Kids are splashing in the pool, seniors are greeting friends, men and women are working out in the gym. It’s back to normal—almost—at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. “I’m thrilled that every facet of our business that was operating pre-COVID is now operating again, although most, if not all are operating at somewhat lower levels,” said Jordan Shenker, CEO. “Everybody is back on site.”
The JCC’s mission is to be a destination for Jewish life, which means different things to different people. Some come to the JCC for intellectual and spiritual content, some for socializing, and others for fitness. “JCCs used to talk about themselves by saying that community was our middle name, capital C,” said Shenker. “But what we are about is building hundreds of micro communities with every kind of activity and age you can imagine.
“Our role is to help facilitate and offer as many diverse experiences as practical. We do what we think will have the broadest appeal, and do it in a way that anyone who wants to can participate.” That includes observant Jews. “Any time we offer a program it’s kosher so somebody who is observant can come,” said Shenker. “The café is kosher. Any time we have a program on Saturday night it always begins after Havdalah so someone who is Orthodox can come.”
When COVID hit, The JCC was in year two of implementing a strategic plan that included goals in outreach, engagement, innovation and Jewish life. The pandemic accelerated the timetable for putting the plan into action. “That’s what we have been doing for the last 15 months,” Shenker said.
As pandemic restrictions loosen, The JCC is making decisions about what to keep from the adaptations made for COVID safety. The pivot to virtual programming brought many more people to JCC events. Twice a year, the JCC has a Yiddish concert, underwritten by the Taub Foundation. The maximum audience was 550-600 in previous years but now there were about 2,500 online.
Shenker said they are looking at what programs work best in person, what is successful virtually and where a hybrid of both is the best option. Although it’s too soon for a definitive answer, digital is the future. “I think long term, virtual engagement will be additive to what we are already doing on site as an added value for those people who are getting something here, and will be a way to engage folks that can’t get here,” said Shenker.
Upgrades are coming to advance the digital infrastructure. “We’re leaning into the digital space in everything we do, in every service area, and investing in technology,” he said. “We’ll be installing a piece of tech in the auditorium, so if there’s a dance recital and your kid is in the third row, you can control the camera from your computer to zoom in.”
After closing on March 13, 2020, the JCC tried virtual preschool with mixed results. It’s hard to get 2-year-olds to sit and listen in front of a computer. Small chunks of programming worked, especially on demand. A teacher reading a story, a recorded Passover Seder or Havdalah celebration held the children’s attention.
The conservatory-based music school is a jewel in the JCC crown, and didn’t lose its luster in the virtual world. Pre-COVID about 450 children were enrolled. Online classes have worked well, with about a 75% retention of students. The school was created 30 years ago as a high-quality alternative for Jewish students when all other music programs with concerts and recitals took place mostly on Saturdays and Sundays.
The JCC has extensive programming and resources for seniors, especially for adults with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and a companion program with drop-in meals and activities. These programs are coming back now, four days a week instead of the previous six, and there’s a waiting list. The demand is there from families who don’t want their parents to go to a nursing home but want them to have activity and socialization during the day.
And when someone in the family is a primary caregiver, the day program at JCC gives them a break from the stress of 24/7 care. Programs specifically for caregivers have expanded to help them understand and cope with an unanticipated reality they aren’t prepared for. Parents know they have to save for their children’s college education, for example, but no one thinks about a spouse or parent developing dementia. Programs for family caregivers are not just for support; they teach how to respond to the challenges of dementia and how to access resources.
The JCC is often synonymous with its fitness programs. After months of empty treadmills, machines with no limbs pushing them around, and empty lap lanes in the pool, the gym is back—but some members have yet to return. “Many people bought home workout equipment. Are they home forever? That is the big-picture question,” said Shenker. “You’re not part of a community at home. Here, you can connect with others.”
The fitness center and preschool are the source of most JCC memberships, about 25% of the budget; other classes and activities are open to nonmembers and account for about 75%. And those dollars help fund other programs like services for seniors and adults with special needs. While this year the JCC is projected to run at a deficit, the trajectory suggests that the next fiscal year will see a plus sign.
People and programs are coming back. Camp, with 550 children, is going smoothly. The preschool is enrolling in-person students. There’s still a limit to the number of people, who have to reserve time in the pool and the gym. But the JCC is open, and once again a destination for all the micro-communities for whom it is a home away from home.
Shenker tells the story of an active, involved board member who toured the building pre-COVID when architectural work was under discussion. After an hour-and-a-half visit, he said, “I had no idea of all the things we do.”