The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh has furloughed about 50 of its 135 full-time employees and shifted another 50 to part-time employment, a fallout of the March 15 closure of both branches of the JCC due to COVID-19 mandates.
The JCC also announced that its 350 part-time employees will not be scheduled to work at all for the foreseeable future, and all senior staff members have taken salary cuts.
The decision to cut back on employees and salaries, which was delivered to staff on April 3 via a Zoom meeting, “was very, very, very hard,” said Brian Schreiber, the JCC’s president and CEO. “Our hope is that as we reopen, we can bring everybody back. That is our hope.”
Pittsburgh’s JCC is not alone in taking such dramatic measures in order to stay afloat during these financially uncertain times of massive unemployment and social distancing orders. Last week, more than 700 employees at four JCCs in Northern California were temporarily laid off. The Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta also laid off or furloughed more than half of its staff last week, and the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center outside Philadelphia, which has been shuttered since March 13, laid off 176 out of its 178 employees.
“Pittsburgh is in very difficult but very good company in that some of the biggest and strongest communities on the continent are undertaking the kinds of layoffs that Brian announced on Friday,” said Doron Krakow, president and CEO of the JCC Association of North America. “It’s happening in most communities, and the question is when the trigger is going to get pulled in a number of different places.”
The JCCs’ business model, which depends upon monthly income collected from membership dues, program fees and childcare tuition, is particularly vulnerable to the economic impact caused by this pandemic. When Pittsburgh’s JCCs closed its doors on March 15, all incoming fees were frozen, Schreiber explained. The organization was able to compensate its full staff for three weeks while waiting for the details of the federal stimulus bill to be released. Then, JCC leaders “got to the point where we had to start making some choices,” Schreiber said.
Those employees who have been moved to half time can apply for unemployment for the differential between their new salaries and their former salaries, he said, and all the full-time staff who receive health care benefits will continue to receive those benefits – including 85% of paid premiums – through June 30.
JCCs are among three groups of Jewish organizations facing an existential threat posed by the COVID-19 crisis, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. The other two groups are Jewish museums and Jewish start-ups that have not established endowments.
Many JCCs “have been at-risk for some time,” Sarna said. “This is a case of a group of institutions that have been weak before, meaning lots of people have begun going to regular gyms and so on, and no longer feel the need to belong to the JCC the way they once did. And the question is, ‘Is this going to push them over the line?’ A lot of Jewish institutions have been on the edge and now we are going to find out, as we did 10 years ago (during the 2009 financial crisis), which they are.
“I think, when we are honest, we have known for some time that the idea that we should swim with other Jews, play basketball with other Jews, exercise with other Jews, has kind of declined and people prefer now to go to gyms that are very nearby,” Sarna continued. “So these kinds of facilities are, at least in some communities, at very significant risk and hard decisions will have to be made and I don’t know how they are going to end up. I think each community is its own story.”
The JCC is not the only local institution that is taking a serious financial hit due to the fallout of the pandemic. The Pittsburgh section of the National Council of Jewish Women also has laid off employees, although NCJW president Teddi Horvitz declined to discuss details. The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, like other media, has faced a loss of revenue from a sudden decline in advertising. The paper’s employees had their salaries slashed by 20% while the nonprofit awaits potential relief through grants, donations and a small business loan now available through the CARES Act, which designated $349 billion to help keep workers employed during the economic downturn. The initiative provides 100% federally guaranteed loans to small business and nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees, with the loan forgiven if businesses substantially retain employees based on a preset formula.
Many local Jewish organizations, including the JCC, have applied for the SBA loans and are also looking to other sources for financial assistance.
One source may be the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which will be providing hundreds of thousands of dollars to its beneficiary organizations to help relieve some of the financial strain. Last week, the Federation’s board of directors passed the recommendations of its planning and funding committee to reallocate $250,000 of money previously designated for other purposes for the 2019-2020 budget year, according to Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing.
The $250,000 in emergency grants is “just the first of what will be several allocations,” Hertzman said. “They wanted to get immediate money out based on the immediate needs but the planning and funding committee plans to distribute additional funds as we understand where the most important needs are. And that will be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Federation funds previously designated for specific JCC programs — which are now canceled — have been converted to an unrestricted JCC grant, Hertzman added.
The first package of Federation emergency allocations includes funding for the Jewish Family and Community Services-run Squirrel Hill Food Pantry and SOS Pittsburgh, which gives small emergency grants to people who have an immediate need.
“These kinds of crises are why JFCS exists,” said Jordan Golin, president and CEO of JFCS. “On a good day we are helping people struggling with different kinds of life crises. When the entire community has a crisis, like after the synagogue shooting and like now, where everyone everywhere is in crisis, this is what we do.”
JFCS is financially stable for now, Golin said, thanks in part to diverse funding streams, and, at least for the time being, is not contemplating layoffs.
The Federation’s first wave of emergency funding also includes a distribution to the Jewish Association on Aging for medical supplies, personal protective equipment and disposable paper products, as the senior living facilities are no longer using dishes in order to avoid contamination.
Other Federation funds will go to Jewish Residential Services, the Jewish Agency for Israel and to the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to help assuage the needs of Jews overseas, including in the former Soviet Union.
Pittsburgh’s Federation has contributed to JAFI’s recently launched emergency fund for non-profits, a program that includes provisions for immediate loans, with a 3% interest rate.
Although the Federation, which shuttered its building on March 13, does not anticipate layoffs of its own staff, it has “slowed down hiring for some of the open positions,” and some staff have been redeployed, said Hertzman.
As for Pittsburgh’s JCC, for now it operates in a limited capacity, providing meals to qualifying seniors, making wellness calls, opening facilities from time to time for blood drives, and broadcasting content online, including fitness classes and JLine programs.
Schreiber noted how quickly things have changed.
Just last month, he recalled, “we were exceptionally healthy. On March 2, we paid the last debt payment back from the Renaissance campaign that we had had for 23 years. We were debt-free on March 2 for the first time since I’ve been there. We celebrated that and it lasted two weeks.”
Schreiber does remain confident that the JCC “will reopen,” he said. “We will serve everybody that we can.” But because of all the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, JCC leadership is planning for different possible scenarios, different timelines.
“We have to think about what it will mean to open with some degree of social distance and we will have to be mindful not only of our own economic condition, but what will be the financial circumstances of the people we are serving,” said Schreiber. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at