Millions of American of every racial, economic, and religious group have slowly been coming back to their local YMCAs and JCCs. Shuttered in March because of the pandemic, gymnasiums, fitness centers, pools and early childhood centers — which help people stay healthy and connected under normal circumstances — have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Getting back on our feet will be a difficult process. But we are determined.
We’re determined not only because our gyms and pools and schools are beloved by the many thousands of people who call us their home away from home — there are lots of places people can work out in our city (even in our living rooms, it turns out) — but also because, as we usher in a new administration after a year that threatened our core democratic institutions, we know that community centers and YMCAs continue to play a vital role in strengthening citizenship and articulating the values that shape our country.
From their very beginnings, YMCAs and Jewish Community Centers ensured that immigrants to our country were able to learn English and acclimate into American culture. Indeed, the nation’s first-known English as a Second Language (ESL) class was held for German immigrants at the Cincinnati YMCA in 1856. As Jews began to immigrate to the United States in large numbers at the end of the 19th century, YMHAs (many of which are now called JCCs) became the hub for new Americans to learn basic citizenship and English in their newly adopted country.
The communities that are nurtured in these centers — and in New York City there are over 40 such centers throughout the five boroughs — continue to serve this role for our city. We are in more lives than we could ever have imagined, and in more ways than we could have imagined. We are polling places and educational sites for children learning remotely. We run civics classes and boot camps for teens finding their way through the complexities of modern-day democracy. We serve everyone, regardless of race or religion, and strive for equity as we offer a range of programs for every age and stage of life. The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan’s Joseph Stern Center for Social Responsibility helps to educate and activate our community around the important issues of our day: racial justice, immigration, climate change, antisemitism and voting rights, to name a few. We are nonpartisan and eager to support the multiple and diverse voices in our community.
These are not new ideas for us. We’ve been at this work for over 150 years. It is written into the DNA of our movement. But we’ve learned in the last several months that we must never take this work for granted. Democracy is not easy. It requires vigilance. It requires access to facts and the ability to distinguish between truth and fiction. It needs every one of us to stay informed and engaged. It requires centers that strengthen civic life and support the most vulnerable among us.
That’s why we are determined. Oh, and by the way, as we get up and running, come take a swim (can’t do that in your living room!) or join us in our safe and clean fitness centers. Even with our masks on, you will see smiling eyes welcoming you home.
Rabbi Joy Levitt is the CEO of the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan.