In the era of a gym in every shopping center, where does that leave Jewish Community Centers?
The Kaiserman JCC’s board of directors hired Alan Scher to answer that question.
But the CEO doesn’t have an answer just yet.
Three-plus weeks into his new role, Scher said he needs to meet with the board in person and talk to more community members before he comes up with a plan.
Scher’s Wynnewood facility is the last JCC in Southeastern Pennsylvania, a region with one of the largest Jewish populations in the country. His mission is to figure out how to build the three-part business model that is supposed to sustain a JCC.
He thinks that Kaiserman already has two solid business entities upon which to build.
In 2021, Camp Kef, the JCC’s day camp, has more kids than ever with between 450 and 465. And going into the fall, Kaiserman’s Robert J. Wilf Preschool is at capacity with 140 students.
There is just one empty space in the JCC’s business model, and at the Haverford Road facility itself: the room where the gym used to be. After the pandemic broke out in March 2020, Kaiserman officials removed the workout equipment from the room, and they still haven’t put it back.
Scher said the organization is using the room for camp activities this summer. But he stopped short of calling that a permanent use.
“It could be a fitness center,” Scher added.
Or it could be something else.
Board Chair Cindy Smukler said she would like to try programming in the form of an annual book festival, speakers and other Jewish events. The JCC already hosts an annual Purim carnival that draws hundreds of people.
Scher likes Smukler’s idea. But the veteran of five JCCs across the country said that arts and culture are not always the best revenue drivers.
The CEO has worked at two JCCs in New York City, the 14th Street Y and the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood. The 14th Street Y is a famous arts and cultural center, while the Washington Heights Y is more of a social service institution.
It’s a matter of figuring out what’s right for a given JCC facility, according to Scher. To find that answer in Wynnewood, Scher is in the process of speaking with more than 100 Kaiserman members.
When he worked at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Scher came up with a series of youth programs that started after the facility hosted the JCC Maccabi Games. To make their $1.5 million fundraising effort and investment in the center worthwhile, community members needed to know it would go further than the seven-day event.
Scher spent weeks talking to Maccabi athletes and other San Francisco teenagers about what they might like. Then he implemented two programs — one that trained post-Maccabi athletes as youth coaches and another that helped high school students earn community service hours.
“It’s exactly what I did in San Francisco,” Scher said of his process in Wynnewood. “I’m meeting with as many people as I can.”
Dialogue won’t mean anything, though, if the JCC doesn’t have enough money. Smukler said Kaiserman has enough to operate its two businesses. But she also said it could always use more money.
Scher has not raised any money yet. But he did meet with long-term investors and some people who may be interested in investing.
Smukler is confident.
“There are a lot of people in the community that believe in a Jewish Community Center,” she said. “Right now, the world is upside down, and this is a place to find community.”
Wynnewood resident and Kaiserman member Rebecca Bar agrees with Smukler. Bar and her husband, Matt, send their two sons, Micah, 6, and Jonah, 4, to Camp Kef.
The Bar parents love the camp because it offers a wide variety of activities, from art to sports, and a strong Jewish foundation, with Shabbat services and blessings every Friday. Micah also attended preschool at Robert J. Wilf, which Jonah is going to attend for the next two years.
Micah loved Jewish preschool so much that, after attending the public Penn Wynne Elementary School this past year for kindergarten, he asked his parents why he wasn’t learning about Jewish holidays anymore. For 2021-22, they are enrolling him in a Jewish day school.
Before the pandemic, though, the Bars would often use the gym, especially the track and the pool. Yet despite the gym’s closure, the Bars plan on remaining members for a long time.
“It’s been such a nice gathering place for people,” Rebecca Bar said.
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