Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



The New and Improved Jewish Community Center of Buffalo and Erie County



   A few months ago, Alan Feldman became the CEO of our JCC. Since then there have been so many magnificent improvements in that organization that I feel obliged to share them with you.  These are, in no order of importance, the following:

  1. Security cameras have been installed outside and inside the building. In view of the atrocious attack on a California JCC, and the possibility of terrorists and haters of all kinds seeking to damage us, this is vital.

  2. The locker rooms are immensely improved. Prior to the restoration of the locker rooms we had to deal with lockers which were so warped that they could not hold a lock. The arrangement of the new lockers is such that one can easily find one’s locker. Prior to this some of us spent several minutes trying to find the locker were using.

  3. The abolition of the rented lockers and rented towels. Now we bring our own lock and towel and get in and out much faster.

  4. The use of a computer at the entrance desk. This eliminates hunting for one’s membership card in one’s wallet.

  5. The installation of a courtesy telephone in the gym. This is great. Heretofore we tried to use the two pay phones in the lobby. I say “try” because these were almost always out of order.

  6. The air-conditioning in the locker rooms. Next summer this will be “a mechaye” compared to the sweaty smell during the heat in July and August.

  7. The installation of new shower heads. These allow us to get hot water at once and produce a temperature to our liking.  Heretofore there were two handles, one hot, one cold, which led to lengthy “fiddling” to get the right temperature.

  8. The installation of a new television set opposite the bicycles.

   No doubt there is more. I know from experience that wherever there is someone with great ideas and leadership ability much more results than any of us will ever see. There is one more thing about the JCC you need to know. I visit the gymnasium (house of women = from Greek. In ancient Greece men exercised in the nude outdoors but women exercised indoors. Gyn=woman).

 Patty Simonson is the director of the Health and Fitness Center. This includes the beautiful and super equipped Amherst gym and swimming pools and the Summer Street location. She has done a tremendous job. I have been a member for forty years and have seen the program get better every year. Not only are there more facets to the health program too many to list here, but there is one more thing about Patty’s gym. It is friendly, pleasant, full of good humor and real fun. Here is one place in the Jewish community where the in-fighting and bickering stops.

   The JCC gym differs from all the other gyms in town in that everyone talks to everyone. I am told by people who were members in other gyms before that in the other gyms there is no conversation, no interchange, and no jokes. I have about 130 jokes in my computer. I learned almost all of them from the great friends I have made among Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and secular Jews. In addition we have a good sized non-Jewish contingent coming to the gym every day. Great friendships, wonderful company, excellent people. In short, Patty Simonson has managed to defeat the internal Jewish disputes so horribly outlined in Samuel G. Freedman’s book Jew v.  Jew. In her gym there are no disputes. There is only friendship.

  Membership dues in the JCC depend very much on what the member can afford. There are all kinds of payment methods.

  In sum, congratulations to Alan Feldman and to those of us who take advantage of the JCC almost every day.

  Now to a short history of the Jewish Community Centers, U.S.A.  

 Prior to the middle of the 20th century Jewish life in America revolved mainly around the synagogue, the Beth Hamidrash of European vintage. This is not to say that secular Jewish organizations did not exist before the 1950’s. In fact, most secular Jewish organizations were developed early in the century. However, it took these organizations many years to wrest predominance from our religious institutions and give secular institutions the centrality in Jewish communal life which they have today.

   Most prominent among these secular Jewish organizations are the Jewish Community Centers which exist in all Jewish communities of any size. In New York City and other east coast communities these “centers” are called Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, an old name first used in Baltimore in 1854. At their inception these associations had been literary societies. In the 1860’s, however, the Philadelphia and New York YMHAs became varied and extensive and included physical education and Sunday schools all in imitation of the Young Men’s Christian Associations already widespread here. These YHMAs were one source of our present JCCs.

   When, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, large numbers of Jewish immigrants came here, Lillian D. Wald and others founded settlement houses, so called because the founders settled in the poorest neighborhoods with a view of helping the immigrants in numerous ways. The present Jewish community centers evolved in part from these settlement houses once immigration lessened and became the second source of our JCCs today.

   Before 1900 all the work needed to operate these Jewish Centers was done by volunteers. In that year, however, the first executive director of a JCC was appointed even as a League of Young Men’s Hebrew Associations was formed. In the 1920’s the name Jewish Community Center was widely adopted and the program of the Centers became more diversified, including a great emphasis on physical education, exercise and health related activities. Today, the departments of physical education are the core of the JCC movement. Up to 80% of the membership use the health related facilities of our JCCs. These “gyms” include a large contingent of non-Jewish citizens so that, in the words of Patricia Simonson, director of physical education at the Buffalo JCC, “the spirit of the Olympic games” is present in our physical education facilities. This means that these gymnasiums also promote interfaith and interethnic dialogue and good will. In fact, one of the prime consequences of participation in physical activities in the JCC is the friendship and all-around good will which emanates from there.

   In the 1930s the JCCs adopted an educational function as the Jewish Welfare Board sent speakers on Jewish and other topics to the JCCs for the enlightenment of the membership. More recently annual book fairs have been conducted at all American Jewish Centers.

   The Jewish Center in Buffalo also houses the Bureau of Jewish education and its library.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Restoration of Israel (2006).

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