The JCC introduces the “Café with a Cause”


Scott Cohen has been on staff at the Greater New Haven Jewish Community Center for 27 years now. And, he estimates, that’s about as many outside vendors as he’s seen try to make a go of a restaurant or café at the JCC.

“The JCC is a busy place, but it’s not the place a restaurant or café can thrive and make a profit. I always felt like it needed to have another purpose,” says Cohen, the JCC’s Executive Director.

Still, he says, “I wanted to reopen it, because even though there’s a lot of life in this building, there’s so much more life within the building when there’s a café. It becomes a gathering point; a place for people to meet.

“So I started to think about what the other purpose for the café could be, and that’s when I realized that we already have this deep relationship with Chapel Haven and they could partner with us to provide all these great opportunities for vocational education. That would be the café’s purpose.

” In other words, the café would be more than just an eatery — it would be a full-blown program.

“We have had a partnership with the JCC for the last four years or so, and have a current internship program there where our students intern in different departments to build skills and prepare for employment,” says Sarah Elsdon, NCSP, director of CareerAbility at Chapel Haven Schleifer Center Inc., a New Haven non-profit dedicated to teaching adults with developmental disabilities the skills needed to live independently.

And so, she says, when ”Scott Cohen expressed interest in reopening their café, to offer a community gathering space, but also serve as a vehicle for training for our students, we said yes, we would love to help get it started and be involved!”

Referring to Café J as a "learning café,” Elsdon calls the program “a work-based learning opportunity for individuals with disabilities. The vision is students from Chapel Haven will work alongside JCC community mentors and café staff to serve the members/visitors and build employment skills in the field of retail/culinary.”

The students will be supervised by a Chapel Haven job coach, and guided by volunteer mentors provided trained and supervised by Jewish Family Service. Rachel Scolnic-Dobin of JFS will work for the JCC as a social therapist to coordinate student and volunteer partners.

“JFS and JCC want to create a space where curiosity about each other goes beyond being co-located and is truly integrated,” notes JFS Director Alissa Wurtzel. “Café J becomes a space where JFS can facilitate community learning and inclusivity. Rachel will liaison between the communities of Chapel Haven, the JCC, and broader community.”

Wurtzel and Dobin both encourage anyone interested in becoming a JFS mentor to contact Rachel Scolnic-Dobin at (203) 941-3544

Of course, what’s a café without food? Not much. Unfortunately, Café J couldn’t promise to generate enough traffic to earn regular food deliveries from any of the national institutional food providers. Enter The Towers. The Jewish Senior living community in New Haven offered to help Café J by harnessing their food provider Morrison, and their national buying power, which includes, FreshKo. Now, thanks to The Towers’ Team, Café J will offer a full complement of pre-packaged kosher grab-and-go food, like sandwiches and salads, pizza and bagels (and challah on Fridays for pick-up!), and the list goes on.

Jennifer Bayer, Associate Vice President, Strategic Initiatives happily remarked, “The Towers is thrilled to step in an help the community in meaningful ways whenever it is needed. We are delighted to be a resource and looking forward to this exciting new project.”

As Cohen’s idea to create a café that was essentially a program with a purpose took root, he realized he needed someone to take over the complicated task of pulling together all the moving parts and getting the program off the ground. With his own plate filled with the task of fundraising needed to run the program (the café has already received a $25,000 Federation Impact Grant and several other generous donations), he sought a consultant to come in and take charge.

He found his consultant in the person of Shelly Gans, a former New Haven JCC director.

“I’ve been away from the JCC for a few years and this was just the the perfect combination of elements that excited me to come back and work on this project,” she notes. “It was something I was really passionate about — the combination of food, the JCC’s mission, a big community partnership with many moving pieces… It just excited me to be involved.

“I also believe food is central to any gathering place,” she adds. “And the JCC was sort of a home without a kitchen. I knew food was important to make the JCC a gathering place.”

In addition, says Gans, “We knew that we would always be struggling to have the café make money, but we knew that we could have it make a difference. And that’s really the goal.”

Looking ahead, Gans says, “People should to know that this is work-based learning. So as we get started, and as the staff group gains confidence, we’ll continue to expand services. The hope and dream is that we will be able to grow our own paid staff—many from Chapel Haven will start out as interns, and then as they gain confidence and skills we’ll be able to move them into hours where maybe they’e not supervised and where they’re really working at the café.”

Gan’s final step in preparing to open on Monday, May 22 is to hire a manager who will oversee the operation. (As SNH went to press, she and Cohen were pouring over several resumes.) Not that she plans on waving goodbye for good. “I’m going to be there through the beginning phases in June, and we’re launching in May, to help guide them. I’ll certainly still be involved because I care passionately about this project.”

As for Cohen, he thinks 27 years is a charm. “It finally feels right to me. I think it makes sense for the café to have something with a deeper meaning. I think this is the right thing. This is the right combination. I feel like this has staying power.”

Elsdon sees the JCC as a leader in the area of vocational training. “We are looking forward to our students having more opportunities for work-based learning and career training. The most exposure to work and experience they can get, the better,” she says. “We hope to help the JCC create a long-term model for individuals with disabilities to receive retail/culinary training. This initiative will foster the JCC’s inclusive community environment and provide added value to the members and staff.

Café J will have its opening event on Monday, May 22 at 11 am, and invites all to join the celebration. The café will start its regular opening hours, on Tuesday, May 23 and will be open Monday-Friday 8 am to 2 pm. 

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