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.”