Founded more than 130 years ago, the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of St. Louis had been housed in various downtown buildings. After several decades, the JCC moved toward the western suburban edge of the city. Primarily a cultural and educational institution with a couple of basketball courts, the JCC did not offer much else in the way of fitness facilities.

That all changed in 2009 when the organization opened two fitness complexes—one in Chesterfield and the other in Creve Coeur—offering an estimated 95,000 square feet of facilities, including indoor and outdoor pools, a water park, multiple gymnasiums and athletic fields, group and individual exercise rooms, numerous classes and training sessions, a spa center and—as the organization’s website states—“all the cardio equipment, exercise equipment and free weights you could ever need.”

“Fitness has completely changed the energy of our center,” says James Pedersen, fitness director of the St. Louis JCC. “We decided we needed to do something to bring some new energy to our organization. Our demographics had been shown to be among the older individuals. Youth would come to play basketball but then go elsewhere for fitness. We revived a dying organization and have become a center not only of the Jewish community but of the community as a whole.”

In the two years since the addition of the new fitness facilities, the center has almost tripled its membership, Pedersen says. In addition, it increased its health and wellness revenue from $997,000 in 2008 to $1.5 million in 2010, according to the JCC’s 990 forms filed with the IRS.

But what may help JCCs across the country retain members is wellness, not just fitness. The JCC Association, a New York-based consulting group to JCCs, formed a task force three years ago to look at how JCCs could better serve their members, especially as loyalty was no longer the primary driver for membership at JCC fitness centers. The result was a wellness and retention program, Discover @ the JCC, that the group will begin offering to JCCs this fall.

Discover @ the JCC brings all the programming at full-service JCCs (those with fitness, early childhood programming and camps) under one holistic umbrella focusing on wellness, says Steve Becker, vice president of health and wellness services at the JCC Association. Discover @ the JCC can even be implemented at certain levels in JCCs that are not full-service.

“We took the traditional mind/body/spirit model of wellness and expanded it to include social, cultural, rehabilitative, financial, vocational, social action, environmental and all the things that were going on in the JCC, and try and connect it through fitness because in most cases, fitness is still the biggest driver in the JCCs in terms of membership participation,” Becker says.

Fitness may be the biggest driver in membership participation, but early childhood programming is what often draws members back to the JCC. The flip side is that the largest dropoff in membership is when the 5-year-olds graduate and the whole family leaves the JCC, Becker says. The hope is to engage those parents in other JCC programming so they want to stay after their children graduate.

“One of the things we learned is that if we can engage a member in more than two programs in the JCC, their likelihood of retaining membership is over 95 percent,” Becker says. “So that is one of the drivers for us to get them to think about the JCC outside of just early childhood.”

That is part of the reason the initial program under the Discover initiative, Discover CATCH, was put in place. CATCH, or Coordinated Approach to Child Health, is a childhood obesity prevention program developed in the early 1990s by the University of Texas Public Health Department that is now in 9,000 schools and after-school programs. The department created an early childhood version that was used in Head Start programs, but the JCC Association was given permission to create its own pilot with it.

The CATCH program promotes a range of healthy activities to build children’s fitness, strength and self-esteem. CATCH targets multiple aspects of early childhood programs and involves classroom and physical education teachers, food service staff, students’ families and the broader JCC community in a range of health-promoting activities for children. JCCs in Akron, OH; Austin, TX; Boston; Milwaukee; West Hartford, CT; and Wilmington, DE, are piloting the program.

“The pilots doing it are loving it,” Becker says. “They are seeing results right away. It’s physical, it’s nutritional and there’s a parent education component to it. With the help of JCC Association professionals, it’s all now through a Jewish lens.”

Once Discover CATCH is beyond the pilot stage at the end of this school year, the JCC Association will focus on reaching more demographics, likely beginning with Baby Boomers, Becker says.

The Discover initiative includes an incentive program that rewards members for more than going to the fitness center at the JCC; it rewards them for getting involved in other parts of the JCC—from attending a book club to signing up for a basketball program.

“So we want them to think about using the whole JCC in order to take advantage of the fitness opportunities,” Becker says. “It goes back to that whole idea of engaging your members and getting them to think about using the JCC for more than just a treadmill.”

Club One, a San Francisco-based club company and club management business that manages some JCC fitness and wellness offerings, is providing the software platform and many of the wellness components for the Discover @ the JCC program. Club One also is providing marketing in the form of newsletters and webinars on wellness topics.

“Fitness is a core business for the JCCs,” says Dan Burns, director of community and medical fitness centers for Club One. “The Jewish culture talks about health of the mind and body and spirit. It is also a community culture, so both fitness and wellness are expanding as concepts that apply to the community as a whole. The big trend is not just traditional fitness but also wellness, not just weight training but a lot more education, more classes, more on what members can do to help themselves and better themselves.”

The JCC Association began implementing the Discover program two years ago as a pilot and Discover CATCH one year ago, so the programs are too new to determine whether they are improving retention, Becker says, but he added that results should be available next year.

Regardless of the results, the Discover program focuses again on one of the first missions of JCCs: community. Although the original focus of JCCs 150 years ago was to provide social services to help immigrant Jews settle in America, they quickly became places where Jews could meet and socialize.

The social element and sense of community may be two of the reasons that JCCs survived the recession with few casualties, Becker says. During that same time, new JCCs have opened, and more facilities are opening soon in Princeton, NJ; Miami Beach, FL; and Chandler, AZ.

“So there is growth going on,” Becker says. “Over the last five years, it’s been to the plus side.”

With a new push toward wellness under one umbrella initiative, the hope is that this growth will continue for the JCCs.