Zack Bodner, CEO of Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, made the difficult decision to close his organization's facility in March. (Photo/Courtesy OFJCC)
Zack Bodner, CEO of Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, made the difficult decision to close his organization's facility in March. (Photo/Courtesy OFJCC)

How local Jewish community leaders are navigating the unknown

Melissa Chapman only recently joined the JCC of the East Bay as its new CEO. She started in September 2019, and by February, “I finally felt as if I had my bearings. I understood our staff and their talents, the community, and what was needed to move us forward,” she said. “Then it all came to a screeching halt.”

Cindy Rogoway, executive director of Hebrew Free Loan in San Francisco, thinks back to when she and her team were excitedly planning a Business Circle Luncheon with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. Scheduled for March 23, the event was on track to draw 300 people. It took until March 9 for HFL to cancel.

Cindy Rogoway
Cindy Rogoway

“It’s shocking to me now that we still thought people might come,” Rogoway said.

The two women are among Bay Area Jewish organization leaders whose current realities — and that of their communities — have been shattered in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

For Zack Bodner, CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, rumblings of what was to come began in January when his colleague, Paul Geduldig of the Peninsula JCC in Foster City, brought news of the virus to his attention.

“I kind of pooh-poohed it,” Bodner recalled. “But in February, it became real.”

Still, it took a few weeks for the gravity of the situation to come into full view.

“The day it really hit me was March 16,” Chapman said. “I walked out of my JCC and had no idea when I was coming back.”

Like millions of others, these Jewish communal professionals have transitioned from being commuters to working remotely. This physical pivot has proven to be easy compared with the emotional fallout of the unfolding pandemic.

Emails to the community about having to temporarily shut down their sites began with, “It is with difficulty and sadness …” from Chapman and “This is the most painful message I have ever had to send” from Bodner.

Chapman and Bodner are part of a group of executives from six Bay Area JCCs who have been supporting each other through the difficult decision-making processes of canceling Israel and teen trips, closing fitness centers, and halting programs for young children, older youth and seniors.

It takes a huge toll and is a huge responsibility. You can’t afford to make a mistake.

All of that has added to the Jewish community wreckage caused by the pandemic and, with it, the money that keeps JCCs afloat.

“We generate $2.5 million each month in revenue through gym memberships, preschool tuition and camps,” Bodner said. “Now we have zero.”

Despite cutting expenses from every corner of their budgets and requesting extensions from utility companies and the like, all of the JCCs faced grave choices about their staffs.

“All I could think about was, ‘How can I keep my staff?’” Chapman said. “Who am I to decide the fate of 100 people?”

With boards of directors, board presidents and executive committees serving as emotional sounding boards and thought partners, agonizing decisions were made.

Melissa Chapman
Melissa Chapman

For example, 75 percent of the JCC East Bay staff was furloughed, Chapman said, leaving the remaining 25 percent primarily to design online programming.

Bodner, who created a task force that communicates daily, said he furloughed 80 percent of 500 staffers, keeping 75 people to provide online content and 25 essential personnel.

In both of those cases, furloughed staff have retained their health care, “with support from generous donors and members,” it says on the Oshman Family JCC website.

Bodner reduced his hours (on paper), and both he and Chapman have reduced their salaries. In actuality, however, they are working around the clock as they try to navigate the immediate future while also ensuring there is a JCC to return to after the epidemic ends.

With a smaller team of eight at Hebrew Free Loan, Rogoway was able to avoid such weighty personnel decisions. However, for her, the anguish and sleepless nights arrived when two calamitous events occurred basically at once: Existing loan recipients wanted reduced payments or deferments (which impacts the ability to fund new loans) at the same time the agency was leaping into action to meet the needs of new applicants who suddenly found themselves in dire financial straits.

“You can feel the stress people are facing when you read their loan applications,” she said. “Their angst just leaps off the page.”

And it’s a lot of pages.

Applicant stories vary, she said. They include job loss, an inability to afford medications and/or groceries, the loss of income for business owners, the loss of supplemental income (from Airbnb rentals or doing odd jobs, for example) and students who had to leave their campuses but are still paying rent on apartments. Those who are employees of Jewish organizations are a priority, Rogoway said.

“We have to be there for them,” she said. “They were working on behalf of the Jewish community. We can’t let them down. I’ve been in the community for 31 years and I’ve never experienced anything like this. It’s heartbreaking to see so many people just trying to make ends meet. It takes a huge toll and is a huge responsibility. You can’t afford to make a mistake.”

Rabbi Eric Weiss
Rabbi Eric Weiss

Rabbi Eric Weiss, president and CEO of the S.F.-based Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, described the situation this way: “The Jewish professional world is filled with people who want to help. They’ve made a choice to earn their living in a context of being empathetic. There is spiritual pain when you can’t do your helping job and help where it’s needed. This is why we need such massive tzedakah — so we can keep the link of helping to need. We need to get [Jewish community professionals] back to work, to be whole and to be able to help.”

It’s a struggle, said Chapman of the JCC East Bay. “Our value proposition is bringing people together. But when public safety officials say bringing people together can kill you, we have had to rethink everything.”

But still, she added, “I keep remembering the rich history of the Jewish people. We always come back.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.