June 15, 2024
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June 15, 2024
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Steve Rogers Takes the Helm at Kaplen JCC

Steve Rogers loves all things Jewish. It’s almost expected that he would be the new CEO of The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. “On the one hand it’s a life change,” said Rogers, who was a practicing attorney for 35 years. “On the other hand, it’s sort of the natural, orderly flow of my life.” Whatever time he doesn’t dedicate to his family and his career, he commits to Jewish communal and Israel activities.

Through the years Rogers has held board positions for many Jewish organizations locally and in Israel, including the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Foundation, the JCC Association and the New Jersey branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and he’s a former president of his synagogue, Temple Emanu-El of Closter. “If it is a Jewish organization that needs my help, or something tied to Israel, I have a hard time saying no.”

Rogers grew up in a traditional home where his mother, who valued Jewish rituals and culture, was a driving force. His father was raised in an Orthodox home but preferred a more traditional lifestyle. While reflecting on his childhood, Rogers shared an inspirational memory that left a real impact on his 8-year-old self. His parents were part of a small group who founded what was once the Pomona Jewish Center, a conservative shul that Rogers said was the center of his Jewish life. In 1969 they had raised sufficient funds to construct a new building, and by Simchat Torah the circular foundation for the sanctuary had been poured. The weather was nice, and they decided to conduct services on that cement circle under the stars. Rogers described his mother as an early proponent of egalitarianism who was in her glory dancing with the Torah and partaking in the holiday, as his father fondly looked on with an obvious sense of contentment.

“I was only 8,” said Rogers, and I doubt I understood the scope of what was happening, but one thing I did pick up on was the look in my parents’ eyes. It was Jewish pride. That was my epiphany.”

Fast-forward to today, and Rogers has clearly prioritized his Jewish values as the cornerstone of his own life, an outlook that aligns perfectly with the fundamentals of the JCC.

Rogers has been actively involved with the JCC for 25 years, serving on the board for the last 12, so when CEO Jordan Shenker announced that he was leaving to return home to the West Coast where he will be holding a similar position at a JCC in San Francisco, Rogers immediately convened a search committee to find a replacement. It was clear that they wanted someone who not only had business acumen and management experience, but also an individual from within the community who intimately knows what their members want and need.

Rogers figured he would step into the role for an interim period while they interviewed potential candidates, a process he knew could easily take six to nine months. Not long after they started the search, the leaders recognized that Rogers himself was the ideal candidate: He is someone who has been in the community for 30 years and not only understands what the JCC represents, he lives it.

They approached Rogers with an offer around the same time he was facing a turning point in his professional career. He vacillated a bit, but he knew it made sense and accepted the position.

The JCC represents different things to different people, but at the end of the day, “we want to be a home for Jewish people,” said Rogers. On a personal level he values the concept of Jewish tradition and believes the JCC provides an opportunity for a significant segment of the population who are less engaged. Even though some people are only coming to swim or play ball, the environment feels very Jewish, should they want to embrace that.

He makes it clear, though, that the JCC is a pluralistic community with a diverse reach. “The mission here is Jewish, though not a specific type of Jewish,” said Rogers, who dislikes labels and refuses to catalog people based on how they practice Judaism. “We are all Jewish, and I want you to be engaged however you want, but as a Jewish community center, we always pause to think about the Jewish component.”

From a business standpoint Rogers said it’s all about the ultimate customer experience. “Our members have to love coming here and they have to love what they get here.” The JCC caters to the whole spectrum from childhood to 100-plus (actually) and everyone in between. The menu of services includes a vibrant early childhood program as well as a robust seniors’ program with meals, activities and spiritual content. A large part of the facility is dedicated to athletics and health and wellness, and it is also home to the renowned Thurnauer School of Music, The Idea School, JCC dance and drama schools and summer camps.

What’s so outstanding, according to Rogers, is that all these services operate seamlessly and successfully under one roof. He is happy to report that most of the programming is starting to return to pre-pandemic levels, except for health and wellness, which appears to be lagging at nearly all the 173 JCCs across the continent.

Rogers said that fundraising for the facility, which encompasses close to 200,000 square feet and 16 growing operations, is crucial. For a community center to survive, it must rely on more than its fee structure, which by itself, Rogers said, is not a profitable or even a break-even option.

As an organization that values tikkun olam, the JCC, with the support of The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, provides indispensable services to the community. They feed the needy, take care of the elderly, provide scholarships and social services: All of that requires significant funding. “If you don’t have a philanthropic component to your revenue, you’re not going to make it,” he said and added that the JCC is fortunate to have its founding families, who remain deeply involved. At the same time, it’s important to engage the next generation who could help support the JCC long term.

Like most of us, Rogers is excited that things are starting to return to normal. The JCC just hosted a Zumba night, their first major post-COVID event. He said the atmosphere felt renewed and energetic as loads of people came out on a Saturday night after Shabbat to have fun, something he thinks people are finally ready to do after a very long two years.

As for the future, Rogers thinks the current model is working well, “but if you stand still, you’re going to be left behind. To continue to be that model of excellence, we need to figure out what comes next and explore innovative ways to serve the population,” he added.

Rogers knows his journey isn’t a typical one. Most people don’t assume a communal leadership position after 35 years in Corporate America, but for Rogers, his commitment to Jewish organizations can almost be described as a passionate hobby. Now he is embarking on the ultimate role, one he hopes will offer him the opportunity to channel his dedication and effort in a way that will continue the outstanding work that came before while at the same time lead the JCC into its next phase of greatness.

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