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.


Why the Jewish Federation’s Super Sunday Doesn’t Suck

button-supersundayAt the risk of losing whatever credibility I might have established for this blog’s attempt to walk the line between adhering to organizationally approved messaging and an authentic, opinionated voice engaged in a dialogue on the interwebs; I rise in defense of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Super Sunday. It takes place this Sunday (duh), February 22.

That’s right. I rise in defense of the annual ritual which many active and semi-active members of the Jewish community deride for combining the subtlety of a flim-flam phone solicitor with the charm of a maternal guilt trip. For many this day alone justifies the annual expense of caller i.d. For others, it is a chore dutifully awaited with the dread approximating that of a colonoscopy–somewhat uncomfortable, mildly humiliating, easily (natch) ridiculed, but ultimately good for you and your family.

And I’m here to say, “Get over it.”

Let’s deal with a few of the standard objections:

I don’t like being asked to give money to Israel.
However you feel about Israel and its government (if they have one yet), you’re not paying for F-16s or tear gas. Rather the money is distributed through partner agencies which include the Jewish Agency for Israel and is generally used for such devious purposes as aiding new immigrants, the poor and disadvantaged.  Although the reality is that a great deal of the money is used to support local agencies (including my employer) that probably have affected your life for the better at some point or another. If you got something against JCCs, Jewish day schools, summer camps, group homes for the disabled and hot nutrition programs for the elderly, then by all means hang up.

I don’t like giving money over the phone.
Fine you can give online. Do it soon enough and we won’t call you. Although I better not catch you ordering from a catalog over the phone or prepaying for that Chinese delivery.

I don’t like calling and asking strangers for money.
That’s fine, there are other ways to help. But, really, unless you have extreme phone-anxiety, that reason is a little bit of a cop-out. If you want a Jewish community you have to step up and help make it happen. When you make a call, succeed or fail, you’re helping to make it happen. There’s a script you can follow, and not everyone you call is going to be a jerk to you. In fact, on many calls I’ve made, there’s a tacit agreement that the caller and the called are to perform the ritual of asking for a pledge and then giving it in some increment of $18.  It is perfunctory, but oddly satisfying.

Come on, doesn’t the Red Cross or Amnesty International need the money more?
I bet you give your money somewhere. Okay. How well do they spend it? Do you give to the Red Cross? Human Rights Campaign? Amnesty International? Local public radio or tv? The Boys and Girls Club? According to Charity Navigator, an online watchdog of non-profit efficiency (or lack thereof), the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has a higher overall rating than any of those (JFGW’s 65.84 vs. 49.2, 56.62, 47.3 and 50.87 and 48.98 respectively). Don’t even get me started on the Boy Scouts (bunch of degenerates).

Aren’t you trying a little too hard? Can there really be anything cool about Super Sunday?
I don’t know, is this girl cool? Finally, tell me this girl isn’t cool AND raising money for the Jewish community? [UPDATE: The embedding doesn’t work, but double click on the image or follow this link to YouTube. Believe me, it is worth it.]

See you Sunday.

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