JCCs are a portal to Jewish life

JCCs are a portal to Jewish life

Doron Krakow talks about the institution he loves as he leaves its helm

Doron Krakow
Doron Krakow

Doron Krakow of Tenafly might have left his job as head of the JCC Association of North America, but the JCCA certainly hasn’t left him.

It is instead embedded deeply in his heart, as a conversation with him makes clear.

The post was the logical culmination of his life until that point.

Mr. Krakow was born in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, but when he was 4 years old, in 1969, his parents, David and Miriam, moved the family to Teaneck, and that’s where he grew up.

Teaneck was very Jewish then, as it is now — “that’s why my parents moved there,” Mr. Krakow said — but the breakdown was different. There were two Conservative synagogues in town — today there’s one — and two Reform temples — today’s there’s just one. Back then, Congregation Bnai Yeshurun was the only Orthodox shul; today it’s the oldest of at least a dozen.

Mr. Krakow went to public school in Teaneck, where he estimates that about 40 percent of his classmates were Jewish, and his family belonged to Congregation Beth Sholom, “whose founding rabbi, Barry Schaeffer, was and remains my image of what a rabbi should be,” Mr. Krakow said.

“I was active in Young Judaea as a kid,” he said. “The chapter met at the Teaneck Jewish Center.” He spent summers at Young Judaea’s Camp Tel Yehuda, and then earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and what then was called Hebraic studies at Rutgers. “That’s when my unexpected career in the Jewish community began,” he said. “I was a USY adviser at Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, and then at Young Judaea in East Brunswick for my senior year.

“I had intended a career in the business world”— that’s why he majored in economics — “but I was convinced by a wonderful shaliach with whom I’d become friends that before I went to grad school, I should work with Young Judaea full time. So I became the regional director of the New Jersey region.

Doron and Yoni Krakov, left, are on the Young Judaea float for the Salute to Israel parade in 1995.

“I did that job full time for two years. And that’s when I met Janet Lipsy” — now Janet Lipsy Krakow — “when we were both on staff at camp, at Young Judaea at Sprout Lake.”

The couple married in 1991. Ms. Krakow was a corporate marketing executive at Sherwin Williams for many years; a few years ago, when the company moved to Cleveland, “she decided to take a break, and she’s still enjoying that break,” Mr. Krakow said.

After a few years, Mr. Krakow decided to revert to his original life plan. He and his wife moved to Ithaca, where he earned an MBA in preparation for life as a sober businessman. “I took a job in finance at IBM,” he said. “I was working there when I had an unexpected call from the president of Hadassah, Deborah Katz — who also was from Teaneck — asking me if I would be willing to become the interim national director of Young Judaea,” which then ran the youth group.

Just like any young person asked by the group that had been a formative presence in his adolescence to lead it, Mr. Krakow was thrilled. “I was very flattered,” he said. “I was 27 — really a kid — and I was offered the chance to be national director of Young Judaea!” Saying no was not really an option. “So I took a leave from IBM for what I assumed was going to be a year.”

He ended up leading Young Judaea for a full decade.

Why did Ms. Katz and her leadership pick Mr. Krakow? “New Jersey was the biggest region in the country, and I had led it,” he said. “I’d also risen to the leadership of Sprout Lake one summer. Basically, I was a trusted Young Judaea guy. A movement guy. A known quantity.

“Neither they nor I thought that it would be as long-term a job as it turned out to be. It was supposed to be a bridge. But I fell in love with the work, I already was devoted to the mission, and so I went from one year to two years to eventually 10 years. It was a wonderful journey.”

Somewhere during that long ride, IBM figured out that Mr. Krakow was lost to them. But still, “as I came to the end of that 10 years, I decided that it was time to go back to my original plan and return to the private sector.

“And then, I got another phone call. This was from a search firm looking for someone to head the Israel and overseas department of the United Jewish Communities” — the nonprofit that now is the Jewish Federations of North America.

David Krakow, far right, and his brother-in-law, Moshe Arens, second from left, were in the Irgun during Israel’s War for Independence.

“That was unexpected,” he said. “So I took a meeting — and then I took another meeting — and I came away feeling like I was going to move from the kids’ table to the grown-ups’.”

Mr. Krakow took the job.

“I was in that role for five years, with the responsibility of overseeing the allocation and distribution of over $400 million of the federations’ annual campaign funding that left North America for initiatives in Israel and across the Jewish world,” he said. He worked “primarily with the federation systems, major overseas partners, the Jewish Agency, and the Joint,” or to give the nonprofit its formal name, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“It was probably the most extraordinary education that I have had in my career,” Mr. Krakow said. “It was my introduction to the organized North American Jewish world.

“It was heady and challenging and gratifying and illuminating. I traveled the globe. I was in the former Soviet Union. I was the point person on Ethiopian immigration, so I went there half a dozen times. I was in Latin America after the economic collapse in Argentina.

“It was really quite a remarkable, remarkable journey.”

But even remarkable journeys eventually end. This one drew to a close as the result of a relationship Mr. Krakow had developed with a task force about the development of the Negev, the desert that makes up Israel’s south. It led to a job running the American Associates of Ben Gurion University.

“I was drawn to the work, and to the prospect of scratching my itch to run a business, to be the head of a revenue engine to the university, and to be a spokesperson for the Negev and its continued development.” Remember, he did earn an MBA. “So I left UCJ and joined the AABGU, and I had a wonderful 10-year tenure there. We raised a lot of money, we created a host of new projects and initiatives, and we made our mark. And in my tenure, we received the largest philanthropic gift in the history of the state of Israel — half a billion dollars from the estate of the late Howard and Lottie Marcus of San Diego. It was the right place, the right time, an extraordinary family, beautiful people — a whole other story.”

Aaron Krakow and his IDF unit fought in Khan Younis after October 7.

Altogether, “It was a very gratifying experience,” Mr. Krakow said.

Meanwhile, the Krakow family — by then, Janet and Doron had three sons, Yoni, Aaron, and Elan — had lived in Tenafly for some time. (Except for his stint in Ithaca, they’d always lived in New Jersey.) They’d been active members of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades there — and also members first of Temple Emanu-El of Closter and then, when Doron’s old friend Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky moved to Congregation Beth Sholom of Teaneck, they transferred their membership to be in his community — but “I was not a JCC guy,” Mr. Krakow said. To be clear, he loved using his local JCC, but he was a member there, a consumer of its services, not one of its overseers.

“But then I got another phone call — from the same person who tapped me for the UJC position — and he told me that he might have something I might want to look at. And I said no, I am not a JCC guy, so thanks but no thanks. But he pushed me to do some reading — to do some homework — and then get back to him.”

Mr. Krakow did his homework, “and it changed my mind,” he said. “Sitting where I was, working with the university, I had a very small perch on American Jewish life. I could see a couple of things that made me uncomfortable. I saw that despite all of our success, despite our prosperity, we were falling behind in our commitment to one another, in our cohesiveness, in our rootedness in Jewish life. There was a growing rift between the American Jewish community and Israel, which I found unsettling. I was uncomfortable with the state of affairs — but from where I was, that was all I could be.” He wasn’t in a position to do very much about it. “We were a boutique operation,” he said. “A beautiful one — but we reached only about 1,000 people across the United States.”

It was time for him to reach more people.

“I learned from the homework I did that there are 172 JCCs across the United States and Canada, and between them they welcome 1.5 million people through their doors every week — which is stunning. A million of those people are Jews — Jews of every type and style, of every age, every religious background, every political disposition, every letter of the identity alphabet. And the other half million are friends and neighbors from outside the Jewish community who come to a Jewish place, by design, every single week.

“What I’ve discovered is that if you want to know what a local Jewish community looks like, sit in the lobby of the local JCC for a few hours on any typical day and you’ll see every face in the community.

“And the JCCs run the largest network of Jewish day camps and overnight camps in North America, with 100,000 kids in summer camp every year. They have more children in Jewish early childhood programs than any other network, and they are the largest employer in the Jewish community.

Brother and sister Moshe and Miriam Arens both were members of Betar.

“Learning all these things, I thought that if you want to impact the trajectory of Jewish life and community, you should be in the place that touches the most Jewish lives. So I called the agency back, and I said that I’d take the meeting. They were ready to roll the dice on an outsider,” and he got the job.

That was seven years ago. “It’s been an extraordinary seven years,” Mr. Krakow said.

It has been a historic seven years. “I arrived at the JCCA in the midst of the bomb threat crisis that marked the first part of 2017,” he said. “Well over 100 JCCs had received bomb threats and had to be evacuated. It unsettled everybody’s sense of safety and security.

“A year later, we had the Tree of Life massacre, the worst in a series of violent antisemitic attacks. And not long after that, when we felt that we were getting our equilibrium back, we ran headlong into the covid pandemic.

“We had social disruptions. We had the racial and social justice upheavals, and the emergence of profoundly challenging identity politics.

“And then there was October 7.

“After 30 years working in the organized Jewish community, I know that we have never experienced anything like this, as we were battered from crisis to crisis.

“Crises have a way of both knocking you off your game plan and catalyzing your coming together,” Mr. Krakow continued. “I think that for the JCC movement during this time, the latter was critically important. When I started, only 111 JCCs were affiliated with the JCC association; network affiliation was defined by paying dues. We were facing very much the same problem as the religious streams, so it was important to me that if we were to move the needle on Jewish life, we had to widen the circle.

“So first we worked on getting the no-longer-affiliated JCCs back — we added about 15 — but then, as we confronted the crises that kept popping up, I made the decision to serve and support every JCC in time of crisis. So first during the bomb threat crisis and then during covid, we waived the membership criteria and announced that we were committing ourselves to helping every JCC.

Mr. Krakow smiles with a group of Ethiopian immigrant children in Israel.

“Since the start of covid, all 182 JCCs have been affiliated, and more than 160 of them are actively working with the association today. That has allowed us to engage in a collective agenda. Beyond the day-to-day work of the JCCs, it’s anchored in a commitment to Jewish continuity and engagement with Israel, which I believe are fundamental to Jewish identity and to building Jewish community, no matter where we chose to make our homes.

“In order to achieve those aims, I took my experience with the philanthropic community and reached out to the foundation world to reintroduce them to the JCC movement in a way that would help them to see that it is the ideal platform for the realization of their strategic goals.

“If you are a major foundation looking to achieve some sort of programmatic or community building effort, if you are interested in strengthening the professional pipeline, if you’re interested in getting more kids to camp, if you’re interested in family engagement with Jewish life, if you’re interested in almost any aspect of the Jewish communal agenda, then there is no place where you will find more potential participants or more fertile ground for the engagement of people than a JCC, which engages more people than anybody else.

“And so over a period of seven years, we increased fundraising by tenfold.”

Most of the money went to the JCCA, which sent it to individual JCCs.

So if Mr. Krakow becomes so impassioned about JCCs — and all you have to do is ask him anything about a JCC and you’ll hear the passion — why did he just leave the organization?

For an even more personal passion.

The Krakows’ middle son, Aaron, made aliyah. “In August, Janet and I went to Israel to await the arrival of our first grandchild, who was born on August 23 and named eight days later.

Janet and Doron Krakow with their two older sons, Yoni and Aaron, in 1999.

“He was named David, after my father, of blessed memory, who had fought in Israel’s War of Independence. This was coming full circle. A new David Krakow was named in Jerusalem.”

Doron’s father, who was born on the Lower East Side in 1926, became involved in Betar, the Zionist youth group; that’s how he got to Israel to fight in 1948, at Israel’s founding. “One of his best friends in Betar was Moshe Arens, the former defense minister,” Mr. Krakow said. “He met his younger sister, Miriam Arens, and they got married in 1951. I lost my dad in January 2019, but my mom, who turned 93, still is living in the house I grew up in, in Teaneck.”

Meanwhile, enraptured with their new grandson, “Janet and I decided to stay in Israel until the chaggim, so we flew back home on October 6,” Mr. Krakow said.

“We walked into our home late that afternoon, and by the time I woke up, Aaron had been recalled to his paratrooper unit, and that night he was entering Kfar Aza, and at noon the next day, the 8th, I got back on a plane, having promised my son that I would be with his wife, Zoe, and their newborn son for as long as he would be in harm’s way.

“I was there until the end of January. Zoe, David, and I spent those months first with my brother in Zichron Yakov and then in our apartment in Tel Aviv. And Aaron spent the last 61 days fighting in Kahn Younis. Then his unit was rotated out, and I was able to return to the United States and focus on the work to be done here.

“But I found that when I was back here, and my work was in front of me, my heart was there, in Israel. Janet and I came to the conclusion that we need to be supportive and present for Aaron, Zoe, and David. And I also found that while the work I was doing here was important and meaningful, I want my time to be devoted to helping Israel to overcome the challenges it’s facing, and I want to do it on a fulltime basis.”

Mr. Krakow and his board realized that if he were to leave, it would be best for him to do it as quickly as possible. So he left the JCCA at the end of March, and his successor, Jennifer Mamlet, “my most important professional ally and supporter, who had been the remarkably successful CEO of the Central New Jersey JCC” in Scotch Plains, took over.

“I am gratified and enormously confident that the agency is in great hands,” Mr. Krakow said.

Exactly what will he do next? Mr. Krakow isn’t sure. He knows that he wants to support Israel, his son, and his son’s family there. But he also knows that his other two sons are here — Yoni, who lives in New York and works in high tech, is engaged to be married to Rachel, a young woman both he and Janet adore, in August, and Elan is a junior at the College of New Jersey, studying psychology. “So we have one foot there and one foot here,” Mr. Krakow said.

But no matter what else he does, part of his heart always will be with the JCCs. Other Jewish organizations have grayed and withered, and some have died, he said; outside the Orthodox world, affiliation with religious institutions has dropped precipitously — by 80 percent in the last generation, Mr. Krakow said. But the JCCs remain a vibrant portal to Jewish life, a great resource for the reengagement of Jews with Jewish culture, spirituality, wisdom, and the future.

read more: