Since the idea of first expanding the building on Route 45 arose in the late 1990s, Jewish Rockland has changed. The Orthodox communities continue to grow, with towns like New Square and Kaiser boasting among the highest birthrates in New York State in the 2010 census.
The liberally religious communities of Rockland, at the same time, face many of the challenges those denominations do nationwide — sliding membership, high costs associated with maintaining buildings, synagogue mergers and closings, and loss of a day school.
The campus opened as those challenges became more apparent, or perhaps, stood in stark contrast to them. When the Jewish Federation hosted Shalom Rockland, a large, daylong fair showcasing Jewish life across the county, in the spring of 2011, it took place in the campus and on its grounds. The festival attracted nearly 3,000 people. It was intended to highlight Rockland County as an attractive place for young families to relocate and to bring attention to what goes on in the campus building for those already here.
Rabbi Brian Leiken represents the demographic at which Shalom Rockland was aimed. He recently moved to Rockland County with his wife and two young sons to assume spiritual leadership of Temple Beth Sholom, a Reform congregation in New City.
“There are two major markers when you are entering Rockland County, depending on where you are coming from: one is the Palisades Mall and the other is the Jewish Community Campus. I always felt that said a lot about the community. The structure just welcomes you and breathes excitement.”
Leiken hails from Cleveland, which has Jewish institutions that are much older and more established than the ones in Rockland County. He doesn’t see synagogues in competition with the organizations in the campus. The campus enhances Jewish life, but “it is not the reason that Jewish life is going to survive here.”
That younger generations feel differently about belonging to Jewish organizations seems to be the new received wisdom, but how the community will tackle that issue and draw support for the campus from them remains a stubborn riddle for an institution that still needs to retire its debt to remain viable into the future.
“People feel it’s a great place, and everyone walks out with unbelievable raves, but they don’t take ownership,” said Steve Gold, a past president of the JCC and the incoming federation president. “I don’t know how much more you can do. You would think the success of the Maccabi Games would make them take ownership. It was a successful event that everyone in Rockland County should be proud of, but it’s over and now it’s on to the next thing.”
Gold wants to see the campus succeed and for a new generation to get involved. The campus has potential to unite many, from the fervently Orthodox group that plays racquetball there on a regular basis, to the young intermarried families who drop in for a children’s concert.
“I think to be a Jewish community, you need a central address, one that says, ‘Jewish R Us.’”