WEST HARTFORD — While organizations all across the country continue to struggle under the weight of a sagging economy, the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford continues to thrive. To what does the JCC attribute its success? And what lies ahead for the JCC movement?
No one knows better than David Jacobs – and it isn’t just because he’s served as executive director of the Mandell JCC since 2002. In fact, Jacobs’ association with the Bloomfield Ave. agency goes back much further than that. And it is his long history with the JCC that gives him so unique and insightful a perspective on the agency.
A native of Pittsburgh, Jacobs first joined the JCC staff in 1978 as teen director and assistant director of the JCC’s summer camp, Camp Shalom. He soon moved up to the position of youth services director and director of Camp Shalom, and was later appointed to the agency’s number two spot as associate executive director.
Before returning to the West Hartford in 2002, Jacobs spent four years as executive director of the Contra Costa JCC in Walnut Creek, Calif. And 10 years as executive director of the JCC of Greater Rochester in New York. Two year ago, he oversaw a major expansion and renovation to the Mandell JCC that included the addition of the Hoffman Field House.
Recently, the Ledger sat down with David Jacobs to talk about the JCC’s remarkable success, as well as his vision for the future.
How has your agency been affected by the economic downturn that continues to plague the country?
A: Well, our initial experience resulting from the economic downturn was the reverse of most other nonprofits – our membership actually started going up and it didn’t stop. We went from a low of about 1500 to a high of 3000 memberships in the course of three years. I think it happened for a variety of reasons: First, because we were offering exceptional value – so many things under one roof; and, second, we made a conscious decision when we expanded the facility and added new programs that we were going to make it all about families. This is a holistic place for families because there are so many things that families can do here across the board; it’s not just fitness and recreations – it’s cultural arts, it’s summer camp, it’s the family room, it’s the preschool. While we certainly welcome and encourage individuals to come and be members of the Center and use our facilities, it’s the families that we focus most of our attention on in terms of program development. That has worked really well and as a result our family members have more than doubled.
In what way, would you say, is this a “Jewish” Community Center as opposed to a plain old community center?
A: The Jewish part of the Center falls into the framework of the Jewish Outreach Institute’s new concept of “Big Tent Judaism.” “Big Tent” is about removing barriers; making it easy for people to participate; being extremely welcoming. It’s all based upon the Biblical tent of Abraham and Sarah. So we basically say “you are welcome here in this Jewish place.” You know, very often someone will ask: “Do you have to be Jewish to join?” Well, no, we’re a Jewish place for all people…not a place just for Jewish people. And so, the JCC plays a very big role in welcoming everyone, but it’s always within a Jewish context. That’s why our preschool has a very strong Jewish curriculum; we’re now rolling out a whole new version of “Ethical Start,” a values based curriculum that JCCs have been using throughout the country for years. It was funded by the Spielberg Foundation and its called character-based education where they use a little guy called “Pirkei” Explorer– as in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers). It’s values based so everyone in the school can embrace it.
Our arts and culture programs — our film festival and book festival, many of our gallery exhibits, all focus on different aspects of the Jewish experience. We participate with the community in the observance of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day). We are now staffing the annual Yom Hashoah community program with JFACT. We came in to provide additional professional support in helping to plan it in order to engage additional members of the community because the focus now needs to be on who’s going to be responsible for telling the stories as the survivors pass on. This year we’ve identified six teens and we’ve matched them up with survivors who will share their stories. The kids are responsible for writing an essay, which will be in the program, and then each teen with that survivor will light one of the six memorial candles at the commemoration.
We also started Hazamir, a teen choir. It’s awesome. The 16 teens who are members sing serious Jewish choral music that comes from the Hazamir Foundation, a national group. Cantor Joseph Ness is choral director and Cantor Sandy Cohn is the coordinator. The kids are going to a festival at the end of March in the Catskills; then, along with members of 20 other choirs, they will head to a concert at Lincoln Center. That gave birth to an idea that we want to do next December: A zimria – an afternoon of music with all the different choral groups working with all the cantors. At the end of that we’d like to kick off the development of a regional Jewish chorus that we will establish here in town for people who love to sing.
We also have a Jewish Programs and Standards Committee that is chaired by [Prof.] Avi Patt [of the University of Hartford’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies]. They look at our policies and make sure that they’re inclusive and respectful and they also look at the development of programs.
Do you work with other community organizations, like the synagogues, for example?
A: In terms of being Jewish, we ask what role do we play in bringing the community together? So, for example, we developed an ‘Authors on the Road’ program. Because we’re in the National Jewish Book Council we have access to many authors which we have made available to all the synagogues and Jewish organizations in town. They book the authors through us; they get the authors for free; and we even supply hotel rooms for the authors. We have about 10 different local synagogues and organizations that have booked authors through us.
We’re also now doing a community read in conjunction with Federation’s Commission for Jewish Education and Leadership called “One Book, One Jewish Hartford.” Members of the community are being encouraged through their organizations to read one book – “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter” by Peter Manseal. Then each synagogue or organization can do programs around that and invite members of the community. At the end, the author is coming to speak to the community.
What is your vision of the future in terms of the JCC?
A: I think that we’re in a very challenging and interesting time. I think the Jewish community is in great transition right now and we’re beginning to look at things very differently than we’ve looked at them for generations. Certainly, the issues that once confronted us that were major issues today we’re seeing quite differently. For example, interfaith marriages. I think had we seen interfaith marriage as someone marrying into our community as opposed to a Jew marrying out we would be a very different people today. And I think that’s starting to be recognized by the established Jewish community. People are looking for new ways to welcome non-Jews into our community. A case in point is the Mother’s Circle, a powerful program run by the Chai Center for non-Jewish mothers in intermarriages who are raising Jewish children. The Mother’s Circle comes out of the Jewish Outreach Institute.
We got a call last December from Macy’s in New York. They said, you know we’re always doing Christmas here, but what about Chanukah? Would you be able to do a Chanukah program in the Westfarms store? We said sure. They advertised it and a couple of hundred people showed up; some of the people who came were people who were from the Jewish community, people we knew who just wanted their kids to see Jewish out there in the real world; but the other people who came were people we’d never seen, who brought their kids to see something Jewish. So when you take what you have out into the community you have a whole different experience.
The other piece that I think it’s important for us to think about is collaboration. We have got to change the rules of engagement a little bit; to begin thinking creatively and differently about engaging people. We’ve always used the same measure to determine the strength of the Jewish community – that measure is affiliation. What does affiliation mean? We say 40 percent of the Jews in the community belong to a synagogue or some other Jewish institution. Does affiliation really makes sense as the indicator of how engaged the Jewish community is? Just because they belong doesn’t mean they’re engaged. So when you talk about doing outreach you talk about bringing new people in – but you also have to outreach to bring the old people in. The people who are there in name only. I think we have to be very creative in how to engage the community. We have to collaborate. For example, we love having the rabbis come in here to teach and to be part of our programs. Here at the JCC, a lot of our young families are not yet at that point where they’re ready to join a synagogue. So we know that this is a portal; when they’re done here they say “we want more; we want to go on to whatever comes next.” And we want to help them find that next step.
Speaking of collaborating – the JCC Maccabi Youth Games are in Springfield this summer and we’re working with them because they want to do much bigger games so they need additional housing. We’ve offered to help provide housing and, in turn, we’re allowed to have as many kids as we want on our team. They will have an express bus from here to Springfield every morning. We last hosted the games in 1997 and we would love to host the games here again, or the JCC Maccabi Arts Fest. The Arts Fest is only a few years old but it has really taken off. In fact, one of the Maccabi Arts Fest kids made it to the final 24 on this season’s American Idol competiton.
What about Israel programming at the JCC?
A: The Israel Young Emissaries come here once a week and work with our preschool. I think our community lost a great asset when the shaliach program ended. We were one of the first communities in North America to have a shaliach – it goes back as early as the early 1960s. and the impact on the community – they brought in cultural arts from Israel, the Inbal dance company, the legendary singer Chava Alberstein…all the greats. And now we’re without it. the JCC Association is discussing how we define the new covenant with Israel. We’re no longer the rich American uncle who kind of takes care of things; it’s a very different time. So, the question is, how do we create that connection in the most effective manner? The Birthright program is one way to do it – I think there should be family Birthright programs to experience Israel.