By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – This month heralds the kickoff of a year-long celebration marking the Centennial of the Mandell Jewish Community Center of Greater Hartford.
While precursors to the current JCC existed in Hartford as far back as 1878, the institution’s anniversary has traditionally been tallied from 1915. That year, a Talmud Torah (Jewish religious school) building on Pleasant Street in Hartford took in the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), founded in 1878, and the Young Women’s Hebrew Association (YWHA), founded in 1891. The athletic and social programming brought by the Ys supplemented the existing Jewish education classes, establishing the template for what would become a Jewish community center.
In 1928, the Ys closed temporarily and relocated to rented quarters on Ann Street in Hartford. (Rumors of financial impropriety on the part of a board member still resonate among elders in the Jewish community today.) They disbanded completely in the late ‘30s, an economic casualty of the Depression.
In 1938, the local B’nai B’rith Jewish-welfare organization proposed the formation of a community center. Four years later, a Jewish Center Association was organized. Under the sponsorship of the United Jewish Social Service and the Community Chest, recreational programs were provided at 91 Vine Street in Hartford. In 1948, the Jewish Federation, which had been organized in 1945, purchased a converted mansion at 1015 Asylum Avenue to be used as a community center. Initially dedicated to providing in-house youth programs, with athletic activities held in area parks and rented gymnasia, the Hartford Jewish Community Center established Camp Shalom in 1954 at local park facilities. During the same period, adult programming was added to the offerings, including the Ann Randall Arts Committee’s arts program. In 1957, the center opened a Sunday school for children with learning disabilities.
In 1959, with an expanding membership and the westward movement of Hartford’s Jewish population, the community center began planning for a new home. Land was purchased on Bloomfield Avenue, the JCC’s current home, from Fire and Casualty Insurance Company of Connecticut. The following year, Archbishop Henry J. O’Brien and the Hartford archdiocese donated an adjacent parcel. The Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Walter Gropius and Architects Collaborative, was completed and dedicated in 1962.
In 1977, Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and the Jewish Center Camping Committee purchased Camp Mar-Lin in Windsor, which became a permanent home for the JCC’s Camp Shalom. The following two decades saw the JCC as a major force in helping to acculturate and resettle Soviet Jews. Staff member Lucy Dravta founded the Association of Invalids and Veterans of World War II of the Former Soviet Union in Greater Hartford and facilitated a cultural club and support group founded by Nina Aronov.
In 1990, a major renovation and expansion project added several facilities to the JCC, including the Hollander Aquatics Center, Beatrice Fox Auerbach Early Childhood Center, Chase Family Gallery, and Herbert Gilman Theater.
In 1995, the JCC donated the net proceeds of its 80th Anniversary Family Festival to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, established to help victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.
The JCC continued to grow and engage the community at large, so much so that, in 1999, the organization joined the Community Capital Campaign to renovate its interior and further expand its footprint. The Zachs Family Foundation and Henry Zachs, then-chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford Board (and owner of the Jewish Ledger), purchased an adjacent property and the Suburban Swim Club in Bloomfield. Included in the newly-named Zachs Campus expansion project were the Hoffman Field House, Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center health project and rehabilitation services, and the Family Room Parenting Center.
In 2007, the JCC was renamed the Joyce D. and Andrew J. Mandell Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center, the result of a generous gift from the Andrew J. & Joyce D. Mandell Family Foundation. Since then, the JCC has established two satellites to expand its reach: the JCC-without-walls in Farmington Valley, and a preschool at Congregation Kol Haverim in Glastonbury.
Among the longtime staff members who can serve as a sort of communal memory for the JCC is current executive director, David Jacobs. Jacobs was finishing up a Master of Social Work degree at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School in 1978 when he received a call from then-Associate Executive Director Jay Leipzig.
“He asked if I was interested in working in a JCC (I was), with teens (perfect), and helping to open a new day camp that they had just purchased (are you kidding?!),” Jacobs recalls. “It was the dream job and I knew I was coming to West Hartford six months before I graduated.”
Jacobs began as teen director and assistant camp director. In 1980, he was appointed director of Camp Shalom and youth programming. When JCC Executive Director Murry Shapiro retired in 1984 and Leipzig took his place, Jacobs became associate director. Four years later, he was tapped for the executive director position at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek, Calif. In 1992, he relocated to Rochester, N.Y. to head that JCC. Ten years later, he returned to the Bloomfield Avenue facility as executive director.
Over his 35-year involvement with the institution, Jacobs has seen a lot of change, especially on the wellness front.
“When I first came, in 1978, the world of fitness did not exist: ours was a recreational facility with a small gym, a small pool, and no exercise studios. There was no fitness equipment and the weight room was inhabited primarily by the weightlifters,” he recalls. “Over time, as fitness evolved, the JCC did as well – bringing in the latest in exercise equipment, developing as many as 100 group exercises a week, making weight-training accessible to many more people. We’ve seen significant increases in senior adult exercise offerings that play a major role in helping people to stay independent and healthy as they grow older.”
Jacobs has also observed how the JCC changes along with the needs and priorities of the Jewish community.
“Historically, JCCs were settlement houses that helped an immigrant Jewish population become acculturated in their new home,” he says. “In the ‘80s, our continental umbrella movement, the JCC Association of North America (JCCA), issued a paper defining new roles for the JCC in informal Jewish education. As a result, holiday programs, adult learning, camp programs, and preschool curricula have all been enhanced and enriched to provide more meaningful Jewish experiences.”
In 1922, the introduction to The Jewish Center, a quarterly chronicling Jewish community centers, wrote this about the rapid development of JCCs throughout the country:
“For several years now, the Jewish Centers in the United States have been increasing in astonishing degree. What was once an inchoate, formless, drifting mass of struggles and hopes has been steadily assuming definite shape and direction. No longer can Jewish Centers be regarded as sporadic efforts at local racial and social adjustment. They have developed into a great national movement, no longer to be championed as a theory or a disjointed fact, but to be appraised sanely and critically as a potent force in our national life.”
The December 1923 issue included an article by Marion Scharr, executive secretary of the Hartford YWHA and associate organization director of the Associated YM and YWHAs of New England. In outlining the Hartford Ys’ mission, she wrote, “…through our social, religious, educational and physical activities, we should try to give our members opportunity for well-rounded personal development.”
Ninety years later, the purpose of the Hartford Ys’ descendant organization has maintained its original gist, expanding to embrace the community at large.
“The JCC is a gathering place, a neighborhood, a central address,” says Jacobs. “It’s the place with the biggest of the Big Tents, where we do everything we can to welcome all people – regardless of how they believe, what they believe, or whether they believe. We try to provide our members with opportunities to get healthy and remain healthy – physically, culturally, educationally and socially. At the JCC, people engage with others and enrich their lives. This is all done in the context of a place that practices Jewish values and is non-prescriptive in its view on Jewish life.”
Today, Jacobs still meets members who talk about the earlier facilities on Vine Street and Asylum Avenue in Hartford. He envisions new health and wellness programming with longtime community partner, Saint Francis Care, and more partnership-driven programming in the Farmington Valley and east of the Connecticut River.
“For me, the significance of the JCC’s Centennial is not looking back as much as it is looking forward,” he says. “We have accomplished much in our first century, but as Joyce Mandell says, ‘We’re just getting started.’”
ON THE CALENDAR: A YEAR OF CELEBRATIONS!
The Mandell JCC will celebrate its centennial milestone with several community blockbuster events that begin in December 2014 and run through December 2015. The following are but a few – more will be announced along the way. All events are at the JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave, West Hartford (with the exception of the Summer Birthday Bash). For more information, call (860) 236-4571 or visit www.mandelljcc.org.
Sunday, Dec. 14, 4-7 p.m.
The year-long party kicks-off with a special community event for all ages that features lots of food, carnival games, crafts and activities, and culminates with a spectacular one-night-only multimedia show.
Admission: $18/adult, in advance; $25/adult, at the door. Free/children 12 and under .
HOLLYWOOD IN HARTFORD
Saturday, Feb. 28, 7 p.m.
Cocktails, small plates and a musical revue you won’t soon forget!
FAMILY PURIM FESTIVAL
Sunday, March 1, 12:30-3:30 pm
The return of the famous JCC family Purim Festival, complete with festival booths, games, prizes, food, and of course, a costume parade!
TASTE OF SHABBAT: CUISINES FROM AROUND THE WORLD
May 15, 5:45-7:15 pm
An “Around the World” Intergenerational Shabbat! Featuring an assortment of cuisines, drinks and dessert, including Italian, Asian Fusion, Middle Eastern and traditional Ashkenazi. A special dessert and hands-on art activities area will be available for children.
Admission: $18/adults; $10/children ages 2-12/; Free, children under 2
100th ANNUAL MEETING
Wednesday, June 3
Celebrate the past and present leadership of the JCC, and look towards the Center’s future.
SUMMER BIRTHDAY BASH
Sunday, August 30, 4-7 pm
A community-wide event at the JCC’s Swim & Tennis Club, 4 Duncaster Rd., Bloomfield
Sunday, Dec. 13
Celebrate with a closing parade and concert.
More events and further details to be announced. Programs subject to change.
Interested in being a Centennial Event Volunteer? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.