When the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County opened its doors in Edison 35 years ago, its membership was small, and much of the Jewish population was already moving out of northern Middlesex County.
Despite that demographic scenario — and while many other JCCs have struggled or closed — the Middlesex center is thriving financially, and its membership is soaring. There is a waiting list for its preschool, and people are often closed out of some of its programs.
On May 19, exactly 35 years to the day after the opening of the original Lydia and Morris Goldfarb building, the JCC broke ground on its first expansion with a crowd of more than 200, including state, county, and local officials, in attendance.
Now with 8,200 member units — there were 2,000 when it first opened — the JCC’s success can be attributed to a confluence of factors, according to its leaders. These include sound management, innovative programming, an openness to working with those outside the Jewish community, and the ability to think outside the box.
JCC director of development Adam Glinn said the expansion — the Marion and Norman Tanzman Center for Lifelong Living — is a response to the “tremendous growth” of activities for the baby-boomer and senior adult populations over the last five years, spurred by such initiatives as the JCC’s body and mind health and wellness programming for those 55 and older.
Dorothy Rubinstein, the JCC’s executive director, said, “Our JCC has a unique spirit and an unusually cohesive staff, board of directors, volunteers, and people who were young when their families joined the JCC,” noting also that much of the professional staff has been with the JCC for many years. “The children grew up here and remained and now are passionate about ensuring its future.”
The center is expected to be completed by the fall of 2020. It will provide an additional 10,000 square feet housing “state-of-the art, safe, accessible, and welcome new program spaces for the growing number of senior adult and baby boomer participants,” said Glinn. These include new areas for social gatherings, a kitchen, an outdoor courtyard, and program rooms.
In addition, the project “will allow us to get our seniors off the second floor into more accessible, safer spaces on the first floor,” said Glinn.
As part of the endeavor, the entire existing building will also be renovated with new lighting, flooring, walls, ceilings, and enhanced security features.
The JCC’s Bright Beginnings preschool for youngsters 2 to 5, which has a perpetual waiting list of 50-60 children for the 180-student school, will get new classrooms and space for special-needs programming and teacher preparation in the new wing.
While 75 percent of the students are mostly of South Asian background, Rubinstein said, Jewish holidays (and others) are celebrated, and parents have come to appreciate the multicultural embrace.
The Marion and Norman Tanzman Charitable Foundation of Woodbridge provided a $500,000 grant to kick start the fund-raising campaign; $1.2 million has been raised so far for the $2.5 million project.
“We are creating the opportunity for someone to come for a morning Zumba class, have time for lunch from our new kitchen, and then join a class on the history of Jews in New Jersey or play bridge with friends,” said building committee cochair Barbara Spack of Edison. “By creating this new building, we will bring the community together in this one secure space, and our dreams to do so will come true.”
The decision in 2002 to form the Community Campus, a unique collaboration — with shared on-site facilities — with what is now the YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge & South Amboy has proven a boon for both entities. It remains the only such partnership in the country.
The JCC offers an ever-expanding list of Jewish programs for all ages, including holiday celebrations, intergenerational events, and lectures and courses. Orthodox Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion of Piscataway uses the JCC’s facilities for its summer camp, and the JCC’s Better Together program for the last two years has held gatherings for students from the Orthodox Reenas Bais Yaakov high school in Highland Park and seniors to form intergenerational ties.
JCC members come from throughout Middlesex County and from as far north as Elizabeth and as far south as Freehold. The institution has attracted members who formerly belonged to the YM-YWHA of Raritan Valley in Highland Park, which closed in 2007, and the JCC of Greater Monmouth County in Deal, which shut down in December 2011. (The JCC of the Jersey Shore opened in its place four years ago.)
Through a grant provided by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, the JCC brings holiday events to seniors in Monmouth County, some of them in nondenominational nursing and assisted-living facilities.
When the Community Campus was formed, some questioned how two faith-based organizations could form a partnership — the JCC and the Y share athletic facilities and the pool — and still maintain their own religious traditions.
However, the JCC has remained fully kosher and, with the cooperation of the Y, offers such services as weekly women-only and men-only swim sessions to accommodate observant Jews.
“At the time of the merger both entities were going down, and they were able to save each other,” said foundation trustee Roy Tanzman of Kendall Park. “It shows when you work together, good things happen.”
Tanzman, the nephew of Norman and Marion, said his family has deep connections to the JCC. Morris Goldfarb, the original building’s namesake, was his uncle’s business partner. Above all, he said, the JCC has proven “to be an important asset to the community.”
The partnership has allowed the expansion of Jewish programming and an upgrade of athletic facilities, while outreach to the surrounding multiethnic community has resulted in a surging membership — of Jews and others, particularly the area’s large South Asian community. Prior to the collaboration, JCC membership had dwindled to 800 units, said Rubinstein.
Building committee cochair Howard Zuckerman, a resident of Edison and a former JCC president, told NJJN that selling some of the JCC’s “underutilized property” to the Y to develop upgraded fitness facilities saved “hundreds of thousands, if not millions,” of dollars, which both institutions used to invest in expanded services and activities.
“We live in a wonderfully vibrant and diverse community,” said JCC president Barbara Muhlgeier of Edison. “We embrace the entire community and offer a variety of programs to suit everyone’s needs and interests.”
To that end, the JCC has become a focal point for community programs, hosting such events as a menorah lighting and Edison’s Yom HaShoah program. In cooperation with Edison schools, middle- and high school-age youngsters with special needs are enlisted to help with general maintenance and to operate a monthly coffee shop; this, Rubinstein said, helps fulfill the JCC’s mission to expand its outreach to the community while advancing Jewish values.
“We are all about creating what I call points of entry for more experiences and more programs no matter what stage of life you’re at,” said Glinn. “No matter what your interests or needs, there is something here for you.”