Decades after a group of Jews from Perth Amboy established a new suburban community, the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County is flourishing.
It has survived demographic change as many Jews left the area — which now has a large Asian, particularly Indian, population — and teetered on the brink of financial collapse for years. Membership dwindled to several hundred as the facility and its fitness equipment became outdated. Each time closure loomed, the community rallied, raising just enough to keep it going.
By the late 1990s, the JCC had fallen behind in its expenses and in payments on the $1.8 million mortgage on its Morris and Lydia Goldfarb building on Oak Tree Road in Edison, where it had moved in 1984.
Yet, that same institution is now on sound financial footing, has a booming membership, and is adding services and programming.
As it celebrates 30 years at its current site, its leaders credit sound fiscal management, innovative programming, and collaborations with the JCC’s funding partner, the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, which has provided consistent support since its inception.
“We are the smallest JCC in the state, but we are one of the most financially stable,” said executive director Dorothy Rubinstein.
So much so that by 2009 the facility had paid down enough of its mortgage that it was able to refinance to a 12-year mortgage with “very manageable” payments. A renovation of the gym and pool is planned within the next 18 months, said Rubinstein.
The JCC’s senior adult program, which operates four days a week, “is so great people travel here from Union County” for its activities, said JCC president Howard Zuckerman.
On May 20 about 225 seniors gathered at a luncheon to celebrate the 30th anniversary as a live band played.
“This is like a home away from home,” said Belle Galpen of Elizabeth, a board member of the senior club. “That’s why it’s so wonderful. From the top down they have the most fabulous people, including the [Bright Beginnings preschool]. Everybody loves each other and helps each other. I’ve never been to any place where the people are so nice.”
Val Coen of Edison, a 20-year JCC member, was prepared to move to a retirement community in Monroe until she discovered the senior group. “I even had the place picked out,” she said. “But I found this place where I have so many friends — and I stayed.”
A unique partnership
Chartered in 1971, the YM-YWHA of Northern Middlesex County first began in 1975 in a vacant portion of the Gulton building in Metuchen. Its founders had moved from a declining Perth Amboy to the northern Middlesex County suburbs of north Edison, Metuchen, and Colonia.
In 1977 it moved to the site of the former Congregation B’nai Jacob in Avenel and two years later to a house in Edison, where it stayed until 1984.
Eleven years ago, the JCC and the Metuchen-Edison YMCA banded together to form the “Community Campus,” the only such partnership of its kind in the country, attracting county, state, corporate, and foundation grants and a gift from area Indian business owners.
The YMCA bought some of the JCC’s underutilized property and built a state-of-the-art fitness center, which brought back former members and attracted new ones to both institutions. Last year, the YMCA completed a $1.7 million, 6,000-square-foot fitness center expansion.
The two institutions share the pool, gym, and fitness center, but otherwise have separate facilities and programming. The JCC remains a fully kosher facility with an ever-expanding slate of Jewish programming and activities.
Community campus membership now stands at 8,000 family units, 2,500 of whom are considered to be full JCC members, attending its Jewish programming and events. The two institutions share fees and do not break down membership numbers.
“We are very visibly Jewish,” said Rubinstein of its holiday celebrations and commemorations. This year’s Purim carnival drew 350 people and last year’s annual outdoor Sukkot dinner with musical entertainment drew so many people extra tents had to be set up.
Last year, in an effort to make up for the loss of the YM-YWHA of Raritan Valley in Highland Park eight years ago, the JCC established a well-attended satellite speaker program there.
Members have been drawn from as far away as East Brunswick by the Blue Dolphins swim team, a perennial champion of the statewide youth league for JCCs and Ys.
It made inroads into the large Orthodox population in south Edison and Highland Park by offering men-only and women-only swim periods. This past winter, youngsters from the girls’ school of Shaare Tzion Yeshiva in Piscataway came after Shabbat to swim.
Its “baby boomer” program features such activities as trips to museums and walking tours of Jewish sites in New York.
“The community has changed a lot and there are not a lot of Jewish kids coming into north Edison and Metuchen,” acknowledged Zuckerman. “But we shifted more to serve baby boomers and we probably have the best program in Middlesex County.”
However, the Bright Beginnings preschool has 170 children enrolled and a continuous waiting list, noted Rubinstein, with all but four spots already taken for the next school year in September. It also runs a summer camp.
Bob and Nancy Lipschutz of Edison joined the JCC 10 years ago so their son Max, now 14, could enroll in the preschool.
“We had heard a lot about the school, and it was and still is fabulous,” Bob told NJJN.
Their daughter, Francine, eight, also attended the preschool, and Lipschutz joined the board, becoming vice president of the camp and preschool. Both he and his wife use the fitness center and the family regularly attends Jewish family events.
Bob said at the JCC they connect with people “of all ages: little kids, seniors. That’s what’s really nice. We’re not just friends with younger members, but also with older people. We seem to have a lot in common with all ages.”