JCC of Middlesex County and YMCA Celebrate a Unique Collaboration in Edison
Twenty years ago the idea of a Jewish community center and YMCA coming together under one roof was met with skepticism, even though from a financial perspective it made sense.
However, that partnership between the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County and the YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge and South Amboy, launched with both trepidation and optimism on Dec. 15, 2002 as the Community Campus in Edison, is now celebrating 20 years of success as a place where everyone’s beliefs are respected. It remains the country’s only such partnership.
It has fulfilled the goal of putting both institutions on firm financial footing, but more than that, it has been a model of tolerance for other religions, races and cultures at a time when that seems to be in short demand across the nation.
“I would say the JCC is a place where all religions and backgrounds are welcome,” said JCC Director of Community Engagement and Jewish Life Esther Fendrick. “In all we do we are guided by Jewish values and we want to foster an appreciation in our community of our heritage, and at the same time, we encourage everyone to respect everyone’s religion and culture.”
That tolerance is on full display in many ways, including its holiday scheduling. Both the JCC and YMCA are closed on Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Its pool has women and men-only swim times in deference to the religious concerns of Orthodox Jews. It hosts Edison’s annual Hanukkah menorah lighting and program and its Yom HaShoah Holocaust program is co-sponsored by Metuchen-Edison Area Interfaith Clergy Association.
Contrary to some fears in the Jewish community that the JCC would lose its Jewish flavor, the JCC has been able to increase Jewish programming over the years thanks to increased revenue and membership and its facilities remain kosher. It hosts a large Hanukkah luncheon and Passover seder, Purim carnival and a Sukkot celebration featuring entertainment and other Jewish programming.
Its Purim carnival, co-sponsored with Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen and Temple Emanu-El, features “fun fact” sheets explaining the holiday to any non-Jewish attendees.
In the preschool, each child receives an outreach bag on holidays, said Fendrick. For Hanukkah, the bag will contain gelt and a dreidel with an explanation of their meaning.
The JCC has planned a series of programs in the spring to celebrate Yom H’Azmaut as Israel’s 75th birthday approaches.
“I firmly believe education is a really important piece in combating antisemitism and discrimination,” said Fendrick. “It’s really important to explain to the entire community why we’re celebrating.”
The JCC also sponsors a book club that meets monthly to discuss a book with a Jewish theme or has been written by a Jewish author and activities for teens and adults.
“Its greatest impact has been to allow us to provide expanded resources and create more points of entry for individuals seeking programs and services,” said JCC Executive Director Adam Glinn of the partnership. “Everybody comes to the JCC for different reasons. Some for health and wellness. Some come for pre-school or socialization. We offer a full range of programs that span age and diversity of interest, including for the disabled, that celebrate Jewish life. We get a wonderfully diverse audience to some of these programs. Our peer collaboration with the YMCA has enhanced those opportunities. We serve more of the Jewish community than we did 20 years ago.”
Among other initiatives, the JCC runs a summer camp, hosts two Orthodox summer camps and works with Orthodox yeshivot to host special pool activities. It offers adult lifelong learning programs and has a top-notch aquatics program that includes the perennial state champion Blue Dolphins swim team.
At a time when declining memberships have caused Jewish institutions to shutter, the JCC recently received municipal variance approvals and expects to break ground in the spring on the Marion and Norman Tanzman Center for LifeLong Living and Bright Beginnings Preschool.
The 21,000-square-foot, two-story addition will have space for senior and adult programming and expand the preschool, special needs and childhood enrichment, according to Glinn. It will also house Temple Emanu-El, which closed its James Street building and moved into the JCC in April, as well as have two lounges, office space, and an outdoor fenced courtyard, among other improvements. The $5 million project was kickstarted by a $500,000 donation to its fundraising campaign from the Woodbridge-based Marion and Norman Tanzman Charitable Foundation and has now raised $2.3 million.
The quality and breath of programming offered for young and old is only part of the story of a facility located in an ethnically and religiously diverse area. The 5,500 community campus members, and 1,500-2,000 additional non-members who access various services—encompass that diversity and includes Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Asians and Blacks. While that number is down from 8,000 prior to the pandemic, membership has been steadily rising since Covid concerns have subsided, said Glinn.
“I can’t emphasize enough that not only has the collaboration enhanced the facilities, but I think what people see when they come here goes a long way to breaking down stereotypes and barriers on issues such as antisemitism,” said Glinn. ”You see people of different ages and cultural backgrounds doing things together whether it’s running on a treadmill or participating in an artistic endeavor. What we do today in lessening hate and bigotry cannot be overstated.”
YMCA President and CEO Rose Cushing also noted the economic benefits of the partnership has allowed it to better serve the north Edison community. The YMCA’s services include wellness and fitness, childcare, youth development clubs and sports training and conditioning.
“It’s nice to have a community partner that doesn’t look the same as you and yet we can be seen as a united front regardless of our backgrounds,” she said. “It’s good for the community because it teaches tolerance and how antisemitism affects others in our community.”
JCC President Barbara Muhlgeier, a member since 1985, said growing up in Jersey City her family belonged to the JCC in nearby Bayonne. Remembering it as a great place to meet and socialize with others, when her own family moved to Edison she wanted the same “safe and fun environment” for her own two sons, now 30 and 38 years old.
“The JCC is special because of the community that makes up our JCC family,” she said. “It is the center of my life.”
Muhlgeier recalled that when her parents passed away she was overwhelmed by the support and caring she received from members.
“I like the fact that our community is close and caring, vibrant and very diverse,” she said. “Community is our middle name.”
For Muhlgeier the widely attended Jewish holiday programs are especially meaningful.
“It is wonderful to hear those Jewish songs we grew up with and to dance around and just enjoy being Jewish,” she said. “The expansion will just make the community more enriched by being able to offer more to the Jewish community. Just like the collaboration with the Y, it will bring more people together.”
Debra Rubin is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.