A woman triumphantly gestures at a very large pile of coats
Ellen Blustein, executive director of the JCC of Sonoma County, with piles of coats donated to survivors of the Butte County fire, December 2018. (Photo/Sonya Garzouzi)

‘Small and nimble’: Sonoma JCC carries on virtually

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JCCs Face the Future: Part of a series on how Jewish community centers in the Bay Area are coping with the financial strain of the coronavirus pandemic.

As the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across the state, nonessential businesses shut their doors, including nearly every local JCC, which all struggled to reorient to the new reality and move programs online. However, the JCC of Sonoma County was not among them.

“We never closed,” said Ellen Blustein, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based center. “We are unique among the JCCs because we don’t have a big building with a nursery school, pool or fitness center. We pivoted to virtual right away.”

Blustein says her JCC has weathered the financial pounding the pandemic has inflicted on the economy in part because of its smaller size.

Though it did have to cancel its summer camp, Camp Chai, the JCC has carried on nearly all programming virtually, recently wrapping up an online Israeli Film Festival, maintaining its teen summer program Café Chaverim, and even holding a Wise Sons Deli pop-up event earlier this month for pickup of pastrami, corned beef, lox and bagels, and other must-have quarantine fare.

As for that canceled camp, the JCC launched Camp Chai-in-a-Box, a deliverable gift box for kids that includes instructions from camp counselors on how to keep camp traditions alive at home.

To replace in-person programming for seniors, such as Friendship Circle, Blustein rounded up scores of perfectly good used iPads, distributed them free to housebound seniors and launched a tutorial to show them how to use their new devices. “Our seniors are meeting via Zoom once or twice a week,” she says. “They like it because they don’t like to drive, and don’t always feel well.”

Blustein believes her JCC, which she describes as “small and nimble” and has six employees, will avoid some of the economic pitfalls faced by other businesses and nonprofits. “We don’t have a building with a mortgage,” she noted. “We didn’t lay off any staff, because we do things that bigger organizations cannot do.”

Annual revenue in 2018 was just under $500,000, according to tax filings.

There is currently no concrete plan for a full reopening, which is still subject to the dictates of state and county public health officials. And that’s just fine with Blustein. “Because I am Jewish,” she said, “I will err on the side of medical doctors.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.