The J Factor: Virtual programming helps community deal with new reality

Virtual “bake-alongs” with local Chef Lindsay Perkins and daughter Valerie, of Lindsay Culinary, arts classes and fitness programs are some of the many virtual activities being offered right now by the Mandell Jewish Community Center. When the Mandell JCC turned to Facebook to offer live fitness classes, it had 300 members in the Mandell JCC Fitness Friends Facebook group; it now has more than 1,100.

It’s 1 p.m. during some weekday (is there really a difference between them?) and I’ve been working in a small room in my home since 7:30 this morning. Rather than taking a break and grabbing whatever is easy to eat and return to my desk like I normally do, I decide to change my routine.

So I tune in to a virtual “bake along” with local Chef Lindsay Perkins of Lindsay Culinary and her adorable daughter Valerie that’s being hosted weekly by the Mandell Jewish Community Center (Mandell JCC) on its Facebook Live page, to learn how to make scrumptious chocolate chip cookie bars. My head tells me learning this skill will not help my growing waistline, but I go ahead anyway, rationalizing that this should not be my biggest concern during Covid-19.

Luckily, I also learn that this program is only one of hundreds of free online programs offered each week by the Mandell JCC — including a plethora of fitness classes so I can work off the baked goods. Among its other free virtual offerings are karate, arts classes, lectures, special screenings of Jewish Film Festival movies, an array of programs for families and children, and youth sports and recreation instruction.

“Our facilities may be closed to the public now, but we are filling a void,” says Annie Keith, chief operating officer of the Mandell JCC. “We provide online programs every week that adults and their kids can look forward to. We also offer a variety of virtual forums where they can communicate with each other and stay connected, even as they remain mostly in their homes.”

The Mandell JCC’s membership and programs includes people of all faiths and backgrounds, and serves more than 2,300 members. But in the age of COVID-19, it has made nearly all of its virtual programs free and open to the entire community.

“This is a time where the ‘community’ part of the Mandell Jewish Community Center is really highlighted,” says David Jacobs, the CEO of this institution for 18 years. “We always do so much for our community — not just our members — because we are about strengthening community and building bridges between people from all backgrounds.”

While the Mandell JCC regularly collaborates with other community agencies and businesses in areas ranging from mental and physical health to arts and education, it has gone into overdrive on community-building during these last few months.

It has organized food drives for the West Hartford Food Pantry and the Anja Rosenberg JFS Kosher Food Pantry, and is partnering with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Community Centers of North America to raise money for the Pledge to Protect program, which provides life-saving personal protection equipment to Jewish nursing homes, hospice care centers, home care workers, and other frontline providers for the elderly, who have suffered devastating fatalities due to the coronavirus pandemic. To learn more, go to http://www.jewishtogether.salsalabs.org/pledgetoprotect/p/thejccmovementpage/index.html

The Mandell JCC is also promoting the Jewish Hartford Rapid Relief and Recovery Fund, a joint project of the local Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation, which provides funding to ensure individuals and families in the Jewish community have access to food, counseling and financial assistance. The RRR Fund will also be providing assistance to Greater Hartford’s Jewish community institutions to help them navigate through the pandemic. For more information, go to www.Jewishhartford.org.

Jacobs believes that all these activities, its commitment to “tikkun olam” (Hebrew for repairing the world) and its deep community ties are some of the reasons the Mandell JCC engenders such fierce loyalty among its members and program participants. He cites that, even though the Mandell JCC facilities have been closed for two months, “many of our members continue to support us by paying their dues and through donations, as our staff, including teachers, are still working to provide valuable services to the community,” while two-thirds of its 200-plus families in its early childhood programs have donated back some or all of their April tuition.

While the Mandell JCC continues to proactively address the challenges of losing essential revenue, due to Covid-19, its staff, volunteers and leadership never waver from the principal focus of caring for people and strengthening community. That’s reflected in the ways its teachers visit students (at a safe distance) in their driveways and get together with them online several times a week for chats and class activities. Volunteers and staff contact the elderly by phone to keep in touch, and staff continue to add virtual programming to keep everyone connected.

“We’ve shown over the past 100 years our ability to adapt and pivot based on what is happening in the world around us,” Jacobs says. “JCCs have always been at the forefront of helping our communities to heal.”

What the Mandell JCC is doing now might prove to be its greatest act ever.

According to For more information about the Mandell JCC’s programs, please visit www.mandelljcc.org.

Connecticut Media Group