Reflecting on Ten Years at the Tucson J: As We Move Forward, We Must Remind Ourselves Where We Have Been

This month, as I am finishing my tenth year as CEO + President of the Tucson J – what I know to be one of the pre-eminent JCC’s in North America – I’d be remiss not to take a moment to honor all we have built and accomplished together. I am so humbled and proud to be part of this community that is nothing short of remarkable.

As we move forward, we must remind ourselves where we have been.

We have built on the Tucson J’s strong history of success through the hard work and dedication of a committed and involved Board, a community of generous donors and volunteers who truly believe in our work, and tens of thousands of patrons across Southern Arizona who have come to the J to become their very best selves. Together we have propelled the J beyond the wildest hopes and dreams of its founders and further solidified its long legacy of growth and innovation.

When I arrived in Tucson in 2013, a round of capital funding had begun, setting the foundation for our shared vision of the J as the town square of the community to come to fruition. What we knew then was that we could not grow and expand our programs and services to meet the needs of our community without also updating and expanding the physical space. We continued with another successful round of funding and planned major renovations strategically and intentionally – with the ideas that the J is both a destination and launch point, a convener and a connector, and our gathering spaces must reflect our goals and values.

It was then that, “Everyone belongs, and some people join,” began to truly evolve and take shape as a concept, and we adopted our service pledge as a covenant to our community.

To ensure ALL people feel a strong sense of belonging at the J, we augmented existing inclusion efforts and broadened our understanding of equity – work which is continual and evolving. We began to focus more on relationship-based engagement, viewing our patrons as integral partners and we set out to create more diverse, higher-quality programming for the entire community – not just members. We also adopted a holistic approach to wellness using a new wellness wheel as a platform to foster more meaningful connections and ways to participate.

In 2014, we enhanced our Early Childhood Education program by offering an inclusion option, using a new Sheva framework to enrich the program with Jewish values, and renovating the preschool playground. In 2015, we made cosmetic improvements to every classroom and built an accessible indoor PlaySpace on the second floor.
Simultaneous to the creation of the PlaySpace, we added the multipurpose room, demo kitchen, staff lounge, office space, and an activity room for Taglit Day Program participants.

Also in 2015, the completely remodeled Zuckerman Fitness Center allowed us to include new, specialized fitness offerings, and position ourselves as a premier fitness center in Tucson. In 2016 and 2017, with thanks to Homeland Security Grants and a gift from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona (now JPSA), we added interior swipe doors and other security enhancements to keep our growing community safe. In 2019, we broke ground on the state-of-the-art Sarver Tennis Center to become one of the most robust racquet sports programs in town.

With the recognition that Arts + Culture could be a platform for deeper engagement, in 2017, we hired a full-time Director of Jewish Life and Learning to transform the department into one deeply aligned with our mission. In 2018, an accidental flood in our lobby and art gallery forced already needed renovations, yielding a fresh canvas for a regular season of rotating gallery exhibits; and in 2019, we built the Garden of Hope.

In 2020, we created a five-year strategic plan to guide our work forward. The pillars of the plan are to provide innovative Jewish programming; to engage families with young children; to amplify our fundraising; and to prioritize Community. I am proud to say we are years ahead of our initial benchmarks.

Ten years after our service pledge was established, inclusion remains a priority. We started our work with the newly developed SRE (Safety, Respect, Equity) Network in 2018 as early adopters in the JCC Movement. In 2022, we hired a full-time Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Specialist and rolled out our all-staff JCulture training, which we’ve replicated with other Jewish organizations in Tucson. Additionally in 2022, we completed a cohort with Sacred Spaces, resulting in the implementation of a new code of personnel practices and we became one of the largest day programs for adults with disabilities when we integrated with Arts for All under our Disability Program Services.

ECE, Camp, and JCare are serving more families than ever – and continue to find new ways to infuse Jewish learning into their curriculums. This year, we expanded ECE to 20 classrooms, including three Spanish Immersion, and the 2023-2024 school year will see a pilot satellite 21st classroom at Tucson Hebrew Academy. We are excited to install an all-new accessible playground for children with varying access needs in the next few years.

2022 brought back new iterations of a variety of Healthy Aging programs, and this year we added to the roster with a Parkinson’s Support Group and Fall Proof: Balance and Mobility Program. We are reaching new heights in Racquet Sports, with an impressive group of youth players in our Junior Elite Tennis program, and an ever-expanding group of Pickleball players. When it comes to Aquatics, we maintain our long-held aspiration to fully update the Aquatics Center.

In 2022, working closely with our partners at Jewish Philanthropies of Southern Arizona, we became the implementing partner of PJ Library and lead partner and home to the Weintraub Israel Center. We are thrilled to be hosting the 2025 JCC Maccabi Games – the world’s largest Jewish youth sporting event, with over 1,000 delegates joining us in Tucson.

In 2022, we completed the lighting project in the Jill Rosenzweig Memorial Sculpture Garden and in 2023 we have one of the most robust lineups of Arts, Culture, and Community programs ever scheduled, the latter of which will take place in a newly renovated ballroom coming in early 2024. To grow our reach and impact, we continue to strengthen our relationships cross-communally, collaborating with synagogues and other Jewish agencies, as well as other organizations in the broader community.

As I look at where we are now, and all that lies behind us and before us, I am reminded that things that seem impossible become incredibly possible when a group of caring, creative, committed people work toward a collective dream. I think of Pirket Avot 2:4, “Do not separate yourself from community.” Community – kehillah – is a Jewish value. Each of us plays an important part in making the J dream a reality just by being here. It is with reverence for the work that has been done since the beginning of the Tucson J’s inception on Broadway and Plumer and gratitude for all, past and present, who have made the J part of their life that I anticipate the future ahead. What stories, triumphs, and lessons will we reflect on and rejoice over in the next one, five, or ten years?