BALTIMORE — A delegation from Pittsburgh joined more than 500 other representatives of Jewish Community Centers from around the world in Baltimore last week for the JCCs of North America Biennial.
The officials gathered to share their unique successes, discuss their concerns and look at how the continually evolving Jewish community poses challenges and opportunities for JCCs. Innovation was a constant theme.
“You have to be innovating all of your program areas all the time, so part of that is trying to build a culture that’s always innovating at the ground level,” said Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh. “So one of our mantras is how do we create innovation up, down and all around?”
The biennial, which kicked off with Shabbat celebrations on Friday, May 13 and ran through the following Wednesday, allowed JCC professionals and leaders at all levels and employed in all disciplines chances to connect with their peers and refine their skills. There were sessions for JCCs of all sizes, for executives, on fundraising, programming, young leaders and all JCC programs such as the Maccabi Games and Artsfests, arts and culture, camps, fitness and board development.
There was a particular focus on engaging key JCC demographics — baby boomers, millennials and teenagers — who were the subject of Monday morning’s plenary and breakout sessions that followed.
The Sunday afternoon plenary, which was the first of the biennial, kicked off with a performance of “Good Morning Baltimore” by Amy Toporek, a longtime member of the JCC of Central New Jersey, who played the lead role of Tracy Turnblad in a national tour of the American musical, “Hairspray.”
Stephen Seiden, chair of the JCC Association, made the opening remarks, noting the 2016 biennial featured delegations from 90 JCCs, 45 participants from the Esther Leah Ritz Emerging JCC Leaders Institute, 24 overseas delegates from JCC Global and guests from 11 countries in addition to the U.S. and Canada such as Israel, Mexico, Poland, Spain, France and Bulgaria.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to learn with Jews from around the globe. As we’re all aware, participants from some of these communities have experienced increased anti-Semitism or have endured troubled, terrible acts of terror,” said Seiden. “Being together here gives us a profound sense of peoplehood at a time that I know we all need it.”
The keynote speaker was Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the American arm of the United Nations Children’s Fund, better known as UNICEF.
Stern recalled memories of traveling to African countries and seeing the effects of malnourishment in children, watching an infant suffering from tetanus die in front of her and what it means for women to give birth in third world countries — a stark contrast to how she herself gave birth in a Manhattan hospital surrounded by family.
Monday morning’s plenary opened with remarks by Aviad Friedman, chairman of the Israeli Association of Community Centers, who spoke to the work the organization is doing in the Jewish state.
He was followed by the JCC Association’s interim president Alan Mann, whose speech was based on an imaginary conversation with his eventual successor. He answered the question as to why he came out of his comfortable retirement to lead the organization.
“I wouldn’t have come back for any other job. I care deeply and believe deeply in the JCC Association and the JCCs,” said Mann. “There’s something special about what the JCC does for people who enter its doors and the community as a whole.”
However, he acknowledged, “We’re going to have to figure out new ways to do business as communities shift and how to stay relevant and meet the needs of an ever changing Jewish world.”
Staying relevant was the theme of the day, factoring in the primary discussion of Monday’s plenary about teens, millennials and baby boomers, and what makes them tick, misconceptions and their commonalities.
The panel was moderated by Stuart Raynor, a JCC Association board member from Denver. Dr. Alexis Abramson, a leading industry expert and trend-spotter for those over 50, represented baby boomers; Baltimore’s Rabbi Jessy Gross, director of Charm City Tribe, spoke about millennials and Dr. David Bryfman, chief innovation officer of the Jewish educational project, fielded questions about teenagers.
The discussion began with each expert offering one or two individuals who they believe made a significant contribution to society.
Abramson chose Craig Venter, the scientist who first sequenced the human genome, in place of who she said was a likely favorite, the late Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs. Gross chose Brad Damphousse and Andrew Ballester, founders of the online crowdfunding website GoFundMe over Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Bryfman named Malala Yousafzai, a Pakastani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.
Raynor gave each panelist general questions as well as ones targeted to each age group. When asked about how society can more effectively care for the aging baby boomer population, Abramson stressed communication.
“Ask them what they want. We have been neglectful [about] talking to boomers. For some reason we don’t ask them about their voice or opinion,” said Abramson. “Boomers want to understand their next step in life, more than just staying healthy, they want [us to take] interest in what is happening in their lives.”
Responding to a question about affiliation rates dropping among younger Jews, Gross spoke to what she sees as a reality that organized Jewish institutions have not yet come to terms with.
“When are [millennials] going to come back to the way we have been doing things?” asked Gross. “The difficult thing to engage with is that they’re not returning. For most millennials, we’ve already started [this change] that won’t let us return to where we came from.”
Bryfman, who represented what he called “the most narcissistic, egotistical” generation, related the issue to teenagers, who like millennials, are sometimes put off by organized religious institutions.
“[People who ask this question] don’t get it … [they’re] not coming back,” said Bryfman. “Stop thinking of [teenagers] as your failure [and] start thinking of [them] as your success,” he said, emphasizing the fact teenagers have gone off and are exploring religion in their own ways, and that is a reflection of their strong relationship with religion, rather than a failure in their upbringings.
JCC directors were eager to learn from their peers.
Schreiber, whose JCC was honored for JBrand implantation and execution, said he always looks for ideas that he can adapt in Pittsburgh. He noted that the JCC recently started a live web chat option on its website that is staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. For messages sent outside of those hours, staffers get back to people within 24 hours.
In keeping with the sharing of best practices, Schreiber and Barak Hermann, CEO of the host JCC of Greater Baltimore, shared some successes at a Sunday morning session for JCCs in metro areas.
Schreiber spoke about his JCC’s PJ Library ambassador program. In an effort to engage families with young children, the JCC hired young moms who were not working to serve as PJ ambassadors, and the program grew from five in-facility programs to 21 community programs that took place at the zoo, Barnes and Noble, congregations and homes. Families came out in droves for an afikomen hunt on city blocks and matzah pizza at a local Italian bakery.
“You have to step out of your box,” Schreiber said. “Our paradigm shift, it’s not about subscriptions, although we want them to grow. … It’s about being in the long haul and not expecting immediate return.”