The JCCs: how this great idea got started

I go to the J every week: to the Tycher Library to find a book, to attend the monthly Jewish War Veterans breakfast meeting, to have a coffee and schmooze, to hear a speaker, to have a senior lunch, to attend a program, to “get in” a workout, to attend the monthly Men’s and Ladies’ Book Club Meeting, etc.
It may not all be in the same day or week, but the list gives you an idea of just a few of the many activities I participate in at the J.
Of course, there are probably many folks who use the J much more than I do.
Have you ever stopped to wonder how the Jewish community center movement got started? We should never forget the pioneers in this movement of Jewish activities outside of synagogues.
It began in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1854, as the Hebrew Young Men’s Literary Association under the leadership of Dr. Aaron Friedenwald, a renowned eye surgeon and medical school professor and benefactor to many Jewish causes.
There was a need for expanded space to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of immigrants seeking classes on American culture, civics and citizenship at that time.
Both the numbers of Jewish community centers and the diversity of activities they offered increased as Jewish immigration surged.
It has been brought to my attention that another reason for increased interest in Jewish communal activities may be due to the establishment and growth of the Reconstructionist Movement led by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.
Among the ideas expressed by Rabbi Kaplan is the concept of Judaism as a civilization, not just a religion of beliefs and rituals.
He suggested the idea of a synagogue, which offered not only prayer services, but also programs which included song, dance, drama, study and even sports and exercise, the very activities being incorporated into the growing JCC movement.
Twenty years after Baltimore’s Jewish center was begun, the first YMHA was opened in Manhattan, in 1874, followed by a women’s annex, the YWHA, in 1888.
As a result of various mergers of Jewish service organizations during World War I and World War II, many were renamed Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), while others retained their historic titles.
To encourage a true community spirit, JCC membership was offered to non-Jews beginning in the 1960s.
The reality is that the JCCs each became what its Jewish community wants them to be.
The early JCCs helped turn immigrants into American citizens. During the two World Wars, they ministered to the needs of the Jewish military.
In more recent years, the J has come to serve as a common meeting area for all Jews while striving to enhance the welfare of the entire community.
There is something for everyone at the J.
“See you there!”

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