No Place Like Home

Laura Friedman Has Spent Her Entire Life at Jewish Community Centers, Which She Calls an Extended Family 

For Laura Friedman, Executive Director of the Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center, JCCs represent the best of humanity: Their mission is to make peoples’ lives better, to be a home-away-from-home.

Growing up, Laura was a member of the Staten Island JCC. As a teen, she met her future husband, Brett, at a JCC sleep-away camp. After graduating college, it seemed only natural to gravitate back to the Staten Island JCC, where she worked as a nursery school teacher, managed the day camp, and served as the teen program director. When Brett was working on his MBA in West Hartford, Connecticut, Laura accepted a position at the local JCC so they could be together. 

While she was pregnant with her second child, Laura longed to move closer to her family. Hearing about a new JCC being launched in Bridgewater, she applied and was hired as program director, becoming one of the founding staff members in 1999. Over the years, she steadily moved up the ranks. “I am fortunate to have worked 30 years in the JCC world and to have my children, Jonah and Samara, grow up here,” she says. 

Laura stresses that the JCC is a social service agency. Its mission is to help people—whether that means providing childcare for working parents, building a vibrant community for seniors or giving children and adults with special needs an opportunity to pursue their interests. In addition to numerous programs, it operates the JCC Bridgewater Rising Tide Special Olympics Swim Team, hosts an annual prom for adults with special needs, and recently opened an ADA compliant splash pad that is accessible to people with physical disabilities. 

Since its founding, the JCC has awarded over $6 million in scholarships and financial aid. The JCC works with Safe+Sound Somerset, providing free summer camp tuition to families that have suffered from domestic violence, and with the Interfaith Hospitality Network in Somerville to provide free preschool and camp to children who are homeless. 

“We welcome individuals and families of all race, religion, culture, national origin, sex, gender identity (including gender expression), sexual orientation, economic status, mental or physical disability, and backgrounds to be part of our JCC Family," Laura says. "We are a community center first. I remind the staff that they impact people in ways they can’t even imagine. Maybe they say ‘hello’ to someone who lives alone, give them a smile, and truly care about what they’re saying to them. I am proud of our staff: From the receptionist who knows everyone's name to the security guard who makes a game out of taking the kids’ temperatures during the pandemic.”

What Shut Down?

“Shutting down the JCC last March when the pandemic hit devastated us. So much was unknown: How could we still be there for our families?” Laura says. “We spent a few days mourning what was lost, but then we mobilized. By the end of the week, we had a virtual JCC.”

We offered online morning programming for children and daily fitness classes. The swim team began training virtually. The special needs programs thrived. The JCC partnered with local food banks, filling their freezers and using the gymnasium for non-perishables. Staff delivered groceries from the food bank to people unable to travel. 

“Since we knew the isolation would be toughest on seniors, we became a resource, calling them regularly to say hello, shopping for them, and bringing them meals,” Laura says.

The JCC also launched dynamic virtual cultural programming such as an exhibition presented by the Holocaust Memorial and Education Center, Zoom coffee chats for seniors, film festivals, and the “In Your Living Room Virtual Speaker Series,” featuring speakers such as Deepak Chopra, Michael J. Fox, Cameron Douglas and Joan Lunden.

The staff constantly monitored the ever-shifting news to be prepared to take immediate action and they implemented the safety precautions set by public health officials. This allowed the JCC to be ready to provide programs and services when the state gave the green light. When Gov. Murphy announced preschools could resume, the JCC preschool opened the following day, welcoming 27 children. (They now have 90.) When in-person fitness classes were allowed, the JCC held over 22 classes that first week. The JCC Camp Ruach kicked off July 6—the first day the state allowed. 
“When we realized many schools would not immediately be returning to in-person learning, we launched a program that supports 60 children who can learn here so their parents can work,” Laura says. “The children stay in age-specific pods and have the opportunity to run around outside and ‘be kids’. It’s wonderful to see kids who wouldn’t otherwise know each other forming friendships.”

Like other nonprofits, the JCC has lost fundraising opportunities this year and continues to rely now more than ever on donations to continue to provide services. “When the JCC shut its doors we truly got a sense of what we mean to our community,” Laura says. “The staff is like family—which is true at any JCC. What we do is more of a passion than a job.”

To learn more about the JCC visit ssbjcc.org.

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