What exactly does that mean?
It means that there are nearly 80 executives from Jewish Community Centers large and small from across the US and Canada meeting here for two and half days to compare notes, learn best practices and come away with new tools to lead their agencies. Their presence, taking-up most of the first-floor of the building, has prodded me to think a bit more about the 16th Street J as being part of a movement of JCCs dating back to the very first, just up I-95 in Baltimore, back in 1854.
That first generation of JCCs (back then they were called Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Associations — YMHAs and YWHAs or just Ys) grew up in-tandem with the settlement house movement, in which the middle and upper classes sought to alleviate urban poverty by bringing them arts and culture. In the Jewish community this meant the more established Jews, mostly of German ancestry, providing a mechanism for their poorer Eastern European co-religionists to accultrate into American society. The movement has certainly come a long way since then and has in a sense been turned on its head. An institution first created to remind Jews how to act like Americans, now exists to remind Americans how to act like Jews.
Now, the professional leaders of that movement have gathered here to take stock of where we are and where we are headed. And seeing them gather is a bit like witnessing a family reunion. There are friends and rivals, people who haven’t seen each other since last year’s conference and others for whom this is their first conference as a JCC executive director. There are still noticably more men than women, although women are by no means absent. In fact, the television set-up in the lobby for the purpose of conference attendees being able to keep tabs on the NFL playoffs has been monopolized entirely by women — none more demonstrative than Ann Eisen of JCCA and Dori Denelle of the JCC of Greater St. Paul, who have camped out in the lobby between sessions in full Saints and Purple People Eater gear.
There is a spirit of collegiality that I’ve found comforting. Every JCC is different, even as every Jewish community with its local concerns and demographics is different. In our region there are large differences in constituency, program content and physical facilities between the JCCs in DC, Baltimore, Rockville and Northern Virginia. Spend enough time in your own building wrapped-up in the drama of your own problems and you can begin to develop the misapprehension that your JCC has nothing in-common with any other JCC. That’s simply not true either.
JCCs have enormous challenges before them: increasing assimilation, greater competition for “Jewish” philanthropy dollars, maintaining high-mission but low-revenue programs for seniors, positioning their services as attractive to non-Jewish neighbors while still retaining an essential Jewish mission, harnessing the potential of social media to expand their place in the community as opposed to being replaced by it. The odds are daunting, but if good will is a necessary first step, I think we can say we’ve gotten at least that far.