Every city has its own best kept secret. Of course, what qualifies a particular place as a secret is entirely subjective, but the common theme among all best kept secrets is the surprising number of people who don’t know what kind of experience they’re missing.
In the city of Dallas, it’s the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center of Dallas (Dallas JCC), a full-service fitness center open to the whole community that delivers an engaging experience for members of all ages.
It might seem unlikely a 170,000-square-foot building could remain a secret in any environment, but in Northeast Dallas, with a population of just under 300,000, an organization with a membership of 3,500 units still has room to grow. And its leaders relish that challenge.
“We often have people come into our building — people who have been in the community for years, but have not seen the JCC before — and they can’t believe what we have in this facility,” shared Artie Allen, the CEO of the Dallas JCC. “They walk around here in awe — they’re starstruck at what we have to offer. So we often say it’s the best kept secret because how could they not know we were here?”
In fact, it brings Allen a lot of joy to witness the number of visitors who are blown away by such an impressive facility. “It’s a great thing to see those people come in and see the bulb go off for them that it’s just an amazing place we have,” he said.
What makes the Dallas JCC such an amazing place, first and foremost, is its dedication to creating an engaging environment where everyone feels at home.
From a weight room decked out with Power Systems equipment and Slastix resistance bands to experience-focused classes with Precor bikes and AV Now sound systems, the Dallas JCC has something for everyone.
“What makes it so special is it’s a one-stop shop for everybody,” said Allen. “You can get just about everything you want. We have an incredible tennis department, gymnastics department, aquatics department, and sports, fitness and recreation department. We also have sports leagues — adult basketball and youth sports, to name a couple.”
On top of traditional fitness and sports offerings, the Dallas JCC also offers mind-body programming — with YogaDirect mats and cushions, hammocks from Aerial Essentials and Balanced Body suspension systems for Pilates — to help those with limited movement improve their health and balance.
“We have something for everybody, and we really believe we are an organization that can help people be better at whatever stage in life they are in and whatever level of competency they have,” said Allen.
Not only are the programs and services widespread, they’re also interconnected. “It’s not uncommon to walk through the halls of our JCC and see our preschool interacting with the seniors,” said Jay Liberman, the immediate past chairman for the Dallas JCC. “It’s not uncommon to see one parent with one child in our swim academy, while the other parent is watching a basketball game in the gym.”
Members of the Dallas JCC also have a strong sense of legacy. Many individuals actively participate because family members introduced them to it.
“There are several people who grew up going to our JCC, going to camp, playing sports, using the swimming pool, playing tennis and participating in our senior program,” said Monte Hurst, the chairman of the board for the Dallas JCC. “There are so many people who have had decades of their families using these resources, meeting people and establishing a history here. And those people are still every bit as committed to the JCC as they ever have been.”
A significant portion of that committed membership is an engaged senior population. “We have about 700 seniors who are part of our community, but they are their own community,” said Allen. “They have all kinds of exercise classes. We transport to and from the JCC, we provide a nutritional lunch for them and we just love them any way we can.”
Because the Dallas JCC prides itself on serving all people of all ages, a lot of emphasis is put on youth education, particularly in the realm of aquatics.
“We have the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy (LKSA), and years ago, we were teaching about 60 children to swim,” shared Allen. “We now teach 700 kids to swim, and that’s something important to the organization.”
Teaching children to swim is a big focal point for Allen. “Those types of lifetime sports are critical for children because it helps them start something they can do their entire lives,” he said. “We all know what it means to be a swimmer; swimming is an amazing sport you can do throughout your life.”
Educating and empowering children goes beyond just aquatics programming for the Dallas JCC. An accredited early childhood center, a camp, a youth theater program and other educational experiences are just a few ways the organization has a positive impact on the community.
“Working with children and young adults, and helping them learn skills to be the next leaders of our community, the next leaders of this city — those are the kinds of things that motivate us,” said Allen. “It’s really amazing to see, when we educate children, how successful they are when they leave us and go to school. I believe we help prepare them for success.”
This passion for developing healthy habits in community members — especially in children — is firmly cemented in the Dallas JCC’s culture. And it stems from the leadership of Artie Allen.
Changing lives through community recreation is nothing new to Allen, who has spent 32 years in the industry. However, the Montgomery, Alabama, native didn’t envision a career path in community recreation until he interned at the Levite Jewish Community Center in Birmingham, Alabama, and spent time being mentored by its CEO.
“I saw this is an amazing organization, and I could do everything I’ve wanted, be part of a community-building organization — a home away from home for people — and really help people with the whole mind, body and soul experience,” said Allen.
After the Birmingham JCC internship, Allen took his next step toward the industry. “The real turning point for me was the chance to work at the Memphis JCC, and be the camp director for a large camp,” he said. “That really solidified the fact I really wanted to be doing this, and I wanted to try to have an impact.”
It’s been an upward trajectory since his days in Memphis. Since beginning his time at the Dallas JCC 17 years ago, Allen has been driven by his passion for people.
“The greatest motivator for me is that I love building relationships, I love being with people, and I love helping people,” shared Allen. “I love to have people challenge me, I love to challenge them and I love to see them be successful.”
And by building relationships, Allen picked up bits of wisdom he’s carried with him along the way. “The best advice I’ve gotten is to practice consistency, drive, passion and relationship-building, and know you have to love what you do in order to do it as well as you can,” said Allen.
That advice has dictated the way Allen has carried himself throughout his career, and those qualities are reflected in the way the Dallas JCC’s staff carries itself.
“Our staff plays the main role in our success,” said Allen. “They’re here day in and day out — they’re the boots on the ground. They are the people making it happen. They’re the people building the relationships. And they are very passionate.”
During his time as the Chairman of the Board, Hurst has also been very impressed with the Dallas JCC’s employees. “We are blessed with a fantastic staff, and that starts with Artie,” he said. “Artie knows the lay of the land and the people, and he’s very passionate about what he does and the mission of the JCC.”
Every good staff has passionate individuals, and the Dallas JCC is fortunate to have a staff full of individuals who are not only passionate, but self-motivated. In fact, Allen doesn’t have to push his staff — they have their own drive. They know the organization’s mission, and according to Allen, they “live and breathe it every day.”
In addition to their passion, many of the Dallas JCC’s staff members have put several years of service into their respective positions. According to Liberman, that staff experience has been critical. “Having that many people in senior leadership positions — who have been around and understand how we’re trying to impact the community — leads to better and more meaningful execution,” he shared.
The combination of passion and continuity in the Dallas JCC’s staff has produced an extremely positive work culture. This culture is at the center of the staff’s daily execution, and it permeates through the entire organization.
The Dallas JCC does many things very well, but its leadership team is always looking to the future. In order to improve its programs and services, the organization has its eyes on a facility expansion.
“Our JCC is embarking on a large capital campaign — we’re working on upgrading areas of our campus,” shared Allen. “We want to ensure we have state-of-the-art facilities.”
Within the next three to five years, they plan to expand the building and update areas that need it. While the current facility certainly isn’t bad, the time for an upgrade is soon approaching. According to Hurst, the 50-year-old building is aging, and upgrading the facility would allow the Dallas JCC to enhance its offerings and further engage the community.
“It will be even more of a gathering place for the community, and while we’re committed to providing top-notch programs, a new facility will help sustain us for the next 30 to 40 years,” said Hurst.
The capital campaign, a variety of programming and a passionate staff are all indicative of the Dallas JCC’s dedication to being a home away from home for all people of all ages. They will continue to refine their programs and engagement strategies to be a better resource for the community.
At the end of the day, the Dallas JCC will always have its community at heart. “We’re an organization that tries to build not just the JCC community, but the entire community,” said Allen. “That’s who we are, that’s who we want to be and that’s our role.”