Building community from Y to J

by Marla Cohen

DSC_0841It’s been through several names, and many homes, but after 22 years JCC Rockland has become a center and fixture in the Rockland Jewish community.

And perhaps no other organization is as closely associated with the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, which founded it, as is the JCC. The Federation started 25 years ago, partially in response to the community’s desire to form a YM-YWHA so that Jewish youth and Jewish seniors would have a place for activities.

At the time, there was no Federation, but instead, a United Jewish Appeal campaign run out of New York through a local office. The push for services in Rockland that could be provided through a YM-YWHA and a Jewish Family Service spurred local leaders to form the Federation, and in turn, start what is now the JCC.

Though if you ask Allan Eisenkraft the Y has been around much longer.

DSC_0835“I called 25 Jewish leaders to my home in 1976, that’s when we started talking about it,” said Eisenkraft, who was the Y’s second president and the only one to serve in that role twice. “It took us 12 years until we found our first small, reasonable location we could lease.”

Leaders organized 27 “coffee klatsches” around the county, according to Eisenkraft with 15 to 20 people at each one. With the help of then state Sen. Eugene Levy, the Y received a $55,000 grant and 12 people agreed to match it, and the organization was off and running.

They hired David Whyne, the first executive director, with the funds, renovated the space, which was in the building where Federation organizers Bob Silverman and Mark Karsch had a business. And the Lower Hudson Valley YM-YWHA was born, operating its first full year with a budget of $138,000. A proposed outline for programs consisted of a parent drop-in center, teen dances, a job bank and young adult discussion groups.

The opening in 1988 attracted more than 700 people, though no one was sure what to expect, according to Eisenkraft.DSC_0827

The Y started an afterschool program and mommy-and-me offerings. Nine seniors came to the first senior program, according to Whyne, who was executive director from 1987 to 2000. The organization started a teen theater program and sent its first delegation of 33 kids to the JCC Maccabi Games to Chicago in 1988.

“The mommy-and-me, the after school program and the senior programs just kept growing,” said Whyne. “That was a group that really needed a social outlet and a place to meet and they remembered from Brooklyn and the Bronx, the places they grew up, that they had JCCs.”

There was creative tension too, between the Y and the Federation, some because there just was never enough money to fund everything, he said. “But this also gave the Federation something it really could point to, something very local that they could use to attract people.

“I think it was mutually beneficial. I don’t think either one of us [the organizations] could have gone on without the other. It was true; the players were the same guys.”

Somewhere along the way the fledgling organization lost the “Lower Hudson Valley” part of its name and became first the YM-YWHA of Rockland, then the JCC-Y and now the JCC. For those who really prefer shorthand, it’s simply “The J.”

The Y spent years as “wandering Jews” moving from a first location on West Nyack Road, to the Highview School in Nanuet, and another location on Executive Park Boulevard in Valley Cottage. By then, the operation had grown significantly said Whyne, but the space available had literally shrunk.

“We realized we had to get out of there and get our own place,” said Whyne. That’s when the organization secured the building on Rt. 45, and even then, it was already too small for the needs. “We started looking to expand even before we moved in.”

Whyne left in 2000, just as the sports programs, which have become much of the backbone of JCC programming were taking off. Participating at the JCC Maccabi Games was big, and the board was beginning to dream of a bigger home, one with a gym a larger fitness center, and a pool, “all the things Ys and JCCs have around the country,” he said.

At that point David Kirschtel, JCC Rockland’s chief executive officer, took the helm. He had served as a board member for six years, including as membership vice president, creating the youth sports program and the fall fundraising event, which was geared to attract young families.

campusSince Kirschtel took charge, the Y became the J and has moved once more, to the Rockland Jewish Community Campus on West Nyack Road. The organization has gone in that time from a $2.1 million budget enterprise housed in a 26,000-square-foot building to a $4.5 million operation occupying a state-of-art center five times that size. Today the organization offers more than 1,500 programs annually, from Jewish film and book festivals, to a wide variety of fitness offerings, while building on parenting, senior and youth programs that it has long offered.

“I inherited more of a mom-and-pop organization very focused on programming, but it was limited in scope,” he said. “We needed to build support and visibility, and we started to on Route 45. But now, in the new campus, we have a building that meets our current needs and more community support. And of course, we can always use more.”

Today, the campus is about to embark on a $7.5 million capital campaign that is linked to the JCC hosting the JCC Maccabi Games in 2012. That campaign seeks to raise $1.2 million to host the games and another $6.3 million to construct a preschool pool, upgrade technology and pay down capital costs on the West Nyack building.

And of course there are those, such as Eisenkraft, who still want to see a pool built in the near future.

Kirschtel is constantly looking for ways to build his organization, whether at the grass roots or major gift level. Though the West Nyack building is a triumph in itself, it’s that outreach he sees as the JCC’s greatest achievement.

“Trying to work closely with all the other community organizations, to strengthen each other, and the community, that would be our greatest achievement,” he said.

Nov. 12, 2010



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