Krakow & Minsky: JCCs – the largest platform for Jewish engagement in North America

Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto. FACEBOOK

North American Jews are searching for connection to Jewish life in a greater variety of ways than ever before. This presents a tremendous opportunity for Jewish federations and community centres to prioritize effective partnerships that bring us closer to our common goal of creating stronger, more engaged Jewish communities for everyone.

The prioritization of a deep partnership between UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, which represents one of North America’s largest and most robust Jewish communities, and the area’s three JCCs – Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and the Schwartz/Reisman Centre – offers an example of the strategic outlook that’s necessary to help ensure that the bedrock of Jewish communal life remains vital for the next generation.

A 2013 Pew Research Center study on Jewish-Americans solidified our understanding that, in addition to religion, more and more individuals view their Jewish identity as being tied to culture and ancestry. Earlier this year, a similarly modelled survey of Jews in Canada conducted by Environics, the University of Toronto and York University found that for most Canadian Jews, culture and ethnicity also play a significant role in their Jewish identity.

Throughout North America, Jewish communities are changing. For many, their expression of being Jewish today means something different than it did 20 years ago, and it may mean something different 20 years from now. As the tectonic plates of Jewish life shift and collide beneath our feet, there is an increased need to position our communal institutions for sustained success.

For UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the local JCCs, our response to this change stems from a shared recognition that our organizational and institutional fates are fundamentally intertwined. Toronto’s community leaders know that a vibrant Jewish community in the city cannot be realized without thriving JCCs, and thriving JCCs cannot succeed without the support of the Federation.

While there is no programmatic panacea for Jewish identity or Jewish affiliation, the one thing we know is that the more someone engages with Jewish programs and services, the deeper their Jewish identity and ties to community. This makes JCCs, with so many programs linked together under one roof, a strategically important partner in any community.

Federations seek to bring their communities together. It’s a goal that is also at the heart of the mission of JCCs. JCCs provide a programmatic platform that attracts and serves all segments of the community – across the Jewish religious, ideological, ethnocultural and economic spectrums. For segments of the population that are currently less involved in Jewish life, low-barrier institutions such as JCCs have an innate advantage, especially when it comes to Jewish entry points. Whether by way of athletic leagues or events such as Jewish film festivals, young professional brunches, Israeli Independence Day celebrations, religious and Hebrew-language programming for young and old, to name just a few examples, JCCs help deepen Jewish identity year-round in a unique way.

In terms of organizational priorities, the complete alignment of mission between the JCCs and Jewish federations also provides a natural stepping stone for heightened co-ordination. Both institutions seek to inspire the next generation to forge strong connections to their Jewish identity and to Israel, to care for the vulnerable, to maintain leadership in the field of Jewish education and to galvanize a sense of community in times of celebration and crisis.

Of course, no two JCCs are the same, but they all provide a pluralistic environment with a myriad of opportunities to appeal to the wide cross-section of North American Jews that federations seek to engage. Perhaps most critically, strong JCCs symbolize a sense of staying power that benefits the community as a whole.

Consequently, when Jewish philanthropic institutions invest in JCCs as infrastructure in support of communal growth, as UJA Federation of Greater Toronto has done, it sends a signal of durability that empowers people to put down roots, raise families and imagine their long-term Jewish future in that community. The proof is in the pudding. At 160 JCCs across the continent, more than 1.5 million people pass through the doors each and every week, making JCCs the largest platform for Jewish engagement in North America. That is why JCCs are such an invaluable and pragmatic resource for federations, and vice versa. It is also why we must make it our business to be in this effort together for the long-term.

Moving forward, we must rise above entrenched dynamics and false notions of competition for programmatic engagement. Instead, we should prioritize the effective partnerships that can bring us closer to our common goal of greater, stronger and more engaged Jewish communities for everyone.

Doron Krakow is the president and CEO of the JCC Association of North America. Adam Minsky is the president and CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.