When I told my congregants in Tucson that I was going to become the Rabbi of the Jericho Jewish Center, a number of them said, “Oh, so you’re going to be the Rabbi of a JCC?” My response was “No I’m going to be the rabbi of the JJC, a shul called the Jericho Jewish Center.”
The confusion is not for naught. A number of shuls in the greater New York City area are referred to as Jewish Centers. Why is this the case? Jewish centers emerged from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s idea of the “synagogue center,” a “shul with a pool.” Rabbi Kaplan believed that the synagogue should be the center of social, cultural and community programming, in addition to a place of religious worship. He began with his own congregation, The Jewish Center, which he founded in 1917. As the Jewish community moved into the suburbs, the majority of Conservative synagogues followed Kaplan’s line of thinking, inscribing their building as a Jewish center. There are dozens of these shuls today, including the Fresh Meadows Jewish Center, Midway Jewish Center, Princeton Jewish Center, Riverdale Jewish Center and of course the Jericho Jewish Center. Many of them formed in the 1950s and 1960s, when Jews began to move to the suburbs.
As the years passed, the synagogue lost its place as the center of Jewish gathering. A number of YMHAs (Young Mens Hebrew Associations) began taking the name Jewish Community Center (JCC). These organizations centered on athletics and social programming as well as preschools and teen programming and over time became the central places where Jews would congregate for big community events (Yom HaShoah ceremonies and Yom HaAtzmaut parades, to name a couple). The JCCs are more in vogue today, as they appeal to people’s fitness and social needs.
My challenge for the contemporary synagogue is to reacquire some of the appeal of the Jewish Center of the past through focusing on engaging the entire person. Shuls today have to realize that some will come for prayer services but others will come for social action, yoga, bridge or athletic competitons. We need to embrace the synaplex model that different activities appeal to different congregants and to meet people where they are at rather than where we want them to be. If we do this, we can start to regain some of the glory of Kaplan’s synagogue center of the past.