AUGUSTA, Ga. – The Augusta Jewish Community Center expects to move from its Columbia County facility later this year – leaving time for one more installment of its popular summer day camp.
“Unfortunately, this is going to be the last summer we can do that,” said Daniel Chejfec, the AJCC’s executive director. “If the property sells, we’ll no longer be here, but we’re hoping that whoever buys it will be able to continue some of it.”
But the AJCC isn’t going away. It’s just moving locations.
“It was a very long process of consultation and analysis about what things we need to be doing moving forward, and what kind of real estate we need to do that,” Chejfec said.
After what he jokingly called “about 2,000 Zoom meetings” with the center’s many stakeholders, “we determined that our mode of operations need to change radically because of the needs of our community, and in order to do that we don’t really need all this property.”
The center, built in 1998, sits on about 25 acres off Furys Ferry Road in Evans across from Riverside Middle School. It has played host to many social gatherings, concerts, cultural presentations and informative programs in the past 23 years.
“We noticed there was a change in the patterns of affiliation of the Jewish community that parallel the changes and patterns of affiliation in the general community,” Chejfec said. “The younger generation looks at affiliation in a very different way and looks at programming in a very different way. So, in order for us to serve them, we need to change the way we operate. We need to think more in terms of taking the programs to the people rather than expecting the people to come to the programs.”
New center locations are being scouted, ideally closer to the shared border of Richmond and Columbia counties, “but if we need to move away from that a bit into Columbia County that’s OK, too,” Chejfec said.
Another change will be the removal of the center’s membership fees, which organizers felt was an obstacle to attracting younger members. The current center’s property will be sold and its proceeds invested to “sustain the new operation,” he said.
The next center likely will be a smaller venue where some meetings and activities can take place. “Like, if you had a yoga group you couldn’t do it in the middle of nowhere,” Chejfec said.
But the majority of the center’s activities will be “out in the community,” he said, at more centrally convenient locations.
“We’re looking into deeper partnerships with other organizations in the community, particularly the university, and also partnership with probably the Chamber of Commerce, to offer programs in a different way,” Chejfec said. “The idea is to do what we do the best, which is the programming.”
That proved difficult last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing considerations kept the center from offering its family pool memberships, and the center’s swim team couldn’t compete because regional competitions were canceled.
The annual summer day camp had to be scaled back sharply last year, but registration has just opened for the 2021 camp, “which we believe is going to be one of the best because it’s a comeback,” Chejfec said. “This is going to be a good way to end the relationship with this property, because it’s going to be a great summer.”
The center expects to be in its current location through October and possibly early November, he said.
Before moving to Evans, the AJCC occupied a building on Sibley Road since 1953. It moved there from the Greene Street Y, which was opened in 1937 for what was then called the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, a precursor to modern Jewish community centers.
Before that, Chejfec said, the center’s Augusta roots extend into the 19th century, where some of its earliest activities were conducted in the old Odd Fellows Hall downtown at the corner of Sixth and Ellis streets.
Several years ago, the Jewish Community Centers Association cited Augusta’s organization as the second-oldest Jewish community center in North America.
“It’s an evolution,” Chejfec said. “We’ll be out there where the community needs us.”