Most people don’t remember much from when they were 5 years old, but Joel Block has an indelible memory of the day in 1965 when his father and grandfather were killed in a plane crash.
“I was at a Coney Island JCC day care,” said Block, who grew up in the Sea Gate section of Brooklyn, “and a woman named Lottie took special care of me. She drove me home on a school bus. I didn’t appreciate that until later [in life]. I realized the power we have to be helpful in people’s lives when they need it.”
Lottie’s compassion made a lasting impact on Block, 53, who, after working at the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center in Commack for 30 years — including 18 as executive director — is the new executive director of the JCC of the Greater Five Towns in Cedarhurst. He replaces Rina Shkolnik, who retired on June 30.
Block officially came aboard on July 1. He lives in Merrick with his wife, Tina, and sons Michael and Adam. Shkolnik, who led the organization for 11 years, is working two days a week to help Block make the transition.
A product of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach and the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, Block worked as a youth counselor and then an assistant camp director at the now closed Hartman Y in Far Rockaway, beginning in 1978.
Thinking of becoming a history teacher after graduating from Yeshiva University in 1982, Block headed in a different direction when Al Kanefsky, the Hartman Y’s associate executive director, suggested that he go back to school and study social work. “I didn’t know what that was,” Block said.
But his career path soon changed. In addition to his classes, he worked with adults with cerebral palsy and helped Cambodian refugees resettle in the Bronx.
Then, he moved over to the Suffolk Y and worked as a camp unit head, supervising counselors, an executive director once again singled Block out, and gave him the newly created job of Jewish educator. “He was so personable, had a wonderful personality and presented himself well,” said Helaine Strauss, executive director emeritus of the Suffolk Y, who promoted Block to assistant director. “He had the potential to grow fast in a leadership position, worked with people well and had the caring, concern and commitment — all the qualities I liked in a staff member.”
Those qualities were what moved the Five Towns JCC’s board to coax Block out of a short-lived retirement to succeed Shkolnik. “He has outstanding skills in uniting various backgrounds and motivating those around him to work together as a team,” said Arnold Waldman, president of the JCC. “We look forward to him bringing his strengths and experience to the Five Towns and helping us continue our mission and expand our reach.”
For Block — who was recognized by the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers in 2000 for his creation of programs for JCCs around the world — continuing the Five Towns JCC’s mission and extending its reach includes understanding what the community needs.
He is expected “to expand the JCC’s curriculum, strengthen its community ties and encourage overall growth,” according to a JCC press release announcing his appointment. To Block that translates simply into playing a meaningful role in people’s lives.
One of the first programs he wants to establish is tutoring for children whose lives were disrupted by Hurricane Sandy and need assistance to catch up on schoolwork they missed or just weren’t concentrating on. “Watching the hurricane through their eyes, communities are starting to look like themselves, but we’re really not back to normal,” Block said.
Serving 16,000 people annually at 18 different sites, the Cedarhurst-based Five Towns JCC made a bid for the vacant Number Six School property last year. It was rejected by the Lawrence Board of Education, but Block believes that it sparked a conversation in the community about the need for an all-encompassing site. “It all comes together slowly, from ‘There should be a building’ to ‘We need a building’ to ‘We have to have a building,’ and that will be what drives it,” he said.
Last year, Block told the Suffolk Y board that he was going to step down in January. But then he was approached by the Five Towns board and Shkolnik. “Things fall into place for a reason, and usually because the right things have come along,” he said.
Block said he believes that people are the most important part of life, and they can create almost familial bonds through their deeds. Like the woman named Lottie who helped him through a tragedy when he was 5, Block seeks to help others.
“During 9-11, I had a person come in and say ‘My son-in-law is missing.’ They could have walked into anywhere. I asked, ‘Why here?’ ‘You are family.’ A JCC done right — it becomes family.”
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