This month, on November 18, I will celebrate my 35th anniversary with the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation. Much has changed in our local community since Hilari, Sean, and I arrived from Long Island. (Rachel is a Buckeye and born here in 1991.) However, one thing has not changed: the Federation’s commitment to serving our Jewish community.
But first, a look back to 1985, when our Jewish population was approximately 3,800 people (or as I like to joke – men, women, children, cats, and dogs) in the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys. Back then, Akiva was in its first year of existence, with a very small number of Jewish students in grades kindergarten and one. The second year, Akiva added grades two and three, and Hilari started working as the third grade teacher, while also teaching computers and music to the entire school.
Our JCC sponsored a twice weekly program for senior citizens called “Horizon’s Unlimited,” staffed by Ruth Hollander. Marsha Fader was the preschool director where children attended for parts of two, three or five days. Camp was two four-week sessions, and everyone signed their children up in the winter to make sure they were not closed out. There were also numerous afterschool sports for the kids, and my children participated in wood working, theatre, soccer, basketball, and a whole lot more. The JCC had one joint health club with a whirlpool, sauna, and steam, with separate hours for men and women, with just a few pieces of workout equipment. We had three extremely busy racquetball courts every day, and you had to schedule court time with the Basketroom staffed by Pat Sturgeon.
Heritage Manor, our 72-bed nursing home, increased its bed capacity only a few years earlier at the same time JCC underwent a major renovation, adding the Multi-Purpose room, the Adult Lounge, a new Preschool Wing (Preschool at one time was located on the second floor of the JCC), and more. Most years, the Home was full with a waiting list. Back then it was not unusual for residents to be in the Home for 10 plus years. Sadly, today, the average stay is roughly two years.
Jewish Family Services (known as Jewish Family & Children’s Services) was located on the second floor at the JCC. They began handling guardianships a few years before I arrived. They also handled adoptions, in addition to providing counseling services.
The Jewish Community Relations Council, which was one of my primary responsibilities, focused on Holocaust education, advocacy for Jews in the former Soviet Union, building support for Israel, fighting antisemitism, interfaith relations, and more.
There was so much more the Federation and its agencies were doing back in 1985, but that will have to wait for a future column.
Over the years, I have seen a transformation of our agencies and beneficiaries. Akiva has grown to 154 students today in grades K-8, with a small percentage of the students being Jewish. We are doing something right that many non-Jewish families choose to send their children to Akiva, where all students receive roughly 90 minutes of Hebrew and Judaic studies five times a week.
The JCC offers Aging Well programs for older adults, including countless fitness classes, educational programs, and lunch and dinner programs, open to both the Jewish and general communities. Today, preschool is known as the Early Learning Center, open to children ages 6 weeks to 5 years of age, and includes before and afterschool care for school age students. Students in the ELC learn about Jewish holidays, culture, and customs. All students learn to swim beginning at the age of 1. Camp has increased to 11 weeks, with weekly specialty camps. Our campers also swim in the JCC’s indoor pool, as well as at our Logan Campus.
Today, the JCC has two separate Men’s and Women’s Health Clubs, complete with a whirlpool, sauna, and steam. Also, the JCC has a beautiful state-of-the-art fitness center, in addition to our Group X Studio, with many classes throughout the day. We no longer have three racquetball courts, just one. Almost four years ago, one court was turned into our School of Dance, and most recently, a second court was converted into the Paul and Yetta Gluck School Visual Arts on the upper level, with the lower level consisting of a number of music practice rooms as part of the JCC’s School of Music.
Behind the JCC, Noah’s Park was built in the mid 1990’s, and a new infant and toddler playground was added a few years ago. Last year, an outside pavilion was built, along with four new pickleball courts. And this winter be sure to visit our new ice rink located in front of the pavilion.
Heritage Manor has undergone numerous renovations over the past 35 years, including the completion this year of a remodel of its lobby. The offices for Heritage Manor and JFS were also remodeled. An Adult Day Services program was established roughly 10 years ago and Levy Gardens was built in 1997, with 18 one-bedroom and six two-bedroom apartments. JFS no longer offers adoption services, but our guardianship program has increased to approximately 25 clients. JFS now also oversees a Group Home adjacent to Levy Gardens. And, during the COVID-19 crisis, JFS collaborated with the JCC to prepare and deliver 3,500 to 4,000 meals a week to older adults over 60 in Mahoning County and northern Columbiana county, sponsored by Direction Home of Eastern Ohio.
Today, JCRC keeps our Jewish community up to date with its activities related to Israel advocacy and fighting antisemitism, while continuing to build relationships with local, state, and Federal governmental representatives and leadership. It was only two years ago that JCRC coordinated the Tree of Life vigil attended by over 600 people, a broad representation of our Mahoning Valley faith community.
Everything Federation does today includes safeguarding our Jewish community, including our synagogues, and members, guests, and residents/tenants of our Federation agencies. We have devoted significant financial resources to 24 hour security on our entire campus, led by our Security Director, Rob Elston.
Much has changed since my arrival in Youngstown, but some things stay the same. Your Federation is deeply committed to meeting the needs of our local community, while supporting fellow Jews in Israel and worldwide. We also follow our Jewish mission which includes our commitment to tikkun olam, “repairing the world.” We must continue to support the general community who utilize our many programs and services on our campus. We also support important community institutions and organizations, including the United Way, Youngstown State University, Youngstown Business Incubator, Mercy Health, the Butler Institute of American Art, OH Wow!, and so many others too numerous to mention. We are in the final stages of establishing a Jewish Cemetery Association, and are working with area synagogues to help facilitate further collaboration.
I was 27 years old (with a lot more hair and a mustache) when Sam Kooperman hired me and changed the direction of my life. I will forever be grateful to the many volunteers and staff I have had the privilege to work with over the years. I am honored to have worked for the Federation for the past 35 years. Again, so much has changed over those years, but the generosity of our donors continues to inspire me. No community in North America, similar in size, has everything YOUR FEDERATION offers. This is all a testament to our lay leadership, dedicated staff, and generous donors. As we move past the coronavirus sometime in 2021, I know your Federation will be stronger than ever.
Happy Thanksgiving, and be well and stay safe!
Chief Executive Officer
Youngstown Area Jewish Federation