Yom Kippur Speech to the Community
by Chuck Cohen, Friedman JCC Building Committee Co-Chair
Like many of us here this evening, my childhood revolved around the Jewish Community Center, just a few blocks down River Street: model-building with Mr. Rabin; swim team under the tutelage of Rick Evans; basketball with Mr. Goldstein, who was always eager to point out the limits of my athletic abilities; a short stint in Boy Scouts with Jack Kantor that consisted of exactly one hike; and Jewish Center Youth, JCY, as a teen with Barbara Sugarman and Irv Lebowitz.
I loved that building. The JCC, and the people I met there, and worked with there, helped make me the person I am today. When I walk the halls of the building, I still hear their voices.
Because Barbara Sugarman and Rick Evans are still there, soldiering on, putting together programs to meet the needs of our members and the greater community.
Our building, however, hasn't aged as well as Barbara and Rick have. If you haven't visited the JCC recently, you'll be surprised at what you see. The wallpaper is peeling off the walls. The pool had to be closed several years ago, because it leaked. The third floor is closed. The heating and ventilation systems are over six decades old, and break down regularly. Water seeps in through the brick façade. The basketball court is open, but is still too small for a regulation game. And the building has no sprinkler system, so it isn't up to modern building codes.
A decaying building isn't our only challenge. Last year, our JCC posted an operating deficit of $700,000, with revenues of a little more than $500,000, and expenses of $1.4 million. At the rate we're going, we will spend through our multi-million dollar endowment in only a few short years, and be out of business. In part, our financial woes are directly tied to the condition of our facility: our outdated and crumbling building doesn't allow us to create the revenue-generating programs, like early childhood education and fitness/athletic classes, that most other JCC's use to subsidize the cultural programming that's so vital to a Center's mission.
And our financial deficit only tells part of the story. Our paying membership has declined to fewer than 100 families. And our annual campaign, which exceeded $1 million a dozen years ago, is now down to about $275,000, both indicators that we've become less relevant to our community.
By any measure, we have work to do. Our tradition teaches us that the Days of Awe are about the hard work of forgiveness and renewal, so it seems appropriate to take a few minutes to talk about each. Perhaps you're upset by the JCC's move from River Street to Kingston. Or you feel like your views weren't listened to, your opinions not valued. Or a past JCC staff member wasn't nice, or didn't send a thank you note, or dismissed your concerns.
If so, on behalf of the board of directors of the JCC, I ask for your forgiveness. Certainly, we've made mistakes over the past few years: executive directors and lay leaders who haven't listened, programs that have been cancelled, opinions and views that have been pushed aside. We are a small community, and our success and survival depends on all of us putting aside our differences, and working together to build a bright and vibrant future.
Which brings us to the season's second theme: renewal.
Good news: your Jewish Community Center is in the middle of a turnaround plan, one that we are confident will make Wilkes-Barre the model for small Jewish communities across the United States. At the heart of that plan is The Friedman Center, named for our beloved Sidney and Pauline, on the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Campus, named in appreciation for a recent $1 million grant. Our new JCC is currently under construction, and set to open on-time, and on-budget, in early 2019.
Our project is a bit unusual. Over the past decade, only four communities in the United States have built new JCC's from the ground up. Three of them are in towns known for their growth and success: Palo Alto, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Tarrytown, New York. And then there's us, here in Wilkes-Barre. Our new JCC, situated on 13 acres in Kingston, will feature a gym that's large enough for two basketball games, the area's finest early childhood education program, two kitchens to accommodate different levels of kashrut, the area's only regulation squash courts, ample parking, and the offices of Temple Israel.
More importantly, our new JCC will generate nearly $250,000 every year in reliable rental income from two sources, leased spaces and building rentals, funds that will be used to close our current deficit. And we anticipate that membership and annual giving will grow as former members return, and we give new members a reason to join us.
The total cost of the project is about $13 million, and we've already raised over $10.5 million - - - 80% of the funds needed - - - through a combination of contributions, grants, and the sale of our current building. Many said it couldn't be done, yet we're doing it. And I promise you'll be proud of the outcome, proud to be a member of thenew Wilkes-Barre Jewish Community Center.
All we need, now, is YOU…
If you dropped out of the JCC, please consider rejoining now, before the move.
If you'd like to get involved, either by making a donation to the capital campaign, or by soliciting others, or by planning events, or by sharing your ideas, please reach out to me, or COO Len Zimmerman, or President Barbara Bell, or another board member.
And get excited. After all, we're not just building a new Jewish Community Center. We're building a new future for the Jewish Community of the Wyoming Valley, a resilient community that's nearly 175 years young, a community that has survived and thrived through fires and floods, heartbreak and diaspora.
Tomorrow's haftorah, from the book of Isaiah, features God's promise to those who sincerely ask for forgiveness with all their heart…
Those who spring from you shall rebuild the ancient ruins
And you shall lay foundations for the coming generation.
You shall be called “Those who mend torn places,”
You shall be called “Those who build lanes to live in.”
Here in our little village of Wilkes-Barre, we have the opportunity to lay foundations for the coming generation, mend torn places, and build lanes to live in. Please join us.
L'shana tova tikateyvu. May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life. And on a dedication plaque in the new Friedman Center. Call me for more information.