St. Louis JCC furloughs majority of staff due to pandemic

The Jewish Community Center near Creve Coeur — along with its Chesterfield location — closed March 17. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

The Jewish Community Center of St. Louis has furloughed the majority of its staff, effective last weekend, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The organization, which has campuses in Chesterfield and near Creve Coeur, furloughed more than 100 employees and kept about 70 staff members at reduced hours or salaries, Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the J, told the Jewish Light.

“This may be the most difficult message I have ever had to send,” Wittels wrote in a letter to members of the organization. “Through times of joy and sorrow, inspiration and anxiety, the St. Louis Jewish Community Center has proudly served and united our community. 

“After intensive discussions, the J’s leadership team and Board of Directors came to the difficult conclusion that we must take this step if we intend to preserve our ability to reopen and bring back staff as quickly as possible once the public health climate allows us to do so.”

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The decision follows a national trend among Jewish Community Centers and other employers confronting a significant economic downturn due to the pandemic. Last month, the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center outside Philadelphia was forced to lay off 176 people, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. That left only two people working at the organization. 

Doron Krakow, the CEO of the JCC Association of North America, told JTA that he expected massive layoffs at his network of community centers, which employed about 38,000 people.

Wittels said her organization benefited from the fact that it “was in a really good place” financially before the pandemic “which will help us weather this storm.” But the organization had a payroll of more than $1 million per month.

“I honestly worry about the long-term sustainability of JCCs across the country that weren’t as strong leading into this,” said Wittels, who also took a pay cut.

She thanked members who agreed to donate their membership dues or tuition, stating that it would help the organization maintain the health coverage of all staff members, cover the unemployment for furloughed staff and compensate remaining staff.

Diane Maier, program associate at the J, was among those furloughed. She said she appreciated the steps Wittels and organization leaders took to inform employees of changes, including video conferences with groups of employees and one-on-one meetings between employees and supervisors. 

“They didn’t leave anybody out, everybody was included in every move,” said Maier, who was in the process of planning the inaugural Z3-Zionism Conference, which has been rescheduled for May 2021, and the Sababa Jewish Arts & Culture Festival, which is still slated for October. 

Maier contrasted her situation — being able to keep her health insurance — with friends in the food industry and a friend who owns a hair salon and “instantly has no income.”

“I feel really blessed by the way they are handling this,” said Maier. 

Edward Coffield, artistic director of the New Jewish Theatre, was also furloughed and had to postpone shows because of the pandemic. He plans to reschedule “We Are the Levinsons” and “Putting it Together,” which had been slated to run this spring.

“The J is a remarkable place to work, and I really miss seeing those employees a lot; that’s kind of the hardest thing,” Coffield said. “And the same thing with my theater colleagues. I am really proud of the growth the theater has experienced in the last year and the upward trend we’re on. I hate that we have been interrupted, but I’m sure we will come back stronger than ever.”

The organization hopes to reopen its facilities for the summer pool and camp season, Wittels said.

“All of us who work at the J are honored to be able to serve you and we look forward to opening our doors once more,” she wrote. 

The J is not alone in having to reduce costs. Jewish Federation of St. Louis has frozen salaries, bonuses and hiring, according to Brian Herstig, president and CEO. The organization also plans to apply for funding through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“Over the coming weeks, we are going to work with our management staff to evaluate other line items for cost reductions and other opportunities to defer expenses,” said Herstig.