JCC perseveres despite financial challenges of COVID-19
COVID-19Pivoting during pandemic

JCC perseveres despite financial challenges of COVID-19

Within 24-hours, the JCC went from solid financial footing and 20,000 members to full closure. Now re-opened, it remains committed to serving the community.

JCC President and CEO Brian Schreiber delivers an organizational status update during the JCC's annual meeting on Sept. 15, 2020. Screenshot by Adam Reinherz
JCC President and CEO Brian Schreiber delivers an organizational status update during the JCC's annual meeting on Sept. 15, 2020. Screenshot by Adam Reinherz

What a difference a day makes.

On March 14, 2020, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh had 20,000 members and no long-term debt (it had paid off its last loan on March 2). The agency had been boasting positive annual operating returns for the last 18 consecutive years.

Just one day later, all memberships had been frozen, all facilities were closed, up to $6 million in new debt was anticipated and 80% of all operating revenues were lost.

“The sky was falling,” recalled Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh.

It didn’t take the organization long, though, to sprint into action, finding new ways to serve its members who now had different and expanded needs due to COVID-19, while simultaneously calculating how to survive fiscally with disappearing revenue and increased expenses.

Though JCC leadership had spent the previous week constructing possible scenarios that included various levels of closure depending on the course of the pandemic, those were all scrapped within 24 hours, according to Schreiber.

“Literally, we went from level 1 to level 5 in 24 hours,” he said. “Everything we had worked for very, very quickly went away. We went into full closure. I think we learned that JCCs do really well being active. And psychologically we don’t do well closed. It’s not something that’s in the DNA.”

The new goal was to figure out how to operate as effectively and safely as possible while realizing the scope of services would necessarily be limited because of the health constraints of the pandemic, according to Schreiber.

Although its facilities were closed for those first few months, the JCC continued to serve and deliver an average of 1,300 meals a week to older adults and school-aged children; hosted 40 events to address the community’s blood supply shortage; offered 50 virtual fitness classes a week; completed more than 8,000 wellness checks on older adults; and reached more than 1,300 individual participants through its Virtual Senior Academy, all while following COVID-19 safety mandates.

“You learn how to pivot very, very quickly,” Schreiber said, recalling the early “revenue compression” that necessitated the need for staff furloughs, including about 350 hourly part-time workers.

Once the Paycheck Protection Program loans came in, and the agency could bring back most of its full-time staff and some of its part-timers, JCC leadership had to figure out how to reopen. Thanks to guidance from the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative, and a flexible staff willing to take on different job responsibilities, the problem was not insurmountable.

“We have people doing all different kinds of things,” Schreiber said. “Our camp staff are working in the all-day programs, our teen staff are doing that too. We have some staff that are working in child care all day, all of us are doing health screenings and packing lunches for the seniors and things.”

The JCC’s staff “have really embraced the mission, this deep, deep importance of mission,” he continued. “And frankly, I’d say that that the community that we’re serving, I’ve never seen people more appreciative and supportive.”

Now, more than 150 days into the “green phase,” the JCC has completed over 77,000 health screenings; is serving 195 children in its early childhood programs; has held family camping retreats and a two-week “fall bubble” camp for teens at its Emma Kaufmann Camp; and is supporting virtual learning for 120 children through its All Day @ the J program.

The JCC ECDC welcomed back children beginning June 1.
(Photo by Fara Marcus)

Although it is impossible to predict how long the effects of the pandemic will last, Pittsburgh’s JCC leadership knows it is facing tough, long-term financial challenges ahead. With a drastic decrease in revenue — resulting from several factors including membership loss, reduced Early Childhood enrollment and shuttered overnight camp — combined with increased expenses including PPE, cleaning and disinfecting, the projected shortfall could reach $6 million.

Schreiber is pragmatic. He does not expect that the JCC will immediately recover after the pandemic crisis is over.

“I think this is going to be a 24 to 36 month recovery from this,” he said. “So, we’re trying to be resourceful with the resources we have now. Because it’s not just going to bounce back the next fiscal year, or the fiscal year after. I think it’s going to take some time to rebuild and build some comfort level.”

Addressing the budgetary shortfall will be a challenge but other agencies and individuals have already stepped up to help.

“I think that we recognized very early on that we needed a philanthropic backstop,” Schreiber said. “And I would say the community has been exceptionally generous.”

Soon after the facilities were closed, many members voluntarily donated their dues or made other charitable donations. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh provided a range of financial relief to the JCC, including more than $436,000 in grants, with another $125,000 pending board approval, according to Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing.

“The JCC is not just a community center,” said Hertzman. “It is central to the health and human service efforts in the Jewish community and beyond. They serve seniors, they serve people who need physical therapy, they serve food-insecure people in need of food support, they serve people with disabilities. These supports become much, much harder given the health precautions and restrictions of the pandemic. Anything we can do to help the JCC help their service recipients is critical to the health of the Jewish community and the general Pittsburgh community which they serve.”

The JCC also received a $2.5 million emergency grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation to be utilized over 24 months.

“Our board is particularly proud to be able to respond to the unprecedented financial needs facing the JCC, an invaluable organization which provides crucial services to both the Jewish and the general community,” said David H. Ehrenwerth, chair of the JHF board of trustees, in a prepared statement. “This funding will enable the JCC to continue to provide essential services to seniors, adults, children and preschoolers. These are precisely the types of urgent needs that the Jewish Healthcare Foundation exists to satisfy.”

While the JCC continues to persevere through the hardships caused by the pandemic, Schreiber admits it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s hard,” he said. “But we’re really proud. In some ways, I feel like this is our finest hour. Two years ago [following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting], I would have said it was our finest hour, too. This is a different finest hour, because you are going into Groundhog Day every day to some degree. You have to to maintain that fidelity to practice, and that does take some level of resilience and endurance.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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