This is my last blog as Executive Director of the Augusta Jewish Federation and the Augusta Community Center. I cannot help it but look back into the memory lane of the last almost four years.
When I first came into town, we were dealing with very specific issues: How to keep the Center doors open, how to increase Fundraising and other income streams, how to increase support from the community, how to overcome the divisions within the community, and how to recruit new people into positions of leadership. The community was stuck into mourning the demise of the Community Hebrew School, and accusations were still flying every which way. The good news was that the Antisemitism front was quiet, and we certainly could not imagine at the time what 2020 had in store for us.
We were first shaken in 2018 by the news of the Tree of Life attack in Pittsburgh, which in perspective became a landmark in the growing development of anti-Semitism in the US. We were able to convoke the general community to an event marking the loss of life and the rejection of violence – and we received an important response; many people came, and the Social Hall at the AJCC was full of people from all walks of life standing with us against violence and Anti Semitism.
Activity at the Center was beginning to pick up; we were bringing programs that were innovative (such as the Beer Making Workshop) and also bringing back some traditional programs (such as Yoga, Lunch at the J and Krav Maga). It was the beginning of what should have been a long way back up under ideal conditions. Jewish Family Services also started to rebuild, including a supporting committee – as did the Community Relations Council. We put together a Jewish-Muslim dialogue going beyond inter-faith and focusing on the day-to-day realities of being a minority in American Society. We applied – and obtained – a Security grant to harden the security at the AJCC and assisted other area organizations in obtaining the same. But then, at the beginning of 2020, COVID hit and our world was upended.
The news from Israel, over the last three years (until recently) was a roller coaster of confrontations on and off with Hamas; an Israeli government that seemed to care very little for the American Jewish Community and focused its most important efforts in strengthening relations with the Evangelical Christians in the US, while backing off from some deals which were dear to American Jews, such as the Kotel deal.
There is no way to overstate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In person programs at the Center had to be discontinued; as we approached the summer of 2020, we were faced with the unpleasant reality of having to run a limited Camp and limit access to the pool. This impacted the AJCC income streams; not to mention the impact COVID had on the rentals. We applied – and obtained – an AJF-AJCC combined PPP Loan totaling about $ 49,000, which allowed us to keep the doors open and our services running. In 2021 we applied for and obtained a second PPP for the Center for about $33,000
The Pandemic reality, however, put into evidence that the then existing business model of the Center and the model of community structure were no longer viable, forcing a reevaluation of it. The process (conducted mostly by Zoom), involved many segments of the community and a serious conversation with many of the players and stakeholders. In the midst of this process, unfortunately, we also had to deal with a leadership change at the AJCC when Lewis Baylor moved away from the community (a loss we all felt). It was a long, involved process, that would not have been possible without the help of many volunteers, and the leadership of those who stepped up to the plate. It mobilized many in the community, and was a serious and responsible analysis of the present and future demographic realities of the community – including shortage of volunteers and aging trends. After analyzing options and possible structures, the leadership decided to divest from the brick and mortar to devote more efforts and resources to service the community. As we put it at some point: “To reduce the floor plant to increase our impact”. That process is still ongoing, with the sale of the building under way and the combining of the AJF and AJCC Boards in the making. I commend the AJF for its commitment to the process and for the financial backing it provided to the AJCC during this transition, as it protected community assets.
Through all this, we still held Yom HaShoah commemorations, campaign programs, the first local Good Deeds Day, other community programs and even the first-ever (local) Virtual Film Festival with record participation. We started a community wide weekly email to connect people. And during the Summer of 2021 we held a record-breaking Summer Camp. We also obtained a second ($33,000) PPP Loan for the AJCC. We also reinitiated Yoga Classes and welcomed back the Mah Jong group. We held the first Humanitarian event in many years, as well as the first Golf event in many years. We recruited new people for position of leadership.
Most important from my persepctive, over the last three years I came to know and cherish many of you, forming bonds that I hope will continue beyond my tenure. I also learned of your expectations, your ideas and your memories, and became the richer for it.
As I said, it has been a wild ride. And while the foundation has been set for a new stage in the development of the Jewish community, the ride is not over. The community will need to continue its reevaluation and restructuring to secure a strong Jewish community in the CSRA for years to come.
I feel privileged to have been part of this process and feel pride in the accomplishments of the community. I will miss accompanying the community in the final parts of this new journey, but I know that the community will rise to the challenge and flourish. I want to especially thank the staff who accompany me in this journey and the leadership with whom I shared the task. I wish the community the best moving forward and hope to see many of you at National meeting and have a chance to catch up. Thank you!