By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – Campers arrived for the first session of camp at the Worcester Jewish Community Center in June to find a brand new youth playground waiting for them on the hill behind the center.
Designed by the kids and for the kids – including a zip line – the new look is part of a small-scale renovation at the JCC that has been in the making for about 18 months, says Howard Stempler, whose term as president of the JCC Board of Directors ended on June 19th.
In the wake of completing a comprehensive five-year strategic plan – the first undertaken by the JCC – the Board “simultaneously started thinking about things we wanted and needed to do” in terms of renovation, he says.
Funded by an ongoing capital campaign with a goal of $565,000 and significant support from foundations, the renovation will also bring changes to the Early Childhood playgrounds, the courtyard at the back of the building, the auditorium and the lobby and front desk.
Executive Director Emily G. Holdstein notes that “we intentionally identified areas that have the highest use and the most need of renovation. It’s not that there aren’t other needs, but we wanted the goal to be manageable and achievable in a fairly short period of time.”
The courtyard is now partially finished, with new pavers and stairs as well as landscaping and new furniture to come. The upper playground is “up and running and the kids love it,” says Holdstein. “We’re working piecemeal on other things and making progress. After camp is over, we hope to be finishing up the rest of the project.”
The auditorium is the most widely used area of the JCC, she says, not only for in-house activities but also for community groups, synagogues and the neighborhood.
“It is a very public space for us, so it made sense that it should be high on our list,” she says.
It will receive a facelift that includes new flooring, a new audio-visual system and sound panels on the walls to improve sound quality. New seating and updated lighting will brighten the area.
The final element of the renovation is perhaps the most important, or certainly the most central: the lobby and front desk will be redesigned and reconfigured to add controlled access.
The Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts funded security consultants who came to Worcester in March, says Holdstein.
They focused in particular on access to the building, subsequently collaborating with the architect for the renovation, Ellen Panell of Brawer Hauptman, Architects, to create “a secure but welcoming access plan.” Drawings are currently being finalized.
The redesign will revise how people enter the JCC and “what control we have over the people who enter the JCC, which is something that everyone is concerned about,” Holdstein says.
The end result will be a greater sense of comfort within “a warm and welcoming environment, because that’s who we are.”
Jody Fredman, director of Special Projects at the JCC, has been the prime mover and shaker in fundraising for the renovation. Both Howard Stempler and Emily Holdstein commend her persistence and creativity in searching out and securing grants for the renovation.
“She gets all the accolades for anything that’s being done on fundraising,” says Stempler. “She reached out to people near and far.”
Fredman first contacted the George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Foundation because of their earlier contribution to the renovation of the gym and pool area in years past.
Successful grants from Fuller and from the Stoddard Charitable Foundation provided a springboard for the campaign. Support followed from the Schwartz Charitable Foundation, the Fred Harris Daniels Foundation, Inc., the Fletcher Foundation and the Kraft Family Foundation.
Indeed, the $35,000 Kraft donation is their first since 1967, when the new JCC was named for Frances and Jacob Hiatt, Worcester philanthropists and the parents of Myra Hiatt Kraft.
Private donations have also come in, including nearly 100 percent participation from the JCC Board and generous individual contributions from long-term supporters.
“We’re successfully closing in on our goal but still fundraising,” says Fredman, who is waiting to hear about additional proposals she has submitted.
As the Worcester JCC goes into this next period of its history, stresses Howard Stempler, it is as a “true community center,” open and accessible to Jews and non-Jews alike.
“We have a very large non-Jewish base and we really welcome everybody,” he continues. “We really think the JCC can and should be not just for the local west side of Worcester to use and enjoy, but really other parts of the city who don’t know much about the JCC in spite of the fact that the building has been sitting there 50 years. We would love to introduce people to facilities and programs there.”
CAP: Children playing on the new playground at the JCC.