As the two Twin Cities JCCs closed their doors in mid-March due to the coronavirus, programmers at the two buildings realized that there was no playbook in place for how to continue programming for the thousands of people – from early childhood to seniors – that step foot in the buildings every day for meaningful connections.
Within a week, the JCCs had developed “Our Virtual JCC,” designed to help people of all ages stay healthy, connected and engaged during these unprecedented times.
“I’m so impressed with our staff,” said Michael Waldman, CEO of the St. Paul and Sabes JCCs. “Our two JCCs came together, like we always do, to create meaningful opportunities and ways to connect. And, while a virtual JCC is important, so are the special one-on-one touches and outreach that foster relationships and provide direct support and comfort.”
Waldman said that the abrupt decision to close was shocking for many, but especially for the JCCs two early childhood centers.
“We were in school on Friday, and Monday we were closed,” said Erin Waller, Sabes JCC ECC Director. “The relationships the teachers have with the children and their parents are so important, and because we are all in our own homes and can’t see each other, we had to get creative in order to stay connected.”
“We started small, like a simple bedtime story,” added Lisa Rosenfield, St. Paul’s ECC Director. “Now, many classrooms are utilizing Google Classroom, Zoom and other online platforms to stay in touch and see each other’s faces. A private Facebook page was created for families to enjoy that is filled with activities, art projects and Shabbat celebrations. These virtual connections have been super important for our families and for the teachers.
On the other end of the age spectrum, the JCCs understood the important role that it plays in the lives of many of seniors and the need for continuity.
“We never stopped the Meals on Wheels deliveries, but we adapted our process to ensure safety. Prior to Covid-19, the driver would engage with the seniors,” said St. Paul JCC Adult Services Director Barbie Levine. “New policies were put in place for disinfecting the car, and putting meals right into the cooler by the front door.”
JCC volunteers are also calling senior adults on a regular schedule to check in. The JCC has partnered with Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School to coordinate friendly phone calls by their students. Many of the Heilicher students are asking if it’s ok to call more than once per week because they enjoy speaking with their new senior friends so much.
In addition to supportive services, the JCCs also are continuing many of the programs that adults look forward to each week, like the Creative Writing Class. “Some of the emails I get from participants say this is the high point of the week,” Levine said. “What’s important is that they had this community beforehand, and now it works through Zoom. We’re all learning new skills.”
The JCCs are also working hard to ensure that their Inclusion participants stay connected and supported during this complicated time. Inclusion staff is hosting a weekly virtual lunch including a “check-in” and “question of the day” and Spanish review via Zoom with close to 20 participants.
“These times are difficult for all of us,” said Anita Lewis, Sabes JCC Inclusion Director. “But for adults with special needs, this time can be especially upsetting, difficult to understand and extremely isolating. Connecting via Zoom is just one way we are keeping our participants engaged with each other and the JCC Community.”
Staff are also hard at work reaching out and nurturing the Inclusion Community. A daily email is sent featuring a video made by an Inclusion staff, a fun link to a virtual tour or workout is shared, and participants are always encouraged to visit the virtual JCC. The JCC Garden has also played a large part in this, with videos featuring the seed-starting process and new growth of the 2020 garden. Most importantly, participants are phone called weekly by staff.
“Continuity, and connection with a personal touch is essential for our participants. We are doing our best to stay connected and accessible.” Lewis said.
One programming area that usually requires ‘in-real-life attendance’ is cultural arts. But JCCs Cultural Arts Director Robyn Awend is also cultivating ways for people to connect in the virtual space, starting with the JCCs “Shalom Bayit” virtual online exhibition for kids and adults. Shalom Bayit, which means “peace in the home,” is taking on new and added meaning as we shelter in place.
Even within the virtual opportunities on the JCCs website, Awend is still planning for real-life activities, including the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival that happens in the fall. “
The film festival is at least a 6- to 8-month project,” she said. “It takes hours to view films and make decisions, plus marketing in the lead up. It’s a huge undertaking, and if we’re going to do it well, we need the time to do it so we’re starting that now.”
Awend said that she has been connecting regularly with JCCs around the country. “It’s helpful to see what others are doing,” she said. “At first it felt like a lifeline, but now we are building a community within each other’s work. We can share, and inspire each other.”
As the world has adapted to virtual and online programming, the JCC’s Health and Wellness programs have stepped up. Each week, the JCCs offer hundreds of online classes over a hundred workouts on their YouTube Channel by their own instructors and Facebook LIVE Group Ex classes every day. In addition, thanks to Zoom, members can still get personal training and maintain their relationships with the staff.
“Every day we are asked when we will reopen,” said Waldman, adding that the decision how and when to reopen will be based on recommendations from the CDC and Minnesota Department of Health. The JCCs are working behind the scenes to develop protocols around social distancing, enhanced cleaning and sanitizing and adapting our programs.
“During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other, the JCC continues to be the place where people welcome and take care of one another,” Waldman said. “The role of the JCC has always been to be the place that people can gather. That continues to be our mission and we are working hard to keep us all connected. We will continue to grow and adapt and we look forward to the day when we can reopen our doors.”
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