By Laura Porter
On Feb. 4th, the Worcester Jewish Community Center will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its current location at its Annual Gala and Auction in Mechanics Hall.
The Gala will be guest hosted by Michael Hsu of WAAF and will include a cocktail hour, a sit-down dinner and dancing to live band Soul Sensation. Musician Sally Stempler will provide background music.
Both a silent auction and sports memorabilia auction will be held. All proceeds from the evening will go to the JCC’s Youth Scholarship Program, which supports the afterschool program and summer camp as well as the preschool.
This year, the Gala will also honor the Center’s eight program directors, many of whom have been there for 25 to 30, says Jody Fredman, Special Projects director and the organizer of the event.
The directors include: Bob Berman (Health and Physical Education Director; 36 years at the JCC); Kelly Sampson (Aquatics Director; 30 years); Sandy Scola (Early Childhood Director & Preschool Summer Program Co-Director; 30 years); Robin Burwick (Early Childhood Assistant Director; 25 years); Nancy Greenberg (Cultural Arts and Adult/Senior Adult; 18 years); Elaine Drawbridge (Fitness Director; 15 years), Tali Mugg (Teen Director; 6 years); and Megan Catlin (After School, Youth & Day Camp Director; 5 years).
“The Gala gives us a reason to celebrate everything we do and our staff, which makes it possible; we are a person to person business,” says Emily Holdstein. “Of course we have the facility, but really we don’t have anything if we don’t have our staff.”
The JCC’s origins in Worcester stem from the late 1940s, and it was located downtown until 1967. Since then, the Center, still popularly known as “the J,” has provided programming and services to the community, both Jewish and general, at 633 Salisbury St., in what Executive Director Emily Holdstein refers to as “our grandest home.”
The Salisbury Street campus, renovated and expanded in 1996, includes a health and fitness center, both an indoor regulation pool and an outdoor pool and a licensed and accredited Early Childhood Center.
Summer day camp as well as afterschool and sports and aquatics programs engage children and youth, and a vibrant senior program “provides programs where seniors can not only be healthy physically but also have a social connection,” says Holdstein.
The JCC’s cultural arts program presents the very popular annual Jewish Film Festival as well as an author series that brings in writers who are either Jewish, write about Jewish subjects or belong to the local community. Both are funded generously by the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.
From its actual onset after World War II until today, the Worcester JCC reflects not only the growth and development of American Jewish institutional life but also Worcester history.
According to the website of Jewish Community Centers of America (JCCA), the roots of the JCC movement can be traced to 1854, when the Hebrew Young Men’s Literary Association in Baltimore marked the first effort to address the needs of Jewish immigrants to the United States. That approach evolved and spread, with the growing influx of European Jews through the 19th century first from Germany and later from Eastern Europe. It took form in secular social welfare organizations such as settlement houses, neighborhood centers and both cultural and educational societies.
In 1917, the Jewish Welfare Board, formed to support American Jews serving in the armed services during and after World War I, became the umbrella for these separate organizations.
Through the 1930s, the JWB led Jewish Community Centers to “improve their function and stress unity, purpose and service” to the community. The Jewish population in the United States was then largely urban, and the JWB encouraged a new focus on JCC summer camps as well as cultural offerings such as lectures and concerts.
After World War II, greater prosperity contributed to suburbanization across the country, and Jewish populations also began to shift. In Worcester, that meant the completion of what had been a slow and gradual move from the city’s east side, close to factories and downtown, to the west side.
Organizations, both sacred and secular, followed suit. In the late 1940s, the forerunner of the Worcester JCC was a center for Jewish youth activities on the second floor of the Worcester Knitting Company. The factory’s president was Abraham Persky. In need of more room, the center moved in 1951 to 111 Elm St., then owned by the Worcester Post of Jewish War Veterans.
That original structure at 111 Elm, long gone and now occupied by a boxy office building, had deep roots in the Worcester community.
Built in 1902, it was the first home of the Bancroft School, which would move again before settling on its current campus on Shore Drive.
In 1923, Temple Emanuel took the school’s place at 111 Elm. Emanuel was the first Reform congregation in Worcester as well as the first synagogue to make the move from the east side of the city.
The JCC thrived on Elm Street from 1949 until the mid-1960s, concentrating on youth programs as well as activities for younger children.
At that time, the decision to “expand, modernize, and relocate” to keep up with “the growth and geographic movement of the Jewish population” very much reflected the ongoing pattern in the Jewish community nationally.
Local Jewish leaders bought land on Salisbury Street and began a “massive campaign” to raise funds for a building.
When it threw open its brand-new doors in 1967, the Worcester JCC welcomed the community to a vastly expanded array of services offering new services, including day camp, a nursery school, athletics and sports, services for seniors, and Jewish education, and strengthened its position “at the core of Jewish life in Worcester,” its website says.
“The JCC has been a center of community life in Worcester for 70 years and that community has evolved over time,” says Emily Holdstein. “As the number of people we serve has gone up, we have a higher percentage of people who are not Jewish participating in our programs.
“We’re still an institution with a Jewish identity and certainly a Jewish history, but we welcome everyone in the community. We bring everyone together and we’re proud of that.”
Holdstein emphasizes that access to the JCC’s programs is of vital importance.
“We have an increased focus on raising funds to make the programs more accessible across the community by providing assistance,” she says.
The Youth Scholarship Program is critical to that effort.
“There are a lot of children in our community who don’t have that much to do in the summer,” she says. “If we can have a child come here for two weeks at a minimum and enjoy making friends, through the sports and arts activities and learning to work together in groups, then we feel we are accomplishing a lot.”
In the spring of 2016, a strategic initiative set priorities for the immediate future.
In addition to focusing on financial stability to sustain its programs – an ongoing priority for many organizations – the goal is to raise greater awareness in the community about what the JCC offers.
“If we’re able to provide excellent programs and services, excellent staff, excellent facility, then people will talk about it,” Holdstein says. “It’s our objective to provide an excellent experience from the moment someone walks in the door until they leave.”
Preservation is as important as innovation, and ongoing renovation projects aim to enhance and spruce up the facility. Last fall, a short-term project revamped the playgrounds, the courtyard and the front entrance.
“I fully expect the JCC to have at least another 50 years,” says Holdstein. “We seek to be responsive to the needs of the community and, as long as we’re doing that, we will be around.”