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First impressions are everything.

No organization can be successful without a good first impression, and in community recreation, a welcoming atmosphere is the first thing an individual should experience when walking inside.

At the JCC of Greater Baltimore, with three locations in the Baltimore community, the idea of being welcoming is more than just an operational procedure — it’s a core value. And for the leadership team and staff of the Baltimore J, this value is conceptualized not as a mat at the front door, but as a big tent.

“In the Bible, there’s an old story about Abraham and the big tent — he welcomed everybody into the tent,” said Paul Lurie, the COO of the Baltimore J. “That’s a Jewish value — we want to create places where people feel welcome when they come in the door, whether they’re Jewish, not Jewish, an Orthodox Jew, or a secular Jew. We want everybody who walks in the door to feel like this is a place they can call home.”

A focus on inviting all people into the big tent has driven the Baltimore J’s decision-making, and facilitated its mission to create an inclusive and diverse environment for all people to improve their wellness.

“One of the unique things about our JCC is the mission, heart and community in what we do, as much as the business of what we do,” shared Lurie. “We want to serve everyone, and even though our mission is directly tied to the Jewish community, we believe strongly in serving all people in our area.”

Today, the Baltimore J excels at being welcoming, because meeting the needs of the whole community has been a point of emphasis within the past decade.

Turning Points

According to Lurie, there were three major decisions that have contributed to the Baltimore J’s increased success. The first development happened in 2000, when the Baltimore J’s leadership decided to renovate the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC.

“We increased the size of our sports and wellness area from 2,000 square feet to about 10,000 square feet,” shared Lurie. “We also added a second basketball gymnasium, a second women’s locker room, and four additional group fitness studios. It was a huge undertaking and major renovation, and after the renovation, our membership about tripled over the next year.”

With this increase in membership as a result of enhanced services, the Baltimore J’s leadership team turned its attention to better engaging members. This initiative was manifested in a 2006 revamping of the organization’s group fitness offerings.

“We took a look at our offerings in the group fitness space and realized we could be doing a lot better in terms of how we engage people — one of the best ways to do that is in a group setting,” explained Lurie.

The solution was to make group fitness more accessible for the whole community, according to Lurie. “We completely revamped our group fitness program, making all classes free to members,” he said. “It used to be a fee — we rolled it into the membership.”

In addition to increasing accessibility, the Baltimore J also took the proper steps to ensure members get a great group workout experience. “We partnered with Les Mills and some other providers to up the quality of our classes and programming,” said Lurie. “We saw a huge increase in demand in our group fitness programs in both of our facilities — the community came in droves to take advantage of these offerings.”

Alongside Les Mills, every programming provider — including Zumba, Barre Above, Stages Cycling, Schwinn Cycling, Yoga Alliance and SHOCKWAVE — help make up the Baltimore J’s comprehensive group fitness offering.

The third (and arguably most significant) development for the JCC of Greater Baltimore was a landmark partnership with LifeBridge Health in 2015.

“We wanted to expand our wellness platform,” said Lurie. “We knew we were good at fitness, aquatics and recreation, but we wanted wellness to be the overarching goal of what we were doing.”

Living Well at the J

LifeBridge Health, a healthcare organization that operates a system of hospitals in Baltimore, had been actively seeking ways to keep the community healthier. Since the start of the partnership in 2015, teaming up with the JCC of Greater Baltimore has proven to be a great benefit for both organizations’ efforts to provide wellness services.

“It actually came about from a mutual interest,” explained Lurie. “With the changing landscape of insurance and how hospitals get reimbursed for their dollars, hospital systems were looking at doing more community wellness to keep people healthy and out of the hospital.”

The partnership itself, known to the community as #StrongerHearts, began with a relationship between the CEO of LifeBridge and the CEO of the Baltimore J: Barak Hermann.

“We were becoming good colleagues, and I realized there was an opportunity to expand health education programming at the JCC through the hospital, to help people be more proactive about their healthcare,” recalled Hermann. “By partnering with a hospital, we would be able to create those education opportunities, as well as access to medical specialists.”

In conjunction with LifeBridge Health, the JCC of Greater Baltimore has been able to provide a number of wellness services to members, including health screenings, nutrition education, physical therapy and even an onsite community wellness coordinator.

In addition to this full slate of wellness services, the Owings Mills location was able to incorporate a higi Station, a machine that allows members to sit down and quickly get measurements on their pulse, blood pressure, weight and body mass index (BMI).

According to Lurie, during the first six months the higi Station was operating, it was the second-most used unit in the country. “Members want the information, they want wellness education,” he said. “And we’re happy to be an organization that can provide it and show people we truly care about their well-being.”

Since the addition of LifeBridge services to its own slate of offerings, the Baltimore J has expanded its role in the overall wellness of the community, beyond just fitness.

“We’ve played an increasing role [in the community’s wellness] over the last four years,” shared Lurie. “When we first started with LifeBridge in 2015, we were very focused on our own JCC, inside our walls, and how we deal with our members. We started to shift our mindset to knowing we also have a role to play in the general community, and we do a lot of work in the outreach space.”

Behind this renewed sense of outreach, all the programs and services offered at the Baltimore J — traditional fitness programs, Living Well at the J, youth and family services, and much more — come together to make the organization into a place for the whole community to feel welcome.

The Big Tent

“At the JCC of Greater Baltimore, we strive to be a one-stop shop for all things fitness and wellness,” said Justin Dominick, the Baltimore J’s senior director of fitness. “We offer programs for all ages and abilities, from kids to adults and seniors, and all members have access to our fitness and aquatics centers, and gymnasiums.”

However, it’s not enough to simply offer a myriad of fitness programs and wellness services. According to Hermann, it’s being “customer-centric” on a daily basis. “What makes us successful is staying true to our mission, being adaptable to the times and being customer-centric,” he said. “We’re always trying to evolve to meet the needs of the community at any given point.”

The renovations in 2000 and 2006, the partnership with LifeBridge, and more intentional marketing strategies are indicative of the Baltimore J’s concentrated efforts to truly meet every need in the community, not just the needs of the Jewish community specifically.

“It’s been incredibly intentional for a long time,” explained Lurie. “JCCs were traditionally more insular — not just in Baltimore, but globally — where it was really meant for a Jewish crowd. However, we’ve taken an approach over the last five to seven years that we are part of the community at large.”

Being a part of the larger community has meant greater involvement with the community’s youth and family demographic, as well as providing programs centered on art, music and other non-fitness-related activities.

Partnerships with the Boy Scouts of America, USA Swimming and the American Red Cross, along with playground amenities from Anchor Industries, Global, Frog Furnishings and Barco Products have enabled the Baltimore J to provide quality programs and experiences for children.

“We offer preschools, camps, and arts and enrichment programs for all ages,” said Lurie. “Therefore, we are able to provide multiple touchpoints for our members and guests to stay healthy, and grow in mind and body.”

However, group fitness, in particular, has played a large role in the Baltimore J’s outreach efforts. “We have cardiovascular, strength training and resistance, and balance and flexibility classes for people of all ages and fitness levels,” said Amy Schwartz, the senior director of fitness and wellness at the Baltimore J. “We hope to foster a setting of camaraderie that encourages people to keep coming back.”

After the 2006 renovation that revamped the organization’s group fitness offerings, these classes have become a cornerstone of member engagement and acquisition.

“We look for new opportunities to build programs that are truly impactful for people in the community,” said Lurie. “We want to make sure we have offerings every person can feel comfortable doing, and it’s something that keeps them fit and healthy.”

One key to success for the group fitness offering is a wide variety of classes. “Our group fitness classes, as a platform, have different areas of focus,” said Lurie. “We have mind-body programs, cycling programs, cardio programs, strength programs, and then we have some mix-and-match programs that do a little bit of everything.”

From innovative mind-body programming — with some help from Yoga Direct, Yoga Accessories, Barre Above and Savvier Fitness — to the latest in cardio and strength equipment from the likes of Life Fitness, Gym Source, Power Systems, Perform Better, Stages and Elivate, members across multiple demographics can find the workout they’re looking for at the Baltimore J.

Another key to success is having the right instructors and staff members in place — individuals who have a passion for helping others reach their goals, and an understanding of how to create dynamic workout environments.

“We’ve added opportunities for our instructors to be able to create their own classes, whether that’s in yoga, barre or cycling,” said Lurie. “There are opportunities for instructors to be creative and work with our members to see what they want.”

And they’re not getting complacent — in an effort to keep evolving its programming, the Baltimore J is undergoing yet another group fitness-focused renovation.

“We really want to make sure our facilities are up-to-date,” shared Lurie. “In the last four months, we put in a new mind-body studio at our Owings Mills facility, and we started to renovate one of our main group fitness studios.”

Every decision comes back to being relevant and customer-centric. “We’re starting to look at all our different spaces to make sure they meet the needs of what our members are looking for today, and what our programming should look like today,” said Lurie.

What consumers are looking for is a holistic wellness experience that members of all ages can enjoy. They want a place where they can improve their quality of life, find a community and feel welcome. Fortunately for the Baltimore community, the JCC of Greater Baltimore is exactly that place.

“The JCC of Greater Baltimore is in place to serve the needs of the Jewish community and the larger community,” said Hermann. “We also help provide members with social, recreational and educational programming they need in their life to help find their community.”

Bobby Dyer

Bobby is the former editor of Community Rec Magazine.

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