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Community center thrives without a center
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Joe Kauffman, left, and his daughter, Sharon, 3, celebrate Sukkah with Rabbi Daniel Treiser at the Ben Gamla Charter School on Oct. 5.
CLEARWATER – JCC Suncoast, a nonprofit Jewish community organization, is re-defining the idea of community centers. And it is continuing to expand throughout Pinellas County.

JCC Suncoast recently won the bid to run the aftercare preschool program at the new Ben Gamla Charter School, which they took over in August from Temple B’nai Israel’s Early Childhood Center.

“We were thrilled to win the bid to run the aftercare program, JDays, at the new Ben Galma Public Charter School,” Katzman said. “JDays’ Judaic component, called Kesher, is spearheaded by one of Pinellas County’s finest Jewish educators, Liz Sembler. This is a game-changing new direction for us – and for the Jewish community of Pinellas County.”

Celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkah, parents gathered together at the school with their children on Oct. 5. Rabbi Daniel Treiser led the group through traditional Jewish prayers and songs.

“I think it’s exciting,” said Becca Tieder who has both of her toddlers enrolled in the program. Tieder explained that she believes the new acquisition creates more opportunity for diverse educational experiences such as the new administrators’ plan to invite a woman rabbi to work with the children.

JCC Suncoast is a nontraditional community center, in that they offer many locations throughout the county to serve residents, but it doesn’t have a physical “center.”

“Jewish community centers around the country are facing challenges as they attempt to remain relevant and meet the needs of changing family demographics and interests,” said Ellen Katzman, executive director JCC Suncoast executive director. “JCC Suncoast decided not to define itself by a building. We’re firmly planted in the community and here to stay. We’ve become a flexible, strong, coalescent force where people from all over the county can connect with a wide spectrum of programming.”

The vision of JCC Suncoast to offer satellite locations arose from the challenges faced by many Jewish community centers’ attempts to meet the changing needs of families and adults. By offering multiple locations, the organization extends more opportunities for people to connect and participate in positive programs, said Katzman.

“We don’t have boundaries, Katzman said. “We have even had events at Ray’s games and outings at Boyd Hill Park.”

In 2008, the leaders from the Jewish Community Center of Pinellas County and the Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center came together to form a strategic plan to combine both of the organizations into one. For years, the two centers had competed for many of the same resources, said Todd Siegel, president of JCC Suncoast’s board of directors. According to Katzman, by combining resources they could more effectively connect the community and offer a broader outreach.

“This competitive situation reflected a broader geographic and social divide in the community that began in the 1950s and 1960s before urban sprawl connected the communities,” Siegel said. “Today’s local Jewish community is evolving beyond this social division of the north and south segments of the county.”

Out of the two organizations, JCC Suncoast was born.

“In 2011, JCC Suncoast was introduced to brand a single Jewish community center through one organizational strategy,” Katzman said.

The leaders believe that the merge has made them stronger.

“Our vision is to provide exceptional programs that enrich lives throughout all of Pinellas County,” Siegel said. “It was a monumental transition – an evolution that retained the best of our rich tradition while incorporating a modern-day business model. I’m happy to say it’s taking root nicely.”

The newly acquired preschool program is just part of the organization’s five-year strategic plan. The organization also established adult and wellness programs at the Inn on the Pond in Clearwater – an assisted living facility – and a FitWall fitness training studio in St. Petersburg. After Clearwater’s Golda Meir Kent Jewish Center was sold to Menorah Manor for construction on The Inn on the Pond, the commitment was made to have JCC Suncoast return once the new facilities were completed. In exchange, JCC offers social, cultural, and wellness programs to residents and non-residents of the Pond.

According to Katzman, the preschool rounds out their family of services to the community.

“I like to say we’re a community center with many walls,” said Katzman. “We exist throughout the community wherever the need is greatest. Our emphasis is not about a physical structure. It’s about being flexible and adapting to constantly changing community needs.”

The organization offers a variety of social and wellness programs for residents, non-residents, adults, seniors and children. These include Spanish classes for adults and children, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) meetings, book clubs, financial classes, networking groups, conversational Hebrew and Yiddish classes, yoga and FitWall fitness training. FitWall, designed for firefighters and athletes, is a state-of-the-art vertical training machine.

“Not being a free-standing JCC could be seen as a challenge,” Katzman said. “But we don’t see it that way. It’s been a tremendous period of rebirth and rejuvenation. The bottom line is that today, JCC Suncoast defines itself through collaboration and community partnerships. And not through a building. It’s been a big push, and it’s taken some sweat and hard work, but the JCC has re-engineered itself to a dynamic force and sustainable for our future.”

Joe Kauffman said he was especially glad the preschool program exists. Kauffman spent the afternoon of Oct. 5 with his daughter at the Ben Gamla Charter School celebrating the Jewish harvest holiday.

“I get to spend some religious time with my daughter,” Kauffman said.

The preschool and adult programs are open to all residents irrespective of one’s religious denomination. For more information, contact JCC Suncoast at 321-6100 or visit www.j­ccsun­coast­.org.
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