By Barbara Davis

We moved to Syracuse in 1969.  I was working at OCC and my husband was a graduate student at SU.  I was pregnant with our first child and was worried about childcare.  “You have to go to the JCC,” insisted my colleague, Professor Nancy McCarty.  “It’s the best.”  One did not argue with Nancy McCarty, and she was correct.  It was the best, and my daughter thrived in an excellent program that seemed to do everything right.  Naturally, my second child went to the JCC (on Genesee Street then) as did my third.  They learned to swim in the indoor pool and went to Camp Friendly in the summer, as did most of their friends.  

When, a generation later, my daughters established their own families in Central New York, there was no doubt where they would send their children for preschool.  By then, the JCC had moved to DeWitt.  By the time my youngest grandchild was born, the JCC even had an infant care program.  So six more young members of my family enjoyed the benefits of the JCC’s outstanding preschool.

Mine is not an exceptional story.  There are many families who have enrolled several generations of children in the JCC, drawn by a program that for decades has been at the forefront of quality, child-focused, reliable and accessible care for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.  The indoor pool is a memory, but now there are playgrounds and a gym and gymnastics, sports,  music, dance and karate.

The JCC’s executive director, Marci Erlebacher, recently held a meeting of the Center’s board of directors and, looking around the room, realized that three of her board members had attended the Center’s Early Childhood Development Program when they were small.  Now they were serving in a leadership capacity for the organization and enrolling their own children in ECDP. 

Federation board chair Neil Rosenbaum’s daughter recently had a baby.  Returning to work when her daughter was 6 months old was made much easier by the fact that quality care was available for her at the JCC on a schedule that accommodated her workday.  Selecting the JCC’s Early Childhood Development Program was a no-brainer.  Not only was it the best program, but it was the same one she and her three siblings had attended when they were little.  It was like coming home.

These are just a few of the examples of the generational impact of Syracuse’s Jewish Community Center.  In addition to providing quality childcare, the Center is home to three of the community’s most important Jewish institutions: the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Foundation and the Syracuse Hebrew Day School.  It also offers the only kosher senior lunch program in upstate New York and administers the PJ Library Program.  At various times in the past, the J has also housed the Jewish War Veterans, the Epstein School, the Syracuse Community Hebrew School, a Sephardic high holiday congregation and the nascent Shaarei Torah congregation.  

The Center also hosts many communal Jewish celebrations, including KlezFest, a community sukkah, a Chanukah party, a decades-old Purim carnival, the Matzo Bakery and the Israeli Scouts.   Each week at ECDP, children celebrate Shabbat and learn to recite the appropriate blessings for kiddush and hamotzi.  They enjoy apples and honey for Rosh HaShanah, latkes and sufganiyot for Chanukah and hold model seders in their classrooms for Passover.  Even though a significant percentage of the children enrolled in the program are not Jewish, they all learn about Jewish celebrations.  This has led to some interesting results.  A friend of mine named Jim Doherty told me that while he had been very happy with the ECDP program, he was somewhat relieved that his daughter was going to public school  kindergarten “because she wants to light Shabbas candles every Friday.”  Another cute story involves a little boy whose family held weekly Sunday dinners.  At one, the parents asked, “Who wants to say grace?”  The 4-year-old ECDP child raised his hand eagerly.  His parents were a bit skeptical.  “Do you really know how to say grace?” they asked.  “Yes,” he said and began “Baruch atah Adonai….”


From Y to J: A Brief History of Jewish Community Centers

An article from the Jewish Telegraphic Service defines JCCs as “general community centers with a Jewish flavor” which have “catered to both Jewish immigrants and non-Jews as their function has shifted over time.”  It notes that the typical JCC  “acts as a kind of Jewish YMCA, providing anything from preschools to summer camps to day programming for senior citizens regardless of religion. Many also have fitness facilities and swimming pools and offer gym memberships to Jews and non-Jews. Many of these programs will include culturally Jewish content.”  

So, really, how Jewish are Jewish community centers?  Are they supposed to be Jewish?  Are they supposed to be more Jewish?  The JCCA, the umbrella organizations for the 350 JCCs in North America, says that “The JCC Movement comprises many communities of Jews (and non-Jews) spread across North America, with very different approaches to Jewish living and learning.”  It includes JCCs among all Jewish institutions (schools, synagogues, museums, libraries, camps), as both destinations for Jewish engagement and portals to Jewish communal life. It firmly states, however, that “No institution is THE destination, since it is the individual who determines the journey’s path.”  Going further, the JCCA states that “synagogues look at Jewish life mostly through the lens of Judaism, the religion of the Jewish people. JCCs look at Jewish life mostly through the lens of Jewishness, or the more general culture of the Jewish people.”  And reiterates that “it is up to the individual to choose which approach to Jewish life is meaningful to them” because the JCC Movement “doesn’t presume to define what being Jewish should mean to its members.”

Tablet magazine examined the unique position of JCCs, noting that “Jewish community centers had been around since the interwar years, a cross between a settlement house, an urban institution that had once attended to the varied needs of the community’s immigrant population, and a Y….  The Jewish community center served as a cultural clearinghouse where the Jews of the neighborhood could go for a swim, play basketball, attend a lecture, take a drawing class…. It deliberately maintained an open-door policy, a nondenominational perspective, or what one of its supporters called a ‘non-doctrinaire commitment to the universals in the Jewish heritage.’”

A Brandeis University study reported that “The mid-20th century Jewish community center was built on the model of a brick-and-mortar, full-service, membership-based community center,” but noted that “this model is increasingly out of step with today’s reality.”  As society in general became more inclusive in allowing Jews into formerly exclusive entities and as racial and gender barriers to membership were being challenged and dropped everywhere, JCCs also changed, as did their financial model.  Whereas, once they were membership organizations reliant upon dues, they instead developed fee-for-service programs, which today account for 80 percent of their funding.

Today, outside of large metropolitan areas, non-Jews account for the majority of JCC membership.  In cities with relatively small Jewish populations, “in order to ensure that the Jewish community has the best possible facility, or even any facility at all, the JCC must open its doors to all comers,” said Randy Freedman, executive director of the York, PA JCC.  “If we want the privilege of a JCC, it has to be this way,” he added. “There aren’t enough Jews in the community to support these kinds of services.”  John Sandager, an evangelical Christian who is the treasurer of the Albuquerque JCC,  presented the situation from a different angle.  He appreciates the way his JCC brings together different faiths.  “When you work out at the JCC, one of the wonderful values of the JCC is it’s not Christians on these machines and Jews on those machines — it’s a community,” he said.

Still, majority non-Jewish membership has created a balancing act for many JCCs as they work to try to accommodate the needs of both non-Jewish members and less or more observant Jewish members.  Jim Grumbacher, a York area businessman, was one of the primary movers behind the JCC’s decision in the 1980s to build a larger facility and actively welcome non-Jews as members. As a result, membership has expanded, the facility is first class, the center has a steady stream of Jewish programming and, in Grumbacher’s view, relations between Jews and non-Jews in York have improved. But Grumbacher confesses that he sometimes wonders whether the JCC has lost a certain sense of Jewishness that permeated the kibitzing and give-and-take in the old, smaller and mostly Jewish facility. “I’m somewhat conflicted over the results,” he says, “but I think it reflects what’s happening in the larger American society. I don’t know that there was another solution.”


JCC of Syracuse announces 2023 Annual Meeting and Gala award recipients

The JCC of Syracuse’s 160th Annual Meeting and Gala will be held on Sunday, June 4th from 11 am to 2 pm at Owera Vineyards in Cazenovia, NY.  This is the JCC’s largest and most important fundraiser of the year at which they come together as a community to honor those who have been instrumental in the growth and development of the Center. This essential fundraiser raises thousands of dollars in scholarships each year allowing children to attend the JCC’s summer camp, early childhood development program, after school program and programs to mainstream children with special needs. It also allows the JCC to offer discounted fitness classes to those in need and enables it to serve over 6,000 meals to senior adults each year.

The gala will once again bring the “New York City Deli Experience” to Upstate New York with the return of Yitzy of Essen New York Deli. The mouth-watering corned beef will make its much anticipated return this year with an authentic Jewish deli brunch. The event will kick off with a cocktail hour, followed by brunch and a brief meeting and awards ceremony. New this year will be video presentations  of the honorees.

This year’s honorees represent a wide spectrum of dedication and support. The Kovod Award, which signifies honor and importance, is awarded annually to those members who have been active in events and programs in an outstanding way. The JCC will be present this year’s Kovod award to Shai Jaffe. Shai has grown instrumentally over the past few years working in the Children’s Programming department. He will be recognized for his dedication to the JCC and for his outstanding work with children from ECDP, After School and summer camp.

The Kovod Gadol Award, which in Hebrew, translates to “great honor”. This award is presented each year to honor a single individual or couple who has demonstrated, usually over a period of years, an extraordinary degree of commitment, energy and loyalty to the JCC and greater community. This year’s Kovod Gadol award will be presented to JCC Board Member and longstanding supporter, Steven Wladis. Steven has served on the JCC Board of directors for 20 years and has been the continual Annual Meeting & Gala naming sponsor.

This year’s Hall of Fame award is being presented to Board President, Steven Sisskind. Steven has served as president of the Board for ten years. This is Steven’s final year as Board President, and the JCC will honor the dedication and support he has shown during his tenure.

“We are delighted to honor another outstanding group of honorees this year,” said the JCC’s Executive Director, Marci Erlebacher. “The continued support and service that these individuals have given to the JCC, and the greater Jewish Community is truly remarkable. We look forward to honoring them all at this year’s event.”

For more information on the upcoming Annual Meeting and Gala, including tickets and sponsorship opportunities, contact Erin Hart at 315-445-2360, ext. 112, or [email protected].


JCC adds new member referral program

The Sam Pomeranz Jewish Community Center of Syracuse recently added a new member referral program as a benefit of membership with the center. JCC of Syracuse members in good standing will receive one month added to their annual membership term for every friend or family member they refer who joins the JCC Sports & Fitness Center.

New JCC members who join as a result of a referral will receive a fifteen percent discount off the cost of an annual Fitness membership. The referral program does not apply to short-term or special promotional offers.

“We’re very pleased to be able to say ‘thank you’ to our established members and to our new Fitness members through this new referral program which recognizes loyalty to the JCC,” says Nick Finlayson, JCC membership director. “It’s an honor when new members come through the door because of a friend or family member’s recommendation.

For more information about the JCC’s new member referral program and to make a referral, contact Nick Finlayson at 315-445-2040, ext. 140, [email protected] or stop by the Fitness desk.


Purchase the NEW 2022 SaveAround book TODAY!

In-person sales of the SaveAround coupon book have returned at the JCC!

Purchasing a 2022 SaveAround Syracuse/CNY coupon book can score you some great money-saving deals. Plus, you’ll be helping to support this JCC of Syracuse fundraiser!

  • Only $25/book.
    • Buy in-person at the JCC main entrance reception desk.
    • Want to receive your book in the mail? Purchase online, pay a $.99 credit card processing fee per book and receive FREE shipping!
  • Makes the perfect gift!
  • Great local coupons and an incredible national section!
  • Save money now and throughout 2022!
  • Easily save while on-the-go with the SaveAround Mobile App!

Purchase your 2022 SaveAround Syracuse/CNY book today! Books for many other areas from around the country are also available online.

Questions? Contact us at 315-445-2360 or [email protected].