In 2009, my husband, an active-duty naval officer, was deployed to Iraq for 12 months.
To prepare for a year without him, my children (then ages 6 and 4) and I moved from our military base in Washington State back into the home we owned in the Washington, D.C., area to be close to our extended family. I’d been away so long that I had very few friends there, and our children knew no one.
So when I got a flier publicizing the local YMCA’s offer of free membership to military families with a service member deployed, it seemed like a great way to get back to normal. The Y had swim lessons for the kids, a rock climbing gym, a fitness room — everything we needed to keep busy, make friends and pretend we were a regular family without a loved one in a war zone.
But I didn’t want to join the Y, I wanted to join our local Jewish community center. I’d grown up in a JCC and had a lot of happy memories. For me as well as for our kids, I wanted to re-establish our lives in the context of a Jewish community, and meet people through the classes, lectures and activities there. (Research has shown that families who feel supported by their religious community experience reduced deployment-related stress.)
So I called our local JCC and gave information about the program the Y offered, which had been established at the national level. Our JCC had nothing like it, and they were unwilling to match it. I asked if they could simply offer a military discount, since at that point we were unsure if we’d be living in the area for more than a year; like most military families, we were unsure of where we would land next, and did not know if there would be a Jewish community to plug into.
I didn’t want to commit to such an expensive membership if we were going to have to leave soon and start over somewhere else. (We held off on joining a synagogue for the same reason.) But the JCC said no to that, too. The JCC wasn’t being unfriendly, and the person I spoke to seemed to feel bad about it, but welcoming Jewish service members — a transient community — wasn’t a pressing concern.
So we joined the Y that year. We swam in its pool and climbed its rock wall and attended its events. After my husband returned from Iraq, we decided to stay in the district. If we’d had the option to join the JCC the year he was deployed, I’m sure we’d still be members now. But because of the way our needs were originally shrugged off, we never joined.