Ten years ago, when leaders first broached the idea for the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County and the Metuchen-Edison YMCA to share facilities on one community campus, many people on both sides said it would never work.
After all, how could two faith-based organizations with different traditions possibly collaborate yet independently maintain those traditions?
A decade later, the partnership, still the only one of its kind in the country, has brought booming membership, expanded programming, and financial stability to both institutions in an age when many nonprofit institutions are struggling through a bad economy.
On April 3, community members, politicians, and leaders of both institutions gathered at the Edison campus to celebrate the milestone anniversary and cut the ribbon on a new $1.7 million, 6,000-square-foot fitness center expansion.
“We believed in a joint mission and worked together for the greater good of the community,” JCC executive director Dorothy Rubinstein told the gathering. “Philosophically, we share the ideals of strength of mind, body, family, and community.”
The campus has a combined membership of 8,000, which is not broken down by institution. The Y, which began the fitness center fund-raising campaign five years ago, projects a 25 percent increase in overall membership as a result of the new athletic center.
In the last decade, Rubinstein estimated that Jewish membership, which had dropped to 1,000 before the partnership, had increased by 150 percent, many drawn by the upgraded athletic facilities.
“They figured why they should go to a gym when they can get the same fitness classes and equipment here as well as all our other services and programming,” she said.
The partnership was hatched when the Y wanted to establish a presence in north Edison, but found costs — particularly for a pool — prohibitive.
The JCC, facing a declining Jewish population in northern Middlesex County, had its own financial woes.
Rubinstein recalled sitting in former JCC director Iris Baumgarten’s office when former YMCA CEO William Lovett called to propose the collaboration.
“It was like lights went off in my head,” she recalled.
The campus raised $3 million for the project, including a $500,000 special state grant and a $50,000 grant from Middlesex County. Money was also donated by corporations, foundations, financial institutions, and the more than 300 business owners in the Oak Tree Road area, where the facility is located.
JCC president Howard Zuckerman said selling some of its “underutilized property” to the Y to develop upgraded fitness facilities saved “hundreds of thousands if not millions” of dollars, which both institutions invested in expanded services and programming.
He praised the “unprecedented leadership” of people who were able to put aside differences for the greater good of the community. “May we all go from strength to strength,” he added.
The partners emphasized shared ideals and a welcoming atmosphere in their culturally diverse area of north Edison, near the Iselin border. The area has a significant Asian population, particularly Indian. The membership includes blacks and whites and Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.
Lucinda Florio, board chair of what is now the YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge & South Amboy, said the campus “has become a cornerstone in the north Edison community. It is a spirit of fellowship and the sharing of common values that has sustained this successful partnership.”
The JCC and Y are closed on Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur. However, each also operates independently and the JCC has maintained a full slate of Jewish programming, including Bright Beginnings preschool, after-school youth enrichment programs, a senior adult club, youth swim team, and tween fitness programs. It offers women- and men-only swim times for observant Jews, with the cooperation of the Y, and its facilities are kosher.
Y CEO Scott Lewis said he believes it is time to take the collaboration a step further by sharing staff and resources.
“We want to continue to be creative,” he said. “It seems to be the logical next step in this evolution.”