Together, Apart: Community Centers Adapt to Coronavirus
October 7, 2020
When the coronavirus pandemic began, JDC-supported Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) all over the world faced a profound challenge: How do you build and strengthen community when traditional communal activities are impossible?
At the Warsaw JCC in the Polish capital, the first step was calling community members to check in and assess needs.
“During the pandemic, our important community-building took on another dimension,” said Maria Kos, who coordinates programming for children and families. “We found ourselves calling to make sure everybody was safe and healthy and providing help for those in need.”
Quickly, JCCs across Europe and the world began to reimagine programming. “The idea of moving the majority of things online was hard to imagine,” said Tinatin Ciciszwili, who coordinates Jewish events and programs at the Warsaw JCC. “We do things locally with people — people with people, face to face, feeling the community being together. Suddenly, that’s not allowed.”
Many of the JCC’s early programs were driven by community needs and interests, like a virtual dance party featuring sets from a local DJ or an impromptu school for local children where community members led classes in their personal areas of expertise — from chemistry to chess.
“Luckily, most things do work online,” Ciciszwili said.
Halfway around the globe, Nissim Pingle, director of the Evelyn Peters JCC in Mumbai, was impressed by his community’s shift to virtual programming.
“You have 70-year-olds and 80-year-olds getting onto Zoom,” he said. “Some volunteers from the community helped them. In a few days, they were managing it.”
JCC staff members had to think creatively as they developed online programs to engage their communities.
“We started doing new things, because people needed more contact,” said Zsuzsa Fritz, the founding director at JCC Budapest — Balint Haz, who now serves as head of the Jewish Knowledge Center.
Fritz began leading a weekly “Shabbat story,” in which she shared a folktale or biblical story on Facebook Live for the JCC Budapest community, and also hosted several “talk shows,” more complex productions involving pre-recording and extensive coordination among participants.
“We came up with so much so fast,” Marcell Kenesei, JCC Budapest’s newly appointed director, said of the early days of the pandemic.
With Passover right around the corner, the JCC created a “seder in seven clicks” kit, which served as a guide to families unexpectedly hosting their own seders due to the quarantine. The kit included arts and crafts, a trivia game about the holiday, and a recipe book — it was developed in just over two weeks.
JCC Budapest now plans to design similar educational kits for every Jewish holiday, as they’re a useful tool to engage community members even when in-person programming is allowed to resume, Kenesei said.
While online programming can’t fully capture the experience of people coming together in person, it does have its benefits, Pingle said: Online events are easier to attend, and they attract a wider audience.
“We’ve had people not just from Mumbai, but also Cochin, Kolkata, and even Gujarat,” he said. “We’re running the same number of events, but the attendees have doubled. And one of our most popular programs, the Hebrew class, is taught by an educator based in New York City. We couldn’t have done that before.”
As the weather turned warmer, the Warsaw JCC team has explored new activities to safely engage community members outside their homes — like a havdalah service on the beach, using the candles as markers to help participants maintain social distance. They have also crafted an audio game that sent families into Warsaw to explore Jewish historical landmarks and accomplish tasks like posting a dancing video or hanging a mezuzah.
“They’re doing it alone, so it’s safe,” said Agata Rakowiecka, the JCC’s director, “but they like knowing that others are doing it too, at different times.”
It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing, though, even for JCCs that now pride themselves on their flexibility and innovation during the crisis.
In both Budapest and Warsaw, plans for in-person day camps over the summer had to be fully or partially canceled due to the countries’ rising infection rates, and JCC Budapest began developing multiple plans for signature events like the annual Judafest street fair, to account for different possible pandemic realities and government regulations.
Still, every JCC professional expressed a sense of pride.
“Situations like this are a test — when you find out if the community you’ve built is genuine,” Rakowiecka said. “A JCC is not a building, not its professionals, not its ideas. It’s the people. In hard times, we were still able to bring them together and help them feel like a community. We were where they wanted to be.”