New Orleans, Birmingham JCCs face fiscal challenges amid COVID closures

New Orleans JCC Personal Trainer Kelsey Boedeker leads a virtual core exercise class

Jewish Community Centers pride themselves in being the front porch or living room of the Jewish community. But in a time of social distancing and forced shutdowns of fitness facilities, not to mention restrictions on gatherings of more than a couple of people, the JCCs are having to adapt — and deal with major financial stresses.

“For an agency that depends on program service fees to operate, these times have become particularly challenging,” said Leslie Fischman, executive director of the New Orleans Jewish Community Center, which closed the Uptown and Metairie facilities on March 13 for what they originally thought would be two weeks as the coronavirus pandemic started to spread.

Now, with no end in sight for the closures, many JCCs are being forced to restructure operations, including staff.

As of March 31, the New Orleans JCC has not laid anyone off, “but the future is uncertain,” Fischman said. “Our board and senior management are having to make difficult decisions to ensure the solvency of the JCC.”

In a message to the Birmingham community, Levite JCC Executive Director Samantha Dubrinsky and President Jesse Unkenholz said “we have invested in transitioning to virtual service, but the resources we depend on will be extremely limited. Even in the most optimistic of analysis, the closure of our building has directly and meaningfully impacted our financial position.”

The LJCC gradually closed facilities starting March 16, and within a few days all in-person functions had ceased, except Operation Cares, a camp-style program for children of medical personnel and first responders, and a program that assembles free weekday lunches for those in need.

During the first two weeks the LJCC was closed, they were able to fully pay all staff, but that is not possible moving forward.

This week, the LJCC is instituting furloughs and wage reductions, though full medical coverage will continue for employees. “These changes are heart-breaking and felt at every level of our organization; we know that our staff family is the lifeblood of our service to the LJCC community and we will work every moment, in every way, to bring this full staff team back together as soon as possible,” the LJCC statement said.

All payments to the Cohn Early Childhood Learning Center are going to pay teachers through April. Parents were given the option of applying the second March payment to future enrollment, or as a contribution, and enrollment charges were to cease on April 1, unless families volunteered to continue as a contribution.

While acknowledging that many families will be unable to maintain their membership during the shutdown, the JCCs urge those who can do so to keep their membership active as a way of helping ensure the JCCs eventually reopen as close to full strength as possible.

“Because of our continued fixed expenses, including the continued employment of our staff, we ask that those who feel financially comfortable paying their membership dues continue to do so,” Fischman said. Any dues or program fees paid during the closure will be considered a tax-deductible contribution.

In New Orleans, membership can be frozen for $10 per month, paid on the 15th of the month. Membership will automatically resume when the facilities reopen. Those canceling membership would need to pay the rejoining fee on re-enrollment. All requests, for freezing or cancellation, must be made on the JCC website by the 10th of the month to be effective on the 15th.

For the LJCC, as of April 1 one could continue membership with the idea that if the shutdown is long term it could be considered a charitable contribution. Membership can also be frozen for 25 percent of the monthly dues. Those with hardships can check with the LJCC about scholarship resources.

The LJCC is providing online fitness classes, including Les Mills workouts. There is also an at-home activities page for all ages, and Camp LJCC at-home activities and projects. The Cohn ECLC teachers are doing personal FaceTime calls and holding a Shabbat event on Facebook Live. They are doing Circle Time at 8 a.m. and story time at 4 p.m. on Facebook.

The preschool at the New Orleans JCC had already been using a secure online application for schools. “This application has been an especially helpful tool during this time of distancing, allowing each student to connect with teachers and classmates on a daily basis,” Fischman said. “Parents receive regular activities, check-ins and projects from their child’s teachers to keep the classroom connected despite the physical distance. In addition, the entire school receives daily enrichment activities such as music lessons and movement classes from familiar faces at the JCC.”

The New Orleans JCC is also offering virtual dance classes, Lego challenges, fitness classes and a discussion of the hit Israeli television series “Shtisel.”

With New Orleans’ stay-in-place order, “we don’t know exactly when we will be able to reopen our fitness center, nursery school and Alzheimer’s respite program,” Fischman said.

In Atlanta, the Marcus JCC closed on March 13, and the Atlanta Jewish Times reported that a March 23 email from CEO Jared Powers stated that more than half of the staff would be laid off or furloughed. The remaining staff will take on added roles at reduced salaries.

A decision on summer camp will not be made until mid-May. In addition to summer day camps, the Marcus JCC runs Camp Barney Medintz, a sleepaway camp in Georgia that attracts from around the region.

Among the online programming offered by the MJCC is Shabbat evening and morning services, led by Rabbi Brian Glusman, formerly of Birmingham. He will also lead Seder both nights, via Zoom.

In Orlando, the Roth Family JCC closed on March 27, laying off over 130 employees. Remaining employees are taking a 20 percent pay cut.

When the Kaiserman JCC near Philadelphia closed, it laid off 176 of 178 staffers.

The UJA-Federation of New York is allocating $10 million in interest-free loans and grants to the 22 regional JCCs in New York City to help sustain them.

Another casualty is the JCC Maccabi Games, planned for San Diego, Calif., and Pace University in Westchester, N.Y. in August.

For all the JCCs, community safety and service to the broader community are the first priority. “We remain committed to being a community despite our physical distance and look forward to safely moving past this so that we can continue to serve our members’ needs soon,” Fischman said.

“We remain confident in our ability to build the strongest possible Jewish Community Center, and aiding in our community’s resilience in the face of this pandemic,” Dubrinsky said. “We miss seeing our members more than we can put into words and we look forward to the day when we will be physically together again.”