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A Connecticut JCC continues to build community in the face of a new reality

By Judie Jacobson

WEST HARTFORD – On Day 1 of the Mandell Jewish Community Center’s decision to help stop the spread of the coronavirus by temporarily closing its doors, the West Hartford JCC’s staff began its move into a new virtual world, working quickly and efficiently to develop classes and content to be shared online with the organization’s 2,000 members, as well as the community at large.

“We all recognized that the JCC has many purposes, but our mission to build community, now and in the future, is paramount,”  the JCC’s Executive Director David Jacobs told the Ledger in an email.

Since its doors were shuttered on March 13, the JCC staff has been working diligently to do just that.  

Through it all, Jacobs continues to try hard to strike an upbeat tone. But It isn’t always easy. And Jacobs acknowledges that, like the rest of the world, the Mandell JCC has entered into a challenging and unpredictable time with no end in sight. 

For Jacobs, the reality is not only taxing the institution’s resources, it’s also taking a personal toll. It is the first time in his longtime career as a Jewish communal professional that he has had to lay off so many people, and the task is heart-wrenching.

“While we wish we could have continued to pay everyone, we knew that given this severe interruption in our services it would not be possible,” he says. “Over 250 people were on payroll when we closed on March 13 and everyone continued to receive their full pay.  This included full-time employees as well as hourly employees who might work one or two hours a week to lead a class.”

Despite all, the JCC held on to its staff for two weeks. Then, on March 28, the hourly workforce was reduced, while those who remained were asked to work remotely to continue the JCC’s community engagement. Most of the remaining staff are now working half time. 

“It is not a cliché to say that our staff is the lifeblood of the JCC,” says Jacobs. “Every single person who works at the Mandell JCC uniquely contributes to the JCC experience, and I am so proud of them and the wonderful work they do at the J. I have known some of the people who work here for close to 40 years – while colleagues they are also family. I remember when some of them were born!”

Of course, the Mandell JCC is not alone – it’s story is repeated at similar Jewish institutions across the country. Doron Krakow, the CEO of the JCC Association of North America, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently that he expects massive layoffs at his network of community centers, affecting many of the approximately 38,000 employees.

In addition, like the Mandell JCC, all other Connecticut JCCs are shut down during the pandemic. 

Though the JCCs have a shared mission – they each operate under a different set of circumstances, which mean the problems created by the shut-down can be varied.

“The JCC in Sherman is lucky to only have one employee and we are able to keep them on during this time,” says JCCS President Henry Cooperman. 

Still, he notes, the organization has expenses that must be met.

“We are still hoping to get a few more memberships in 2020 to help with income. In the meantime, we will also be applying for the Paycheck Protection Program to help pay for payroll and utilities.

Like their West Hartford counterpart, the JCC in Sherman has taken its show on the virtual road.

“We hosted a weekly open mic, but since closing the building to the community, we have been hosting a weekly song swap via Zoom, which is open to anyone. We post the information on how to log on our social media pages, website and in email blasts. We also host [a current events program called] Great Decisions jointly with our local library and are currently working on a way to host it online to those who have already registered.,” says Cooperman.

Still, the JCC in Sherman is concerned that programs may have to be suspended until mid-June. Even then, Cooperman worries that “many people still might not attend once we are able to leave our homes. This in the long run could impact our organization, especially if the virus peaks again during the fall months.” 

Thinking outside the box

“Along with the rest of the country, this is something we have never gone through before. This pandemic is requiring us to think differently about who we are personally and professionally – and is challenging us to innovate and be resourceful,” notes Jacobs. 

“We anxiously await the time when we can bring our staff family together and get back to the business of building community.  For now we meet online and through Zoom and Slate as we stay connected with the community and plan for the reopening of the JCC….including the summer!” he adds.

Meanwhile, some of the Mandell JCC’s online offerings include:

• A “Virtual Engagement” page on the JCC’s website has new content everyday. For example: In preparation for Passover, the homepage featured a “Virtual Afikoman Hunt.” 

Learning to cook via a virtual cooking class offerered by the Mandell JCC.

• Facebook Live features 25 weekly exercise classes – all of which are archived on the JCC’s YouTube page. Also on Facebook: A Fitness Friends page (which quadrupled from 200 to 800 members in just two weeks! says Jacobs) and a Youth Sports and Rec page (karate, sports, gym class, and basketball drills) with 300 members.  

• In addition to daily content for preschoolers, an array of “birth to 5” activities includes a scavenger hunt, “Clever Kids Yoga,” virtual field trips, PJ Library activities, dance classes, and more.  

• When it shut down, the JCC was right in the middle of its popular annual Jewish film festival. Not to worry. They now offer Festival films online. Other “arts & culture” offerings includ virtual tours of Israel, and archived exhibitions from the Chase Gallery. 

• Classes being recorded or “live-streamed” on Facebook include: Bake-Along with Chef Lindsay, Mindfulness Meditation with Jeryl Brown, and Clever Kids Yoga with Miss Courtney.

• Early Childhood Center programs include a daily “Kitchen Table”, a place for families and educators to gather, projects and activities sent weekly by the teachers, and live Zoom classes with the children.

The road ahead

While staff layoffs have helped reduce the cost of operating a massive operation like the Mandell JCC, financial pressures remain.

“Since we have closed, along with payroll, some of our ongoing operational costs have gone down though we continue to have significant reoccurring expenses,” Jacobs points out. “Using our internal financial resources as well as support from our line of credit we are continuing to function in our new and temporary iteration.”

In addition, the Mandell JCC is also counting on help from other sources, including newly available loans from the Small Business Administration – and the support of its loyal membership.

“We have asked our members to continue their memberships and help to support our ongoing efforts to provide programs and to support our efforts to retain our staff.  We are so grateful to the JCC members who are staying with us,” says Jacobs, adding, “The JCC also benefits greatly from the generosity of our donors.”

“The bottom line is,” says Jacobs, “we are all in this together.”

“We said when this began that there was no playbook to tell us what to do. None of us has ever experienced anything like this. So we benefit greatly from the collective experience, expertise and wisdom that is available,” he says

That expertise and guidance comes from the JCC’s Board of Directors and Advisory Committee, as well as the local Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation. In addition, the JCC movement’s umbrella organization, the JCC Association, and JCC executive directors throughout North America have been sharing their ideas and experiences.  

Likewise, says Jacobs, “We will be eternally grateful to the staff of the JCC for their continued dedication, for their can-do attitude, and for their genuine support. 

Jacobs remains optimistic about the future. 

“When we get to the other side of this I know that we will be facing new realities in the ways that we gather as communities, how we address our health and wellness needs, what we do with leisure time, and ways in which we identify with and participate in Jewish life,” he says. “And the Mandell JCC will be there to help build community that support these new realities.” 

Requests for comments and/or information from other Connecticut JCCs went unanswered.

Main Photo: A virtual exercise class offered by the Mandell JCC helps kids stay in shape while they’re at home.

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