Center Offers Night of Mystery

Center Offers Night of Mystery

JCCNV focuses annual gala on new special needs programs offered at center.

Members and supporters of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia are in for a murder mystery at the center, Saturday, Oct. 28, when they gather for the annual fund-raising gala.

It isn’t a real murder; it’s part of the evening’s program. “Murder by Request” will be performed in conjunction with a live auction and a gourmet Koscher dinner. The festivities are the JCCNV’s main fund-raising event, and this year organizers have focused the fund raising on its special needs programs and services in the community.

“This year is very special because of this new direction that we’re heading,” said Elly Finkelstein, chair of the gala committee.

About three-quarters of the center’s funding comes from people coming to this annual gala, said Eric Koehler, executive director of the JCCNV. Membership fees cover a lot of other costs, but Finkelstein said the center tries to always keep those fees low so that it is more accessible to everyone in the community.

“Our fund-raising activities are very important to us,” she said.

The special needs programs are something Koehler has previous experience with, since focusing on such programs were a large part of his work at his previous job with the JCC in Richmond. He said that the Fairfax center did not have a clear, overall program, which is why he decided to form one after noticing a need for it in the community, he said.

“Eric is wonderful,” said Finkelstein. “He’s really taken this under his wing.”

THE JCCNV tested the program over the summer with the launch of Camp Shalom, a social skills day camp for children with special needs. Since the JCCNV offers a similar program throughout the year, organizers wanted to try a summer version to see how it would work out. Koehler said the four-week camp filled up fast, and next summer the JCCNV should be able to expand the age range of the children and the length of the camp to eight-weeks.

“We’re trying to get the word out through our committee for outreach into the community,” said Koehler. “We need more funding to make it [special needs programs] more accessible to the community.”

Also in the works is planning for a special needs playground. The playground would be designed with features for children with specific needs, allowing a safe place for them to play at the JCCNV, said Finkelstein. The playground is one of the main beneficiaries of the gala, and as long as some permits are passed through at the county level, the JCCNV hopes to have it built by the spring, she said.

While the center is a major hub for events and activities for the Jewish community in the area, it is open to anyone who wants to use it. Non-members pay slightly higher fees for programs, but they do not restrict anyone from using the facilities because of different races or religions. Marylyn Haspel, communications director at the JCC, said the center gives “a Jewish consciousness to everything we do.” The center acts as a home away from home for people, she said, regardless of their faith.

“We have something for just about everybody of every age and interest,” said Finkelstein.

The center recently hired a social worker to coordinate special needs training for staff members. A part-time inclusion specialist was hired as well, all for the purpose of seeing the overall program succeed. Offerings such as the Sunday school program and the Smile program, which focus on building motor and social skills for special needs children, are things he would like to see expanded as well, funds permitting.

“We hired people in anticipation of the funds we’re going to raise,” said Koehler. “People are very excited.”

This year, the JCCNV is honoring Phil and Renee Dondes at the gala for their continuing support of the center. Phil Dondes, vice president of membership on the JCCNV's board, and his wife have been supporters of the center for about 15 years.