American JCCs are failing to nurture connections between Jews. They can learn from their European counterparts.
European JCCs are not only more financially accessible, but more effective at creating community.
This story first appeared in the Forward. To get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox, go to forward.com/newsletter-signup.
Growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, I never thought of the JCC as much more than a gym. While many of my Jewish friends who lived near the JCC would spend hours there after school working out, my family and I lived a 20-minute drive away and thus chose to join a gym that was cheaper and closer to home.
The Conservative synagogue we belonged to was where we made our Jewish connections, celebrated Jewish occasions and ate Jewish food. For years, it didn’t occur to me that maybe there were other Jews in the Cleveland community I could interact with outside of a denominational wall.
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So when I visited the JCC in Warsaw, Poland, in 2018, while interning at the American Jewish Committee Central Europe office, I had no idea what to expect.
I was swept away by their incredible weekly kosher all-you-can-eat Sunday Boker Tov Brunch. Polish Jews of all ages gathered at JCC Warsaw to form community. I loved the way this JCC and others were playing a large role in the revival of Jewish life in Europe. I was inspired by the communities the JCC and its members helped build. From that point on, for the rest of that summer, and wherever else I traveled, including to Barcelona, London and Helsinki, I made it a point to visit a JCC.
European JCCs were places to explore Jewish culture across boundaries, without the limitations of official affiliations. It was powerful to meet people from backgrounds different than my own whom I otherwise may never have met. These interactions allowed all of us to discover new perspectives and ideas about Jewish life without feeling pressured to adhere to any specific practice.
JCCs can provide an alternative connection to Judaism beyond the religious aspect. And yet, American JCCs often seem to fall short when it comes to this Jewish community connection.
In Europe, the JCC is the first place many individuals go when they discover that they may have potential Jewish ancestry. After speaking with a rabbi or JCC director, they often want to explore what it means to be Jewish. Many JCCs in Europe are also opening Jewish community preschools — and often they are the first Jewish preschool many cities have had since before the Holocaust. European JCCs frequently serve as the headquarters for Jewish student groups and Jewish senior citizen clubs.
I was so in awe of the way JCCs in Europe served as a hub for the whole Jewish community that I wanted to be part of the JCC movement back home. A few years after my summer living in Warsaw, I began working full time as the Jewish life and culture program associate at the JCC in Cleveland. Yet I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of the people who entered the building made a beeline for the workout facility. Most people who came through the doors never connected with someone new, or with something specifically Jewish. I observed this same pattern at JCCs in other American cities where I have lived like Binghamton, New York, and Pittsburgh.
Frequently, the high cost of membership at JCCs keeps the community apart when JCCs should bring people together. In fact, the JCC movement started in 1854 in Baltimore specifically to help ensure Jewish continuity and provide a place for celebration outside of the synagogue environment. To truly bring a community together, that would mean people of many different backgrounds: young and old, employed and unemployed, students and retirees, and Jews from all denominations. But not everyone can afford the high membership rates, and I struggle to understand why JCCs can’t provide greater financial assistance or subsidize those marginalized individuals who would benefit the most from Jewish community.
Joining an American JCC is often not only expensive, it also is not all-encompassing. On top of a membership fee, there are typically additional charges for attending group exercise classes or certain Jewish culture programs and events. In my hometown, the 2011 Greater Cleveland Jewish Population Study found significant economic vulnerability, with 36% of Greater Cleveland Jewish households “just managing.” For single-parent households, that rose to a staggering 58%. “Just managing” does not usually leave room for a JCC membership.
The community development coordinator at JCC Krakow, Joanna Fabijańczuk, told me that their membership dues are symbolic. Even without membership, any Jewish individual who lives in Krakow can attend the JCC’s weekly Shabbat dinners and other activities, including yoga, Polish classes and choir. If you want to go to an activity at JCC Krakow, they’ll find a way to make it work.
As with other JCCs outside the U.S., the JCC Krakow has a small gym and sauna, but no one joins it for the gym, said Fabijańczuk. They join for the community.
JCCs in the United States can learn something from that. One idea could be for JCCs to host more Shabbat meals that are open to all. Sharing food, sitting together, relaxing and talking builds community in ways that rushing in to work out and leave does not.
Another idea from the JCC in Budapest, Hungary, is a mentorship program for young adults, who are sometimes left out of conventional outreach efforts. In exchange for volunteering for the Jewish community, young adults received free access to all aspects of the JCC (though beginning in 2023, the program started charging a small amount to participate).
JCCs in America are doing great work — hosting Jewish book and film festivals, summer camps and preschools. I only wish that all Jews, regardless of financial status, were able to participate in what they have to offer.
What is the point of calling it a community center, if much of the community is left out? PJC
Madison Jackson is an MFA student in creative nonfiction writing, with a concentration in travel writing, at Chatham University. She is passionate about global Jewish life and lives in Pittsburgh.