It’s hard to be all things to all people, but the Kings Bay Y has come pretty close.
At the main site in southern Brooklyn (Sheepshead Bay) plus two annexes in Brownstone Brooklyn (Windsor Terrace) and North Brooklyn (North Williamsburg/Greenpoint), the Y offers a wide range of programming that engages people of all ages. The Y aims to strengthen – and in many cases awaken – a connection to Jewish identity and culture, inspiring its members to learn more, do more and become more involved in the community and the world at large.
Jspace recently caught up with Leonard Petlakh, executive director of the Kings Bay Y, to talk about the growth of the agency and what it’s doing now.
Why and how was your organization founded?
As the largest not-for-profit organization in the area, we’ve enjoyed a reputation of having offered social, cultural, educational and recreational services to people of all ages since 1952. Kings Bay Y serves approximately 1,700 people every day with programs for toddlers, children, teens, adults and seniors. Our services include a variety of after-school programs, summer camps, preschool, swimming, sports and fitness, Jewish life programming, services for special needs and more.
How has it evolved over time?
We’ve adapted to the changing landscape of New York’s Jewish community. A few years we opened a groundbreaking “storefront” JCC model in Windsor Terrace and we recently opened our newest annex in the trendy neighborhood of North Williamsburg. The Jewish community here is different than the one in southern Brooklyn – many interfaith families, many from outside New York. Some of the adults were soured on Judaism after a negative experience as a child and others simply lost interest or never had a real connection. It’s been exciting to engage these families. They’ve been eager and motivated to find their own voice and put their own imprint on what it means to be Jewish. We had a Rosh Hashanah potluck even before we opened our doors in North Williamsburg, and 140 families showed up. Our Sukkot events were completely filled.
What is the main focus today?
We never stop thinking of innovative programming to engage the community. In North Brooklyn our preschool, after-school and classes for babies and toddlers are already a big hit, and we’re planning programs for adults in their 20s and 30s. In Brownstone Brooklyn we launched the nation’s first Hebrew/English dual language day camp. In southern Brooklyn we’re a neighborhood institution but a constantly growing one. One of our programs based in Sheepshead Bay, the Young Peace Builders, has attracted acclaim for bringing together Jewish teenagers from the Y and Turkish-Muslim teens from the Turkish Cultural Association of Brooklyn. We have a large and active social services department that helps people apply for entitlements, get free legal help, and job assistance. We speak as many languages as our diverse community speaks.
How does this work line up with Jewish values?
Our community in southern Brooklyn was devastated by Sandy. Right after the storm we launched a massive rescue operation to help the seniors who were living in the dark, without food and water, in high-rises. We went to the Rockaways and conducted an evacuation. There was an outpouring of people in our agency eager to help. Our teens. Our board members. Our staff. People couldn’t do enough. And this included folks who themselves lost homes and cars. The desire to help is a humanistic value but it’s also a Jewish one. Our Sandy relief work continues to this day thanks to a generous grant.
Our emphasis on community is another Jewish value. People feel more comfortable exploring what may be unfamiliar to them – their Jewish heritage, for instance — if they know they are part of a shared journey. People inspire each other to move forward.
J-Connection: Kings Bay Y serves approximately 1,700 people every day and offers programs for toddlers, children, teens, adults and seniors.