Jewish Community Centers merge with hopes for renewal

With Rosh Hashana approaching, it isn't difficult for Jay Kaminsky to find parallels in the Jewish new year themes of introspection and renewal and the rejuvenation of the Jewish Community Center ideal in Pinellas County.

After struggling for years against a tide of fading appeal and declining membership, the Jewish Community Centers in St. Petersburg and Clearwater are merging. The new organization, which will still have facilities in both north and south Pinellas, will be known as JCC Suncoast.

"Together we are far stronger than we are apart,'' Kaminsky said of the merger. "Merging of resources and creating a leaner, more efficient organization will certainly make sense to the board of directors.''

The consolidation, which has meant staff reductions and had been preceded by relocations to smaller quarters and outsourcing of some programs, comes at a time when the local Jewish community is still reeling from the closure of the 30-year-old Pinellas County Jewish Day School and the collapse of plans to start another.

The JCC concept began in Baltimore with the formation of the first Young Men's Hebrew Association to help 19th century Jewish immigrants assimilate into American life. In the years that followed, JCC and YM-YWHA organizations nationwide evolved into key community centers offering social, cultural, educational, recreational and wellness programs. In recent years, some have struggled to remain relevant.

"Some have closed. Some are supported by their endowments,'' said Todd Siegel, board president of the new JCC Suncoast. "Today there are so many choices for people to make. You have to have exceptional value for people to participate.''

JCCs, like other nonprofits, are dealing with the economy, said Alan Mann, executive vice president of the JCC Association in New York City. "But the bigger issue for JCC, for any Jewish institution, is helping to lead a new Jewish generation and new, great Jewish thinking that is going to create a vital, vibrant Jewish community,'' he said.

Locally, the centers — funded by the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, grants, membership dues and planned giving — have had to make difficult decisions, said Siegel, who joined with Kaminsky in the effort to revitalize the JCC in Pinellas County.

"We strategized how to reinvent ourselves. It took a couple of years, but we eventually got it to a point to combine the two organizations and to do business as one,'' said Siegel, chief executive officer of MTS Medication Technologies in St. Petersburg.

"As the community changed, similar to the way individual lives changed, what used to be the norm lost some of the appeal,'' said Kaminsky, a former JCC president.

"Like any other nonprofit organization … you need to constantly re-evaluate, change, so you can remain relevant.''

The plan is to offer a roster of activities that includes Scouting, versions of yoga, martial arts, theater trips and wine tasting. The goal is to boost membership, now about 250, across generations.

Kaminsky said the organization will get new program handbooks into the homes of Pinellas County's Jewish families around the High Holy Days, the 10-day period beginning with Rosh Hashana on Wednesday and ending on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Ellen Katzman, former joint executive director of the JCC Community Center and the Jewish Federation in Charleston, S.C., has been hired to head the consolidated organization.

''My goal, and the goal of the board of directors, is to build community through programs and services that enrich the Jewish lives of individuals and families throughout Pinellas County,'' said Katzman, who was tapped after a national search.

The merger ends a shaky period for the north and south centers. Established in 1952, the South Pinellas JCC began on Arlington Avenue N in St. Petersburg and eventually moved to the 13-acre property of the former Kapok Tree Restaurant on Madeira Beach. Dwindling membership forced the center to close in 1998. It reopened in 2005 on Central Avenue.

In Clearwater, the Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Community Center started as two separate organizations. The Golda Meir senior center opened in 1981, followed by the Marshall and Reva Kent Jewish Community Center in 1984. The two centers merged in 1995.

The plan for further consolidation couldn't come at a more fitting time, Kaminsky said.

"Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur is an opportunity to express our deepest thoughts and take time to look inwardly. There is a correlation between what we do as Jews at this time of year and what the JCC Suncoast is doing at this critical time of its own history,'' he said.

"This self-evaluation of our centers and redefining of purpose is only the first step of a long process. We will need to constantly stand vigilant and self-evaluate."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Fast Facts

Jewish Community Centers merge

• JCC Suncoast, South Center, 5023 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

• North Center, 2075 Sunnydale Blvd., Clearwater. Go to jccsuncoast.org or call (727) 321-6100.

•Humanitarian Dinner honoring Dr. Bruce and Amy Epstein, 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 3 at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Call (727) 321-6100.

Jewish Community Centers merge with hopes for renewal 09/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 3:00pm]

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