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‘JCCs stand out for their strength and vitality,’ says national board member

A woman speaks at a podium during the LJCC annual meeting
Kara Bierman, a board member of JCC Association of North America, spoke to a full house at The J’s annual meeting on January 28.

At our annual meeting on January 28 we were excited to welcome Kara Bierman, a JCC Association of North America board member who drove to us that morning from Memphis. On short notice, she had graciously agreed to fill in for Doron Krakow, the president and CEO of JCCANA who was unable to attend.

Ms. Bierman’s keynote address, “Why Jewish Community Centers matter now more than ever,” presented a vivid picture of the growing influence of JCCs across the country. While synagogue attendance has declined dramatically and contributions to Jewish Federations have noticeably slowed, she said, North American JCCs stand out for their strength and vitality as they operate nearly 400 unique institutions “throughout the neighborhoods, towns, and cities they call home. Between them, they welcome more than one and a half million people through their doors each and every week throughout the year” – including more than one million Jews. “In nearly every Jewish community, the JCC engages more Jews and a more diverse representation of Jews than any other organization or institution.”

And, she adds, half a million non-Jews choose JCCs “for something that they might just as easily do somewhere else, but that they prefer to do here – with us.”

The full text of Ms. Bierman’s address appears below.

Why Jewish Community Centers matter now more than ever

Kara Bierman, Board Member of JCC Association of North America

January 28, 2024

I want to begin by extending my thanks. My thanks to Brooke, your wonderful chief executive – to outgoing board president Hilton Berger, and to incoming President Isa Dorsky. Thank you for inviting me to be with you this morning. Doron Krakow, JCC Association’s president and CEO, had been very much looking forward to being with you this weekend and deeply regrets the change in plans. I was honored when he asked me to stand in for him.

I want to thank you for leading. Being a Jewish community leader is no small task. Nor is leading a major Jewish institution. As a former chair of the board of the JCC in Memphis, I know something about the scope of responsibility you bear. I know about your fiduciary obligations, about the burdens of oversight and of managing through professional transition. I know that the ebbs and flows of the community agenda impact the work and our priorities. I know what it means to partner with sister agencies – with the Jewish Federation, with congregational leaders. I know. And on behalf of Doron, of David Wax, who chairs the JCC Association Board, and our entire continental leadership – I am grateful.

And everything I’ve described is true… in normal times. But “normal” is hardly the way would describe these past few years. Years that have been defined by growing safety and security concerns, by a global pandemic, and now by the aftermath of the horrific events of October 7 – the wholesale slaughter of innocent Israelis in their homes and at a music festival dedicated to peace. I returned from Israel on Thursday morning following a 10-day visit with my husband, Paul, built around a solidarity mission of 40 of the top leaders of our field. I will come back to that topic a bit later in my remarks.

The early days

The first “JCC,” though it wasn’t called that, opened its doors in Philadelphia in the early 1850s. A short time later, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association or “YMHA” opened in Baltimore, and that remarkable institution, today known as the Baltimore JCC, will mark its 170th anniversary later this year. By the start of the 20th century there were more than 100 YMHAs across the US. And it wasn’t long before Canadian Jewish communities joined our growing network.

These early JCCs were bound by common purpose. To serve as a gathering place for young Jewish men seeking to make their way in their adopted country – having come here from Jewish communities across Europe in search of a better life, of opportunities to escape the perils and persecution of a rising tide of antisemitism. To develop skills and understanding about making their way in a society that promised increasing freedom and opportunity. Make no mistake. It wasn’t a bed of roses. Jews were seen as outsiders. They were frequently unwelcome in the other places to which Americans and Canadians turned in pursuit of greater community and better lives. They would need to work harder. To develop professional and vocational skills. They would need to build the infrastructure that would support and sustain Jewish community. They would require a center of gravity around which so much more would become possible.

The early leaders of what became the JCC movement were a who’s who of luminary Jewish names. Warburg, Schiff, Marshall, and many more. They became the architects of Jewish community and at the center – the Y, or today’s JCC.

In time, of course, the North American Jewish community prospered. Congregational Judaism grew and evolved. The Jewish community gradually developed the apparatus that is so familiar to us today. Jewish family services and senior centers, summer camps and day schools, early childhood programs and those supporting special needs. Local entities were coupled with the expansion of an alphabet soup of national organizations like Bnai Brith and Hadassah, the American Jewish committee, and countless others. Zionist movements. Jewish labor movements. Movements for civil rights and social justice. I am hard-pressed to imagine a community that has a more evolved organizational infrastructure than ours. But the one true constant in our lives and in our world is change.

A woman speaks at a podium during the LJCC annual meeting
“Amidst these trends, there is one significant place in the Jewish community that stands out for its strength and vitality: the JCC.”

The decline of venerable organizations

With greater achievement and prosperity came a gradual drift from what had been our core commitment to Jewish life and Jewish participation. With increasing comfort and success, we grew less dependent upon the community and on one another and participation flagged. It has become quite pronounced over the last 30 years or so. A handful of data points tell the story:

  • Outside of a still small, but growing orthodox community, synagogue attendance has dropped by nearly 80 percent.
  • The number of unique contributors to the annual campaigns of the Jewish Federations is down by 70 percent.
  • Many of our oldest and most venerable organizations have grayed and faded.
  • Jewish youth movements, which once were as diverse and numerous as those in the adult community, are, with a few notable exceptions, shadows of their former selves.
  • Our sense of accountability to and responsibility for one another has similarly softened – as evidenced by our own divisions and by our seemingly growing distance from Israel.

JCCs stand out in strength and vitality

Not a particularly glowing picture. But there’s more that should be said. Amidst these trends, there is one significant place in the Jewish community that stands out for its strength and vitality: the JCC. And a few more datapoints are in order:

  • Today, there are 172 JCC corporate entities across the United States and Canada, which together constitute the JCC movement. They operate nearly 400 unique institutions throughout the neighborhoods, towns, and cities they call home.
  • Between them, they welcome more than 1.5 million people through their doors each and every week throughout the year.
  • Of those, more than a million are Jews. Jews of every age, every background, and every disposition. In nearly every Jewish community, the JCC engages more Jews and a more diverse representation of Jews than any other organization or institution.
  • Our JCCs operate the largest network of Jewish summer camps on this continent – both day and overnight – with more than 100,000 children and teens each year.
  • JCCs are the largest operator of Jewish early childhood programs – more than 35,000 kids.
  • We are the largest employer in the organized Jewish community – with more than 37,000 full- and part-time staff, not including the 20,000 seasonal staff we add each summer.

And I could go on and on.

Perhaps most importantly, under the Jewish community’s big tent, the things that bind us together as jews are more important than those that set us apart.

And with roughly one out of every three JCC users coming from beyond the Jewish community, more of our non-Jewish friends and neighbors come to know the Jewish community by way of a JCC than any other Jewish organization or institution. A half a million of them choose a JCC each week for something that they might just as easily do somewhere else, but that they prefer to do here – with us.

So what does all this mean for us at this moment?  

It means that JCCs can no longer simply look at themselves as a complimentary player in the Jewish community. Rather, given the size, scope and diversity of our platform, we have a larger and more important role to play.

JCCs are responsible for the future

It means that beyond the need to operate a sound business, to run effective programs, and provide our members and participants with experiences that meet or exceed their expectations, we need to think in terms of our responsibilities to the future of the Jewish community.

How can we contribute to its measurably greater success? 

How do we work together with our organizational and institutional peers – both within and across Jewish communities – to achieve more than any single entity could achieve on its own?  

How do we assure that the Jewish community we leave to those who will follow us into leadership will be stronger, more vital, and more dynamic than the one we inherited?

It means we need to embrace responsibility for our link in the millennia-long chain of Jewish history and internalize our commitment to the countless links to come.

Which brings me back to my recent visit to Israel and the circumstances in which we now find ourselves following the earth-shattering events of October 7. That terrible day witnessed the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. It showed that Israel’s aura of invincibility was an illusion – and that Israelis of all backgrounds are vulnerable to those who wish to wipe it off the map.

It unleashed a wave of antisemitism in the us and across the western world that had been simmering below the surface of our increasingly divided societies – waiting for an opportunity to come to a boil. Another illusion has been dispelled. American and Canadian Jews can no longer afford to believe that we are quite as accepted and embraced in the US and Canada as we’ve long believed. Our partners and allies across so many kindred causes have yet to demonstrate the level of commitment to us in our hour of need as we have consistently demonstrated to them in theirs. Perhaps this will yet change. Perhaps…

This is not to say that our communities and our society won’t make the necessary course corrections required to restore a sense of greater calm and safety, but it would be imprudent for us to assume that it will. We have a part to play as citizens – something we’ve come to believe is fundamental to our responsibilities as Jews, but we also have responsibilities to and for ourselves.

Havens of comfort and support

In increasingly perilous times, Jews of all stripes, including many who have chosen to be less engaged or even absent from the community in recent years, are going to find that it can be lonely out there, and they will come looking for a place to feel safe and supported. A place to find comfort in the company of others who seek something similar. A place like this. A JCC.

Hillel the elder – one of the foremost sources of wisdom in our liturgy, is perhaps most widely known for a particular pearl, constructed in three parts. It is found in Pirkei Avot – Ethics of Our Fathers – and in English goes something like this:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

After centuries of focus on that first component, Jews of our generation and that of our children have focused increasingly on the second. We might call this the tikkun olam or “heal the world” generation, which defines its Jewish-self in terms of its commitment to the causes of others with whom we share values and conviction. It is why Jews have been in the forefront of the agendas for social and racial justice, for inclusion and accessibility, for the downtrodden and dispossessed. And we have long felt a sense of commitment to action, and to immediacy, the underlying tenet of that third part of Hillel’s wisdom – if not now, when?

But we’ve drifted away from the first part – and Hillel made it first for a reason. Only when we are rooted in who we are, and our particularistic commitment to ourselves as individual Jews, as a Jewish community and as a Jewish people, only when our ability to be there for others is predicated on a clear and coherent sense of self – only then can we deliver on the promise of our commitment to others.

We have some catching up to do. And we’re going to have to do it in an environment that is becoming a bit less comfortable – a bit less certain. We need to link elbows with one another, with Jews around the world and today, particularly with Israel, which finds itself feeling isolated and alone as it fights a devastating war to secure its future.

It should be a source of both comfort and pride that in this moment the JCC is the largest, broadest, and most diverse platform for Jewish engagement here in Birmingham and across the continent. That at a time of declining participation in many sectors of Jewish life, we continue to stand strong. We have a chance to write the next chapter, together, and together rise to the challenges before us today. To meet the moment. And it begins with the wisdom of Hillel:

אם עין אני לי – מי לי? / if I am not for myself, who will be for me?

May you, and may we all, go from strength to strength. Thank you.