh keeps families in Pittsburgh,’” Scher recalled.
You could apply that same statement to the community centers in South Jersey.
Both the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill and the Milton & Betty Katz JCC in Margate are similar to Kaiserman: They focus on the families in their region.
The Cherry Hill community center serves about 300 students in its preschool, the Sari Isdaner Early Childhood Center, and almost 2,000 in its summer camp, the JCC Camps at Medford.
Unlike Kaiserman leaders, though, who are reevaluating their workout space, Katz JCC leaders call fitness and wellness their “heart and soul,” said Bryan Lentine, the facility’s sports and leagues director.
Katz has a workout room, pools, group classes, adult leagues, youth leagues and pickleball, among other offerings. The fitness room is “crowded all the time,” Lentine said.
“The generations who have been here in the past are loyal to the facility,” he added. “Their parents went here, and now their kids come here.”
The Margate JCC takes a similar approach but to a longer geographical area. Most of the Cherry Hill facility’s regulars come from Cherry Hill, Voorhees and Marlton. But the Margate organization draws people from as far south as Cape May, according to CEO Marg Rosenblatt.
Rosenblatt’s institution also sees its largest demand during the summer months when vacationers come down the shore. She described her JCC’s summer camp, the Camp By The Sea, as “huge.”
But with the Margate area’s recent uptick in year-round residents, Rosenblatt’s preschool, the Early Childhood Education Center, is up to more than 130 students.
The shore also has fewer gyms around, according to Rosenblatt. So in the summer, the Milton & Betty Katz JCC welcomes more than 5,000 people to its 4,500-square-foot fitness area.
“It becomes a family place,” Rosenblatt said. “Parents drop their kids off and then workout.”
KleinLife in Northeast Philly, like its JCC contemporaries, is also a family place. It’s just not serving wealthier suburbanites and/or shore vacationers.
Andre Krug, KleinLife’s president and CEO, describes his organization’s mission as “social services” for seniors, immigrants and children.
Northeast Philly has the largest senior and immigrant populations in the city, according to Krug. It also has a lot of young families who have been gentrified out of Center City. Most of the seniors, too, bring in less than $24,000 a year.
So, KleinLife’s biggest program is not preschool or summer camp or fitness: It’s lunch. In 2021, the organization delivered and served, via grab-and-go due to the pandemic, 90,000 meals to area residents.
But Krug and his team do still offer traditional JCC services as well, like fitness programs for seniors, after-school programs for kids and a summer camp for kids. The CEO estimates that between 600 and 700 people enter his building per day, though that number is down from about 2,000 before the pandemic.
“We’re never closed,” he said.
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