New JCC Manhattan director seeks to help people ‘get back to life before COVID’

New York Jewish Week via JTA — Almost exactly 18 months ago, as the United States entered its first pandemic summer, the Upper West Side’s flagship Jewish community center broke bad news to its staff: more a third of them would be made redundant or on furlough.

The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan joined JCCs nationwide in cutting staff when in-person programming abruptly ceased this spring and summer. In the face of the devastating wave of COVID that hit the city at the time, JCC Manhattan found itself unable to offer the range of services it usually offered – a preschool, gym, swimming pool, courses, cultural events and more.

A year and a half later, the JCC of a densely Jewish, even emblematic neighborhood, now has a new director. And even though New York’s COVID experience has changed dramatically since the early days, its top priority is still getting people back into the building. The Omicron variant – which gripped the city in December and increased the number of cases by a factor of 20 – has made this more difficult.

“In terms of kind of overall spiritual and emotional well-being, each of these spikes makes it harder for people to get back to pre-COVID lives,” said Rabbi Joanna Samuels, who became the CEO of the JCC in early January, succeeding Rabbi Joy Levitt. . “Our muscles get weaker to get out of our homes and connect with other people. The Jewish community, in my opinion, is a very personal activity.

Connecting with other people, she says, also means bridging religious and political divides, which have only widened during the pandemic despite the neighborhood’s reputation as a liberal redoubt.

Samuels, who grew up in the New York metropolitan area, is the former rabbi of Congregation Habonim, a conservative synagogue not far from JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side. More immediately, she takes office after a decade as founding director of the Manny Cantor Center, a community center on the Lower East Side, another historically Jewish neighborhood in Manhattan.

Since the summer 2020 layoffs, JCC Manhattan has gradually brought people back into the building and has served tens of thousands of people, in person and through a slate of virtual programs. But the effects of the pandemic are still very visible. In 2021, almost two-thirds of the JCC’s programming was virtual – offerings that Samuels said had “incredible popularity”.

And while the JCC largely failed to provide numbers on budgets and staffing compared to pre-pandemic levels, the number of staff, budget, and numbers like pool membership (which is 80% compared to before the pandemic) have not returned to where they were two years ago.

“You can wish all you want you to flip a switch and be back in January 2020,” Samuels said. “The fact is, that’s not how human nature works and it’s certainly not how business works.”

Of course, a slow and uneven recovery from pandemic downscaling is not unique to JCC Manhattan. At the very start of the pandemic, Doron Krakow, the CEO of the JCC Association of North America, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “the cuts are going to be painful and deep” and that “the institutions themselves will be smaller, operationally lesser versions of themselves.

The Manhattan Jewish Community Center building. (Google Maps)

Now, Krakow said, the JCC has reopened and regained much of its staff and members, although there are still gaps. Nationally, he said, the JCCs employ about 80% of the number of people they employed before the pandemic. Enrollment in childcare centers is at 85% of pre-pandemic levels, mainly due to teacher shortages. Sports halls, the beating heart of many JCCs, have found 60% of their members.

Krakow said the JCCs were able to regain their functions thanks to a total of $500 million from government aid, private donations, foundations and federations, and also received a boost through collaborations with d other Jewish organizations.

“There were a lot of JCCs that were crippled, and now the story is that there are no JCCs that are crippled,” he said. “There’s a lot of anxiety about the future, but it’s not existential anxiety right now.”

The ever-changing challenge of COVID can be seen in JCC Manhattan’s “Cinematters” social justice film festival, which opened Thursday. A film festival hosted by the JCC in the fall was hybrid, with attendees viewing films and programs both in the center’s newly renovated auditorium and online via live streaming. Omicron, however, has meant that this week’s festival is entirely virtual.

“I hope we have a robust, in-person, crowded, cheek-to-cheek film festival when it’s safe to do so, and when people feel comfortable, relaxed and excited to be in public, because that’s the special job that a community institution like ours can do,” Samuels said.

With the rebound from the pandemic looking most urgent, Samuels hopes to help heal the neighborhood in other ways. At the Manny Cantor Center, she gained recognition for attempting to bridge cultural and socioeconomic gaps on the Lower East Side through collaborative programming and a rolling fee scale that allowed people of different income levels to join. the gymnasium and attend classes.

Illustrative: Participants in a former Shavuot program at the JCC Manhattan gather on the roof of the JCC. (Courtesy of JCC Manhattan)

Socio-economic issues have also divided the Upper West Side Jewish community during the pandemic — most acutely during a debate over three hotels the city has converted into temporary homeless shelters. Some complained that the shelters had brought crime to the area, while others said the neighborhood’s wealthy residents had a responsibility to those less fortunate. Jewish residents and synagogues lined up on both sides of the issue.

Samuels said tackling disparities is part of JCC’s work and cited a program in which volunteers mentor students in public schools in low-income neighborhoods. But, she says, she is more focused on reducing divisions within the local Jewish community.

Despite the Upper West Side’s progressive reputation, Samuels believes local Jews are fragmented over issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and remain siled into their religious sub-communities. She hopes to convene discussions that allow people on opposite sides of an issue to engage with each other.

“Our political differences, our religious differences, led us to have a sense of diminishing sense of being a people,” she said. “Even though people can all vote for the same ticket in an election – which they don’t, by the way – … there is nevertheless a narrowing idea that we are all part of the same people .”

Samuels said the center’s Zoom programs have always been popular during the pandemic, but she doesn’t see them as the future of the JCC. Despite the ongoing challenge of the pandemic, she still believes people have a basic need to be with each other in person, rather than on a screen.

“People want to be together,” she said. “They want to be together in spaces where they make friends, where they learn something, where they encounter something new. And I think that’s great, because actually this pandemic is going to end, God willing, at some point, hopefully soon, and we’ll be here doing the things that we do.

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