21st-Century JCCs

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Jewish Community Centers around the country are rethinking their missions and refining their approaches in order to better serve their local communities. According to reports, they are trying to move away from the staid status as “legacy institutions” and toward a more proactive, innovative identity, designed to respond to new kinds of service demands from 21st-century communities.

According to a recent report from the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies titled “Innovating JCCs,” there are creative developments and exciting approaches being tested in communities around the country that are worth watching, and possibly emulating. The challenge of such efforts is often to get the community to appreciate the need for change — particularly important when pursuing meaningful innovation.


There are, of course, limitations. Thus, according to the authors, “innovating JCC execs understand that their agency cannot be all things to all people… They also understand that the JCC cannot win in today’s marketplace with mediocre departments or programs. If their JCC is not best in class in a particular area, they are ready to eliminate the program or service, outsource it or partner with an individual or organization that is best in class.”

In pursuing that approach, many JCCs look to the broader community for inspiration. The Boulder JCC noted the strength of the local food movement and created a farm and sustainability department. “It secured land on an adjoining property and built a farm with a barn, greenhouse, raised beds, a fruit grove, beehives and a tzedakah garden,” the report noted.


Traditional JCCs generally rely on revenue from membership dues and fees from income-generating programs. But, increasingly, that isn’t enough. JCC Chicago, for example, looked at the decline in its membership dues and changed its dues structure to one that was “inspired by Amazon.” J Connect, the basic membership, is free — then the member is offered further benefits for a paid membership. JCC Greater Boston tackled the same problem by moving to month-to-month membership, which has worked to help with issues relating to predictability and planning.

And then there are the JCCs that have joined the trend of “meeting people where they are” by staying close to their customers. Aaron Family JCC of Dallas did just that when it “purchased a trailer truck as a movable classroom. …The trailer has been used for yoga, a challah braiding class and a preschool truck time program.”

There is, of course, much more, with changes and innovation testing the creativity of JCC leadership around the country, and communities benefiting from these efforts.
We applaud the imaginative experimentation that is taking our JCC movement to a new level. This is precisely how our JCCs — and other legacy communal institutions — should grow into the 21st century, both locally and nationally. We look forward to the benefits of this expanded service and growth of JCCs in each of our communities.

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