Stephen Hazan Arnoff, former executive director of the 14th Street Y in Manhattan, was recently named the CEO of the JCC Association, the New York-based umbrella organization for more than more than 350 JCCs, YM-YWHAs, and campsites in the U.S. and Canada. He succeeds Allan Finkelstein, who served two decades in that post. Arnoff was also the first director of the Office of Culture, Community and Society at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The Jewish Week interviewed Arnoff by email. This is an edited transcript.
Q: Your JCC background is largely at the micro level, especially at the 14th Street Y here, where you instituted many programming changes. How hard is the adjustment to your new, macro national responsibilities?
A: There really is no micro versus macro in a JCC. We are both local and part of a larger movement. The Jewish community has always been focused on the local and immediate — the synagogue, the mikvah, the school — while grappling with something transcendent — carrying hearts and minds beyond the walls that hold those institutions or services.
For many Jewish Americans, especially generations of immigrants, the local Jewish Community Center was often the first and strongest contact point with the Jewish community. How has the mission of demands on the JCC changed over the years?
JCC’s change with the needs of our communities. We are the Jewish public square. We help our JCCs engage the community by providing support and programming in core services from early childhood education, camp, arts and culture, fitness and wellness and more. We’re a vast network of laboratories seeking what’s next in the Jewish world.
Do today’s Jewish immigrants have the same needs from a JCC that earlier generations did?
Maybe once we focused more systemically on language or other life skills, but today we still help people find a communal voice and place wherever they are in their journey. We also know that for today’s immigrant communities – Russian-speakers, Israelis, Ethiopians – maintaining cultural gifts from the place of origin is deeply valued. In many cases, JCCs are at the forefront of actually both preserving immigrant culture while also using it to enrich the rest of the JCC community.
How do JCCs reach a balance between “religious” members who insist that a JCC be closed on Shabbat, and secular members who see a JCC as a seven-days a week institution?
There is no perfect answer to that question, but JCCs are a place where the Shabbat conversation takes place. JCCs around the country are doing exciting, creative work that has helped reinvent the Shabbat experience for participants and members for whom a traditional Shabbat doesn’t resonate.
With a declining membership base in the Jewish community, many JCCs have reached out to the wider community, especially through the draw of their athletic facilities. How has this changed the Jewish nature of the institution?
The story is not one of decline; it’s about opportunity. Research has shown that the “J” in “JCC” is an added value, to Jews and non-Jews, and is equated with the high standards.
What do you consider the most successful programs you started at 14th Street, and why were they successful?
We tripled the number of people who participated in programs during my tenure. That meant three times as many children and families in early childhood programs, in camp, using the gym. There were many hubs of interest – LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture is one I am particularly proud of; becoming a greening and composting hub in the East Village was another.
The Theater J at the Washington DC JCC made a controversial decision last year to fire its director for staging what some people considered an “anti-Israel” play. Is the role of a JCC to sponsor possibly divisive activities, especially concerning Israel, or to reach a safe consensus?
The JCC created this incredible arts program with a world-class theater that is going to continue offering challenging, creative, and exciting work for years to come. Arts and culture are essential to the JCC movement, and each JCC has our support to choose what’s right for its community.