Stephen Seiden first became involved with the JCC movement 39 years ago, when he moved from Tenafly to Livingston and signed up to join the gym at the YM-YWHA of Metropolitan New Jersey on Northfield Avenue in West Orange.
Little by little, his engagement grew.
“I was asked to be on the board,” he said. “My children went through early childhood programs there and Camp Deeny Riback. They were counselors and, in fact, one of my daughters met her husband there.”
Twice he would serve as chair of the board of trustees of what became JCC MetroWest.
On March 31, nearly four decades after signing up, Seiden was installed as national chair of the JCC Association, the North American umbrella organization for the Jewish Community Center movement.
Announced last October, his installation was formalized at the JCCs of North America Biennial Convention, which took place March 28-April 1 in San Diego.
As he began his four-year term, he pledged “a lot of new initiatives.”
“There are opportunities and challenges the Jewish community faces. One of my objectives is asking how does the JCC fit in as a part of it? More Jews go to JCCs than any other institution,” he told NJ Jewish News during a phone interview from San Diego.
“Our potential members are of all ages, all circumstances, and Jews of all different types, including the ‘nones.’ They are Jewish but they don’t define themselves as religious Jews. Our goal is to meet them where they are and help them continue on their journeys.”
One major tactic will be a rebranding, which, he said, “is soon going to begin rolling out,” with younger generations of Jews as primary targets.
“In Greater MetroWest, what people call the Northfield JCC used to be called the YMHA. In most of the country the younger generations — the Millennials and the Gen-Xers — all refer to it as ‘the J,’ and that is what we will be calling them.”
The JCC movement traces its start to 1854 with the opening of the first Hebrew Young Men’s Literary Association in Baltimore. Today it counts more than 350 JCCs, YM-YWHAs, and camp sites. Its programs included the JWB Jewish Chaplains’ Council and the JCC Maccabi Games.
Services offered by the JCCs have evolved over the years, from programs to acculturate new immigrants to serving the social and cultural needs of communities that were initially urban and later moved to the suburbs. In recent years, the centers have faced stiff competition from commercial health clubs, and have added more Jewish educational programming in response to growing assimilation.
“The movement is really very strong,” said Seiden. “Look at the Northfield JCC or the Scotch Plains JCC. Their memberships are strong.”
The goal, as always, he said, is to meet the needs of the Jewish community.
“Our goals are really the same as synagogues and federations: How do we get and keep the Jews engaged with the Jewish community?” he said. “To me, there are lots of opportunities and synergies within the local Jewish organizations. My goal is to collaborate with other Jewish organizations and have the JCCs be at the forefront of meeting the needs of the Jewish community, because there are very few other institutions that really meet those needs.”
He pointed to the JCC in West Orange as a model.
“It offers services from when our children are born to when they are in the William Margulies Senior Center,” he said. “It provides cultural and recreational opportunities in a four-day-a-week program geared to the older adults in the Greater MetroWest community. Lunch is served on the premises Monday to Thursday through the JCC Kosher Nutrition Program. Some members are now in their 100s. We want people to stay engaged with the Jewish community.”
Seiden was born in Queens and raised in Tenafly. He is an industrial real estate developer. He and his wife, Sharon, are members of Congregation Beth El in South Orange.
JCC MetroWest reflects the history of the movement as a whole. The Jewish community of Newark organized the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1877, eventually opening the High Street Y in 1924. That facility closed in 1954 and a new building on Chancellor Avenue in the city opened in 1959. Following Newark’s Jews to the suburbs, the YM-YWHA opened on the Northfield Avenue site in 1967; the Chancellor Avenue building was sold in 1969. A second suburban complex, the Lautenberg Family JCC of Morris County, opened in Whippany in 1992.
Seiden attributed the closing of the Whippany health club and child care center in recent years to geography. “People will usually drive 20 minutes to a JCC, a synagogue, or whatever. But in Whippany there is no real Jewish population within 20 minutes,” he explained.
Seiden said JCCs have always depended on the strength of the local Jewish population.
“Look at the Manhattan JCC and the 92nd Street Y. They are doing well, as are a lot of the suburban JCCs. Toronto has had a revitalization of some of their downtown JCCs,” he said. “It is really locally based.”