Mittleman JCC: The Living Room of Portland
As the only JCC in the state of Oregon, the Mittleman JCC is committed to being the “living room” for the Portland area, welcoming those of all ages and backgrounds into their facility.
“The living room should be a place where we feel totally at ease – temple of the soul.”
This quote by Terence Conran perfectly captivates the way members of the Mittleman Jewish Community Center feel when they step into the JCC’s main lobby. The bright, open space that features a café, an art gallery and a plethora of sitting areas makes you feel comfortable and welcomed, just like you’re going home.
“We often refer to ourselves as the living room of the Portland Jewish community because we really are a second home for a lot of folks,” said Steve Albert, the executive director of the Mittleman JCC.
Since 1914, the Mittleman JCC has served as a safe haven for many as the only JCC in the state of Oregon. For the first 55 years of the JCC’s history, they were located in downtown Portland in an area that had historically been a Jewish and immigrant neighborhood. However, in the 1960s the combination of urban renewal projects and interstate/highway projects led to the JCC relocating to its current location, starting operations there in 1971.
The new facility was originally a basic poured-concrete building built in the Brutalist architectural style. A complete renovation of the campus took place around 2006, updating facilities while also enhancing the overall appearance of the interior spaces.
Another change came to the JCC in 2014 when Albert took on his current role as the executive director.
Prior to stepping into the world of recreation, Albert worked extensively in education. But that brought him closer to the industry in which he now resides. “Early in my teaching career, I worked at a boarding school in Connecticut where I taught instructional tennis and coached varsity squash,” he said. “My coaching philosophy was centered on holistic workouts, and I required my players to run, lift weights and do aerobic training, in addition to completing drills and practice matches. When I moved into administration, I became responsible for hiring coaches, making all coaching assignments and overseeing a comprehensive high school athletic program.”
So, when Albert saw the opening for executive director of the JCC — which also allowed the person to serve as the executive director of the Portland Jewish Academy on the JCC’s campus — he was sold.
“When I found out about this role, it seemed sort of ideal,” said Albert. “It married my interest in education and my passion for schools with my desire to serve the broader community and to get involved in recreation in a broader way.”
Since the JCC shares a campus with the Portland Jewish Academy — for infants to middle schoolers — they have found themselves naturally serving a lot of families.
“What we do is ensure we are providing programs those families want,” said Jennifer Harrington, the assistant executive director at Mittleman JCC. “We have a really good relationship with the school where we talk with those families and have some of our program managers go into the classrooms and talk about some of the things we’re offering as far as our sports and recreation programming. Then we just listen to what the community wants and needs.”
The JCC offers a wide array of programs that are particularly popular and in high demand with children.
Many families get engaged through youth soccer programs, summer day camp, other youth sports programs and swim lessons.
The youth sports are held in the JCC’s Sportsplex, a turf field that’s covered by a bubble. The climate-controlled, well-lit playing space is typically used for soccer, and it attracts both members and non-members to participate in soccer leagues. The Sportsplex is also utilized for lacrosse, volleyball and after-school classes such as gymnastics. Albert said it is a great space, allowing the JCC to have a more robust sports and recreation program.
Another unique and key differentiator that makes the Mittleman JCC stand out is its warm water pool, being one of only two in the area. The pool is kept between 92 and 94 degrees and is used for various programs at the facility.
“We use the pool for family swim and for swim lessons for our youngest children who might tense up in a regular pool because it feels cold,” said Albert. “You are able to relax in a warmer pool and learn to swim more readily.”
The warm water pool is also a big attraction for the JCC’s large senior demographic.
Many of the older population and those who suffer from chronic illness use the warm water pool as a therapy session to address pain issues. The JCC has an aquatics therapist who works one-on-one with individuals in the pool. There are also a number of aquatics classes that address issues, like arthritis, that take place in this space.
“We do a lot of health and wellness for people in various stages of life,” said Harrington. “I think what’s really cool about our community is you’ll see our little kids learning to swim in the warm water pool all the way up to those older folks who are using our warm water pool as a therapy pool. I think that’s a really cool quality.”
The warm water pool is more than an aquatic offering at the JCC; it has also been the spot where many senior connections form. “A lot of folks who use the warm pool regularly have got to know each other very well,” said Albert. “The pool may be their only tie to the JCC, but they’re here on a regular basis and they get to know a certain core portion of our staff really well. It provides a really important social outlet for many of our seniors.”
Jennie Condon, the aquatics program manager and head swim coach for the Mittleman JCC, experiences these connections first-hand.
“We really provide a sense of community I haven’t necessarily experienced anywhere else I’ve worked, both among our staff, among our members, and between our staff and our members,” said Condon. “I know the names of a good portion of the people who come through the pool every day. Even my teenage lifeguards do. So, it feels more home-like rather than going to a fitness center.”
These naturally formed connections are what the JCC strives for every day.
The Mittleman staff have made it a real priority to connect with members and to get to know them in different ways.
“I remember when I first started here, I was attending a lot of different Group X classes just to get a better understanding of what they all do,” said Albert. “I went to a cycle class and they were having a birthday party. It’s the same group of people who come to that class every week, and they know each other really well. While they’re there to work out, they also have these strong connections with each other. They become part of one another’s lives.”
As the self-proclaimed living room of the Portland Jewish community, when members walk into the facility they feel like they’re going into a friendly, social, open and interactive space — the perfect recipe for cultivating connections.
However, the JCC isn’t just focusing on making these connections with their Jewish population. Of their 4,000 members, nearly half are not Jewish.
“We are open to everyone and have been for as long as anybody here can remember, and it’s something that’s really important to us,” said Albert. “We want to be here for the Jewish Community, but we also want to be a place that brings non-Jews together. I think there’s so many examples today in our world of misunderstanding and ways in which people are stereotyped or generalized. It means a great deal to us to be a space that works against those kinds of things and builds positive relationships.”
The JCC has been able to bring in a wide variety of the surrounding community members due to their outreach efforts. The JCC staff works hard to make the community aware they are open to everyone, and they want to embrace a diverse membership base.
One way the JCC does this is through their J Without Walls program.
“We want to meet people where they’re at,” said Harrington. “Although we do a lot of programming within the walls of the JCC, we’re also looking for ways we can get out into the community. We have an arts and culture manager who works on getting some of the programming off-site. We find a location to run an arts class or an author’s series and take our programs to the community.”
The JCC plans on adding fitness classes — like running a corporate wellness program on a company’s lunch hour — to its J Without Walls program, which would allow it to meet people where they are at.
Offering programs like J Without Walls and being able to create authentic community connection isn’t an easy task, and it requires a lot of collaboration from the team, something the Mittleman JCC is well versed in.
“I couldn’t do what I do, and we couldn’t have the success we do, without the incredible team working with me,” said Albert. “I’ve learned as an educator about the importance of collaboration and teamwork, and I think that’s something that has really allowed us to be successful.”
Teamwork and collaboration are introduced to every employee at the Mittleman JCC as soon as they are hired.
Condon explained collaboration is an important aspect in any career, and it’s why she makes sure all of her aquatics team members, even part-time high school staff members, learn the skill early on. And many employees learn by simply following the management team’s example.
“We try, as a management team, to demonstrate teamwork all the time,” said Condon. “If I need help with something, I can literally walk over to the fitness studio and asked the fitness manager if they can help me even with something simple like moving a set of bleachers. I think that’s where teamwork starts. You can’t force it from the top down. You have to develop a relationship from the ground up.”
Teamwork is just one of the Mittleman JCC’s Pillars of Behavior that helps employees live up to their title of being “the living room of Portland.”
The JCC’s Pillars of Behavior
- B’ruchim Ha’Baim – Welcome Everyone!
- Ezrah – Help or Assist
- B’Yachad – Teamwork
- Nikayon – Cleanliness
- Kehillah – Build Community
- L’hitraot – See You Again Soon
- Ruach – Serve with Spirit and Have Fun
The compassion, care and dedication the staff put into this mission is what lures people of all ages, religions and walks of life in the Portland area to the JCC.
“What I love about this community is the compassion and the care that just shines through us,” said Harrington. “One of our core values is providing service. I think most people that go into this industry are caring people and are service oriented, and I think at the J we have our pillars we abide by that helps us be a welcoming, opening hub to the entire community.”