SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ – The Jewish Community Center (JCC)’s Camp Yachad has been a staple for the kids and families it served, as well as the most important revenue producer for the organization. For several months, it looked as if the camp might be canceled, but as JCC director Mike Goldstein said, after an “involved and thoughtful process,” the JCC found out that the camp could be open as early as July 6.
“Initially, we had guidelines from the American Camping Association, but we waited until the state of NJ guidelines came in. We had anxiety about opening and how we could run the camp safely,” Goldstein said. “We quickly pivoted and developed a playbook with safety guidelines that our camp doctor signed off.”
The guidelines include daily health screenings and mask-wearing. The JCC had to make significant modifications. Typically, 800 or more campers participate in Camp Yachad from a wide geographic range – from Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Westfield and nearby Summit and Metuchen to as far as Hoboken.
“We didn’t feel we could do busing safely, so we became a ‘neighborhood camp’ with small groups of campers,” Goldstein explained. “The children are organized into groups of ‘households,’ and the same staff stays with the group during the day.”
There is no travel camp, performing arts, or sports camps. This year, the number is limited to 250 campers for the summer.
Goldstein said that Camp Yachad is the “lifeblood of the JCC.”
“Financially speaking, it sustains us. About $1 million generated by Camp Yachad funds all the other programs for seniors, special needs, teen leaders,” Goldstein said. “It is one of big money makers in addition to pre-school and membership fees.”
Cutting back the number of campers resulted in significant financial implications. This year, the camp will net $100,000 – just 10% of what’s normal, putting the JCC coffers behind for the year.
“We looked at the risk/reward,” Goldstein said. “We asked if it’s worth it. Should be doing this? I thought we should. Our community needs it, kids have been cooped up. If families say, ‘We’re in,’ then saying no would not be in concert with our mission.”
The board weighed in and supported the decision.
Goldstein called it a courageous effort. Typically, the JCC runs 10 weeks of camp; in 2020, it has just two three-week sessions.
“There’s no popping in and out. We are not flexible,” Goldstein explained. “Everyone is safe and wearing masks. We are doing okay, so far.”
Looking ahead to the fall, the JCC is following the same process for school reopening.
“Right now, they’re saying limit to 10 kids. We’ll do typically 12-18. Our families need it; there are 190 children whose families have said they’d like to do it,” Goldstein said.
The target opening day is Sept. 10 with all precaution in place. The JCC is also offering daily two-hour virtual engagement options at a reduced fee. They are calling it a “virtual pod.” The kids will have some opportunities to socialize with their small groups.
It’s for families not comfortable with sending children back in September,” Goldstein said.
Meanwhile, the JCC’s after-school program is based on what the Scotch Plains-Fanwood and Westfield school systems do.
Since the JCC has not been given the green light to operate indoors, fitness classes are held outside. The organization is also looking how it can offer one-on-one fitness training on the weekends.
“We miss them, and they miss us,” Goldstein said.
However, a bright spot of life during the pandemic has been the way that senior citizens have adapted to virtual programming.
“Between 20-40 people participate four days a week,” Goldstein said. “We have gotten them accustomed to using ZOOM. Our programming has been supported by a Union County Recreational grant and other sources of funding,” Goldstein said.
The seniors have been able to connect, and their activities have included lectures, musical programing, cultural programming, exercise, musical theater, art appreciation, and political discussions. Goldstein said it’s the same 4x/week programming that the JCC offers during the year.
The seniors were able to engage because of a volunteer who taught them how to use ZOOM. We tried to help them with Wi-Fi and tablets. The JCC also partnered with Jewish Family Services of Central NJ to provide a social worker for those who need it. The organization received emergency funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater of MetroWest.
“Being socially isolated creates anxiety and leads to emotional and spiritual issues that eventually lead to physical issues,” Goldstein said. “It takes a toll on seniors emotionally. Some are not able to join virtually. We want to stay connected with them and give what they need.”
“It’s not an easy time. Everyone effected in some way – not only seniors,” Goldstein said. “Our young families who have not lost jobs and have young children at home. That’s why we felt so strongly about offering camp. It has been a respite. God-willing, it will continue to go through smoothly.”
“Parents have fatigue,” he added. “They are concerned about social, emotional, and academic development. Its an uneasy time for them. We have partnered with Atlantic Health Group and Trinitas to help the parents of young children. We are trying to help everyone.”
Because camp and school were impacted by the coronavirus, the JCC is in a tough financial position.
“Lost $1.4 million, and we are looking at a $850,000 deficit for the upcoming fiscal year that started on July 1,” Goldstein said, bluntly. “We can absorb that for a while, but it will take us a few years to climb out of the hole.”
Nonetheless, the organization will continue and thrive again once normalcy returns and programs can open at their former capacity.
“This pandemic has been a gut-punch to us and other JCCs and our friends at the Y across the street,” said Goldstein, who gave members a choice of freezing their memberships, getting credit for the funds they paid, or simply donating the money.
“We had $250,000 in donations. We have generous donors. They are responding,” he said. “It has helped us to survive.”
Goldstein is proud that the JCC was able to pay the staff from March 16 to June 30 with no furloughs or layoffs.
“We were able to do that with federation support and people who donated their fees,” Goldstein said. “We received $1.1 million in a PPP Loans to sustain us, and we are expecting that loan to be forgiven as we maintain staffing.”
With the deficit, everyone took a pay cut. In July, the organization has required 26% of the staff to take a partial or full furlough. The JCC also lost some important fundraising events, including Touch-a-truck, which usually raises $30-40K, and the JCC Open planned for Maplewood Country Club. Poker Night was held in January, and Goldstein hopes to have another one in the fall.
“We are hopefully planning to do events next year. Maybe do some will be virtual events. We will do broader appeals,” Goldstein said. “If our generosity is any indication, I’m confident.”
“I know there have been jobs lost and pay cuts. It was a tough measure, but otherwise, our $850,000 deficit would be $2.4 million. That’s the sad reality,” Goldstein said. “We are asking the community to trust us and support us. We will survive this. I believe there’s no shortage of opportunities in these unbelievably challenging times. I’m a glass half-full kind of guy.”