For Amy Krulik, the CEO of the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center in Wynnewood, the little things now have a big impact.
“I just find it so amazing to look out my office window and see a group of 7-year-old boys, all with face masks, sprinting full speed across the field,” she said. “It’s such relief and pure joy in motion. It fills my heart in a way that, in the age of COVID-19, we’re looking for those opportunities.”
Since 1968, the Kaiserman JCC has been a welcoming and inclusive environment where Jewish values inspire excellent social, recreational, educational, cultural and humanitarian activities that embrace our identity and connection to Israel. The center is home to the region’s premier health and wellness facility; preschool and after-school programs; summer camp; sports classes and leagues; adult education classes; and Jewish holiday celebrations.
On March 12, Kaiserman was the first JCC in the country to be formally closed by government mandate.
“We were as surprised as anyone when the order came down,” Krulik said. “We had to close immediately and regroup in the middle of the preschool year, and we had to make decisions very quickly when it came to virtual learning and programs.”
While challenges abounded, Krulik also understood it was an
opportunity for innovation and discovery.
For example, her staff had discussed the possibility of running virtual health and wellness programs for years. And now its virtual fitness classes have been a huge hit, engaging people across the country and even across the world. Krulik noted the classes have attracted individuals from as far away as Ecuador, as well as a mother and daughter who do the classes together even though they live in separate states.
“It’s a time to be together and have a shared experience,” Krulik noted. “It wasn’t in our thought process before.”
While many of their virtual programs were highly effective, the Kaiserman team knew the biggest challenge of all would be camp. Every summer, the JCC runs both day and overnight camps for infants, children and pre-teens. Krulik and her team were confident that camp would still happen, and placed an early order for supplies to make sure it would.
The challenge was not only to find a way to keep a traditional camp experience but also staying up on the guidelines and rules from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials while keeping everyone safe.
Krulik credited the Montgomery County Office of Public Health with helping to determine what camp could look like. And with that guidance, the JCC came up with a plan.
Krulik described the current camp experience as an orchestrated ballet. Bunks, which normally have 16 kids, are now smaller with structured time and movement. The schedules accommodate strict directions to move between programs and locations and also allow time for deeper bunk cleanings. The structure keeps everyone safe and also ensures that, if COVID-19 were to get into a bunk, it would be restricted just to that bunk and wouldn’t spread further.
“We’re trying to create an environment that feels as familiar and exciting and engaging as possible for kids and staff,” Krulik said. “And we’ve also found that the extra downtime has been hugely beneficial. It allows for time to forge friendships and hang out and do gimp and origami and play games. Our campers can now do the stuff that truly caters to friendship.”
“We have done a great job adapting to the challenges of COVID,” Kaiserman JCC Board President Cindy Smukler said. “From modifying our camp program to meet CDC and Montco Department of Public Health guidelines to creating a whole new process to allow for the reopening our pool and fitness center, we are being flexible and resilient in the face of constantly changing guidelines and regulations. We are also thinking ahead to September and are planning an innovative full-day enrichment program for children for when they are
not in school.”
As local school districts grapple with how to reopen in the fall, Kaiserman knows it will also need to adapt.
The center runs a large, robust after-school program, including group pickups from nine elementary schools. The JCC is working on its own response to any hybrid or virtual school plan, and will also be putting together art and physical education programs for local kids who likely won’t be able to get the same programs at their schools.
While the past few months have been unbelievably challenging, they’ve also opened the door for hybrid programming that can easily adapt to changing restrictions. The JCC is looking for a new kind of virtual platform that will allow staff to switch seamlessly between virtual and small in-person programs.
“Every question has many layers that can be frustrating but also satisfying and rewarding as you start to figure it out,” Krulik said. “We’ve had to figure out how to create familiar and engaging experiences in the middle of a pandemic. Being flexible and agile in your planning and thinking is necessary. And it actually can be really fun to figure it out!”