Park51 (not the Ground Zero Mosque) as seen from my desk at the Washington DCJCC

It is perhaps stating the obvious to declare that I believe in community centers. In particular, I believe in the important role our Washington DC Jewish Community Center plays in the life of the local Jewish community, the neighborhood we call home and the program participants of all faiths (and lack thereof) from near and far who find themselves in our facility for any number of reasons. As an American who finds his patriotism most firmly in the exceptional diversity and pluralism of the United States, I am especially proud that our Jewish Community Center sits just down the street from the White House. In short, community centers matter. The location of community centers matter. Which is why it has been especially difficult to observe the acrimony, intolerance and clumsy public debate that has accompanied the so-called Ground Zero mosque, more properly known first as Cordoba House and now as Park51.

My personal feelings aside, our organization has no official position on whether or not an Islamic Cultural Center should be built in the neighborhood surrounding the former site of the World Trade Center. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that Park51 is explicitly trying to emulate the role of a JCC — and even consulted with the Executive Director of the Manhattan JCC who advised her to have plenty of space for stroller parking. (Quick fact: leaders of the Manhattan JCC paid a visit to 16th and Q when they were planning their building for ideas on how to structure a new urban JCC. To this day, we both struggle with stroller parking.) The facts seem to be that legally, there is nothing that ought to prevent such a center from being built — presuming factors such as zoning and other vagaries of construction in New York are not impediments.

My personal belief from the limited research I have done is that the spirit and mission of the proposed Center send a powerful message about the resilience of American democracy and offers a platform for mainstream Muslims to demonstrate their participation in and contributions to that democratic culture. My limited research has also shown that while there are passionate people of goodwill behind the Park51 project, they may ironically have lacked the community building skills needed to bring a project like this through to fruition. One needs more than passion to create the community that Park51 proposes, you need political savvy and a public relations plan — both of which have been painfully absent, evidenced best by their surprise at the backlash they now face. One would hope that they could respond to the outrage they face with more persuasive material than an intern’s snarky tweets and their own righteous outrage.

Lofty beliefs and magnanimous gestures are not always received in the same manner in which they are offered. Where the founders of Park51 thought they were offering to create a beacon of tolerance, others chose to see an arrogant monument of Islamic triumphalism. Then there are those who do not embrace that particular hysteria, but come out against it based on an argument that boils down to, “I’m sorry but we’re just not ready. It’s not you, it’s me. Perhaps we can still be friends?” Others point to the parallel of the ill-conceived Carmelite convent that was to be built on the grounds of Auschwitz — no matter how pure the intentions, the locale makes such a presence sacrilege. Still others argue is that while there ought to be nothing preventing an Islamic Cultural Center proximate to the site of a national trauma, a political climate absurd enough to provoke an official statement from the White House as to the President’s religious affiliation makes this at best an inconvenient and unnecessary battle and at worst, provides fuel with which to further derange the body politic.

How on earth do we ever get ourselves out of this place? Is there a way to move forward without moving backwards? My hope is that Park51 does get built, and that over time it proves its worth in building bridges and healing the pathological distrust our culture has developed in response to anything Muslim. But one seldom cures a pathology without treatment, and it may be that at this moment the patient is too sick to take this particular medicine. That would be a shame.

If Park51 has no other goal, it is  to reclaim Islam from the 19 criminals whose perverted fervor gave us the trauma of 9/11. To provide a space where an Islamic culture can be in a constant process of creative and dynamic exchange with what gets lumped together as “Western Culture” is an important step in that on-going project.

At our finest moments, that is what the Washington DCJCC achieves — serving as a nexus for the vibrant, multitudinous and often contradictory expressions of modern Jewish culture and then bringing them into creative tension with everything else the world beyond our doors has to offer. The results are by turns thrilling and disappointing, deeply transformative to some and profoundly upsetting to others; and more often something somewhat in-between ecstasy and tragedy. From the diversity of the kids and parents at family night of our summer camp, to the unbridled voices on our stages and screens, to the unlikely alliances formed on our volunteer projects, to the hesitant embrace of a rediscovered Jewish identity by a participant in our GLBT outreach programs, there are small moments every day here that testify to the power of a community center. It is an energy that enriches our Judaism, our neighborhood, and being six-blocks from the White House may I be so bold to say, our country and our world. It is that potential (and perhaps old-fashioned American optimism) that makes me hope that Park51 can become a reality.

JCCA Brings its Executive Seminar Conference to DC

We’re proud to be hosting the JCC’s of North America Association’s annual Executive Seminar Conference this week.

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.

Ann Eisen of JCCA in Saints gear and Dori Denelle, Executive Director of the JCC of Greater St. Paul

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.


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