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Feature Stories

Why We Can’t Spell ‘Community’ Without JCC

If the words “Jewish Community Center” conjure images of ladies playing mah-jong and amateur stage adaptations of Yentl, you obviously haven’t been to the Sid Jacobson JCC in East Hills.

Head-quartered in a sprawling, 185,000-square-foot building just off Northern Boulevard, this recreational, cultural, educational and social-services organization takes the word “community” quite literally and very seriously.

“This is not a religious organization,” said David Black, chief operating officer. “It operates out of Jewish values, but it is open to all of the people of the world.”

That means membership and the facilities are available to everyone. The health club (the equipment and trainers match any area gym), the indoor pool (six lanes, 25 yards long), the summer camps (five in all, including the former Robin Hood Day Camp in Old Westbury, now Camp Jacobson), day care (five locations around Nassau), author visits (such as Jodi Picoult, Jonathan Franzen and Delia Ephron), and on and on, with classes and programs for everyone from infants to the most senior of senior citizens.

“We truly are cradle to grave,” said Susan Banco, associate executive director.

Included in that is a heavy dose of what Black calls “Jewish values.”

“We care most about people who are least able to care for themselves,” he said.

The evidence is the dozens of social-service missions the JCC has undertaken. There’s a fitness program for cancer patients and survivors as well as counseling for their families. A camp program for kids with autism. A teen mentoring program. And many more.

“Seventy-five percent of the people we service are not Jewish,” said Black.

Among the most inspiring programs are those for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families.

“Sometimes it takes a while to get here, but everybody gets here when it hurts enough,” said Denise Silverberg of East Hills, a board member and driving force in the JCC’s Alzheimer’s efforts. She speaks from experience.

A decade ago, Silverberg brought her mother, Lillian Rose, an Alzheimer’s patient, to the JCC for its weekly program. Silverberg quickly realized that this needed to be expanded to five days a week, and set out to raise the funds to do it. It was a phenomenal success. The result is the annual Friendship Circle Luncheon.

“I originally organized the luncheon to thank my friends who contributed,” she said.

Now, it has grown into a must-attend social event.

“This past May, we filled the Garden City Hotel,” Silverberg laughed. With nearly 500 in attendance, the event raised $175,000.

Today, 100 Alzheimer’s patients are enrolled in the JCC’s five-day-a-week program. And this has given birth to an unusual and much-needed program for those with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

It started seven years ago when a woman brought in her 39-year-old husband. He was suffering from serious memory loss.

“We had to do something,” said Silverberg.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s takes a different course from standard Alzheimer’s, and as a result, it is often misdiagnosed as depression. The victim typically tries to cover up the problem, but along the way becomes unemployed, which can plunge the family into dire financial straits.

Today, nearly three dozen people ranging from 47 to 64 years old come to the JCC for the early-onset program which includes therapists, social workers and numerous volunteers.

“If I do say so myself,” said Joni F. Cohen, chief operating officer, with 35 years in the organization, “we have the best staff in the universe.”

And the universe of people the JCC serves keeps expanding. A program for teens with cancer and their families is being explored. A commercial laundry, where those with special needs can train for and be placed in jobs, is being built at the center. And Silverberg continues her Alzheimer’s work.

A partnership with the North Shore-LIJ Health System led to a wing of Glen Cove Hospital devoted to dementia patients, with a staff that is specially trained and board-certified. The success of this three-year-old project (named the Lillian Rose Program for Silverberg’s mother) could soon lead to an expansion into more hospitals in the North Shore-LIJ system.

“It is all about building community,” said Cohen.