Stuart Hochwert has been a JCC Association board member since 2012 and is the immediate past president of JCC Chicago. His JCC story starts when he was a child, and is so entwined with his life, that he believes that his family would not be the one it is today without the J.
My very first memories are at the Bernard Horwich JCC, which opened in Chicago in 1960. I attended after-school enrichment programs, learned to swim, play tennis and attended day camp. I learned how to shoot off model rockets, create ceramic art pieces and so much more. I eventually made it to Camp Chi, the JCC Chicago residential camp. I had a great trip to the Pacific Northwest as a teen with Camp Chi, and best of all, I went to Israel as a teen for the first time with the JCC.
But like many people, that connection to the JCC faded a little when I graduated from high school. I just didn’t seem to have a need at that time for the JCC. But then I got married. And when my wife, Barbara, and I had our first child, we knew that we wanted to join a JCC. She also had all sorts of great memories of growing up a block away from her JCC, beginning with preschool at JCC Chicago. As a teen, she even taught a cooking class at there—so we both held a lot of fond memories and wanted that experience for our own kids.
So, at the age of six weeks, we enrolled my oldest, Michelle, in some early childhood enrichment programs. All three of my kids started at the JCC at a very young age, learning to swim, play sports and participate in various enrichment programs. They all went to JCC Apachi Chicago Day Camp and then to Camp Chi. All three have not only participated as campers, but also have worked at the day and the residential camps. And they’ve all benefited, not just in the ways you expect, from learning and growing and having fun, but also through the deep connections they have built, creating valuable networks of friends.
Our JCC story continues through those networks. My oldest daughter Michelle is now 28, and she got married two years ago. She met her husband at a party hosted by one of her close friends, someone she met at Camp Chi. And guess what? Her husband’s JCC story goes back to preschool at JCC Chicago, too!
My middle daughter, Pamela, is 25 and became friendly with a set of twins in day camp, but really connected with them when they all attended Camp Chi. Pamela and one twin went to college together at the University of Illinois, both studying special education. They are not only roommates today, but also work in different schools in the same award-winning school district.
The other twin went off to Washington University in St. Louis. When my son, Ross, who is now 22, went there as well, she was like a big sister to him. She introduced him to a tradition—Camp Chi alumni get together at least weekly at Wash U for scones! And they are all still good friends, courtesy of JCC Chicago.
Meanwhile, Ross just got back from Israel. He went with Birthright Israel, but it was with many special friends he has met from Camp Chi.
My kids learned how to swim, play sports and have had a wonderful time at the JCC, but it’s the wonderful people they’ve met through the JCC who have really changed their lives. It is not always what you know—but who know.
I’ve been involved in a leadership position at the JCC because I wanted my family, and other families, to have those same experiences I did growing up. I want my future grandkids and their families to have them, too. I don’t feel like my story is unique, I hear versions of it all the time. But it’s one that’s worth telling over and over again, because it’s a powerful message about the role JCCs play in our lives.