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Stamford Jewish Community Center celebrates 100 years

By Cindy Mindell

STAMFORD – The Jewish population of Stamford numbered fewer than 1,500 when the seeds of a Jewish community center were planted in 1906. That year, Jews first began congregating for social activities, initially in the front room of an apartment on Hawthorne Street, and then in the basement of Congregation Agudath Sholom on Greyrock Place, the only synagogue in the city.

In 1916, a group of 26 Jewish families officially founded the Hebrew Institute at that location.

It wasn’t until 1928, however, that the cornerstone was laid for a permanent home, at 126 Prospect St. That year, Stamford was home to some 5,600 Jews.

In 1930, the newly- completed and renamed Stamford Jewish Center opened its doors — the first building in New England constructed to serve an entire Jewish community — and welcoming to Jews and non-Jews alike. At the ribbon-cutting, then-president Hymen Franek advised that the edifice “would be no more than a collection of bricks and mortar, unless we breathe into it the spirit that will justify its existence and make it an expression of Jewish life.”

Over the next four decades, Franek’s vision ripened. The worn front stone steps of the Prospect Street building reveal the popularity of the building, a gathering place for the Jewish community, and a popular recreational center for the entire populace, with its gymnasium, bowling alley, dining room, and swimming pool.

By 1973, the facility could no longer accommodate its members, and the 14-acre Nyselius estate on Newfield Avenue in farm country to the north, was purchased in order to create a larger home. The Prospect Street facility was sold, together with the adjacent Camp JayCee site, and the Jewish Center opened offices in the Nyselius mansion, renaming the organization the Center of the Jewish Community. During the next five years, as the new facility took shape and membership continued to grow to 900 families, programs were held at nearly 20 locations around Stamford.

Ground was broken at the Newfield Avenue site in 1978 and the new Stamford Jewish Community Center (JCC) was dedicated on Sept. 20, 1981, boasting both the original 1928 cornerstone from Prospect Street and a new one. The following year, when the JCC renegotiated its mortgage to cover a financial shortfall, the building was renamed for William and Sandy Tandet, whose family made a $1 million donation to the $5 million campaign.

The history of the JCC weaves through multiple generations of the Stamford Jewish community.

“Growing up at the Jewish Center on Prospect Street was to me and many of my friends our second home,” says Alex Goldblum, 76, whose parents were also members of the center. As elementary school students attending Hebrew school in the building, then working their way up at Camp JayCee as campers, dining room waiters, assistant counselors, and counselors, and as members of the American Zionist Association youth group, by seventh grade, Goldblum and his contemporaries were spending every day after school in the building. He worked in the “basket room,” where members left their workout clothing to be washed and readied for their next visits. He and friends worked setting pins in the bowling alley.

“I am fortunate enough today to still have friends that I met at the Jewish Center,” he says. “What was nice was that there was such a commonality that brought us all together and solidified our friendships.”

Alex’s son, Jeff Goldblum, first became familiar with the Jewish Center as a nursery-school student at Prospect Street in the early ‘70s. He remembers his teacher, the renowned early childhood educator. Sara Walker, after whom the JCC nursery school was named in 1991, and recalls watching his older cousins playing basketball in the gym.

When the Newfield Avenue property was purchased, Alex joined the building committee, along with Al Camhi z”l, Burt Hoffman, Jerry Berkman, Gib Katten, and Joel Freedman.

Jeff Goldblum became involved in JCC leadership in 2006, when he served as chair of the JCC Maccabi Games golf committee. Two years later, he was asked to join the board. He was elected president in 2014 and will complete his term this May. His wife, Risa Goldblum, has been involved with Tzahal Shalom and is on the JCC Maccabi Games steering committee.

A similar “all in the family” narrative is told by Steve Trell, 73, who was born in Stamford after his parents migrated to the city from New York in the ‘40s and almost immediately joined the Stamford Jewish Center. The family belonged to Congregation Agudath Sholom, whose Hebrew school and bar mitzvah classes were held at the center Prospect Street. Trell was one of many teens who set up pins in the center’s basement bowling alley, and attended the on-site Camp JayCee. In his office, Trell still displays a group photo from the summer of 1954, which includes fellow campers Joe Lieberman and Hermie Alswanger, founder of Long Ridge Camp in Stamford.

After graduating from Stamford High School in 1960, Trell headed to Georgia for college. He later returned and, in 1968, he married local girl Gail Gruber, who had also grown up at the Jewish Center.

Trell has been involved on the JCC board since 1999, after he was approached by then-board president Marshall Goldberg. He served as board president in 2004-05, when the directors voted to host the 2006 JCC Maccabi Games, the first time the event would be held in Stamford. During his tenure, the board also approved the expansion of the Kuriansky Fitness Center to meet members’ needs and increase enrollment. Gail has been involved in several leadership positions since 1990, so tied to the JCC that friends established a scholarship fund in her honor. The couple was honored with the JCC’s Hyacinthe and Harold Hoffman Humanitarian Award in 2013.

The Trells were literally the poster children for the JCC’s multi-generational character when three generations of the family graced the cover of the 2013 program guide. Since leaving the board, Steve Trell has helped with new board member orientation and now makes weekly visits to the JumpStart program for preschoolers with special needs, joined by his “best friend,” a Standard Poodle named Vegas.

The JCC has been essential to the community since its inception, Trell says, because “Jews in Stamford have a meeting place and a place to go and a place to bring their children to appreciate their Jewish background.”

Like many members, Risa Raich found instant community at the JCC through her oldest daughter, who entered the Sara Walker Nursery School as soon as the family moved to Stamford in 2004. Raich began by volunteering at the school, where she met many of the women who would become her closest friends.

“I continue to be involved because I have a passion for everything JCC and I love being a part of this warm and welcoming community,” she says. “It gives me immense joy to see the hallways buzzing with activity from morning through night, engaging our youth to our seniors with exceptional programming and events. The JCC is the place to connect.  It brings people together from all aspects of Jewish life for a myriad of enriching programming for the body, mind, and spirit across the age spectrum.”

The Jewish Center building on Prospect Street continues to serve Jewish Stamford, as home to the Yeshiva Bais Binyomin and its community outreach program.

Today, the JCC on Newfield Ave. still has a wide reach, from year-round youth programming for children of all abilities through senior-adult activities, from the Center Women and the Jewish Arts & Film Festival of Fairfield County to the JCC Israeli Shaliach and Tzahal Shalom program with visiting IDF officers, and from fitness facilities to the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County library.

“In the city of Stamford, there are Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and other groups who are individual as to how they each run their own temple or synagogue,” says Alex Goldblum. “The one thing about the JCC is that it’s communal to the extent that everyone is involved, from all of the religious institutions. It’s a great meeting place and a great place to find the Jewish community together. I think it’s always been that way, it’s always served in that way, and it’s appreciated by the Jewish community as being a central part of all the Jewish families in Stamford.”

Just as significant is its contribution to the community at large, according to Nina Lotstein, a member and lay leader for 40-plus years who remembers the JCC opening its pool to outside organizations who serve children with special needs. Lotstein has served on countless committees, on the board, and as president of Center Women. A current member of the Center Women executive committee and the Centennial Gala committee, Lotstein watched her children grow up at the JCC and now marvels at the diverse make-up of her grandchildren’s swimming classes.

“The Jewish Center really is the center of the Jewish community, and it also reaches out to so many people who are not Jewish — it’s a melting pot,” she says. “And it has always been a place that feels like home.”

“Clearly, the Jewish Community Center of Stamford is the heartbeat of the Jewish community,” says Jeff Goldblum. “As we begin our centennial celebration, it’s incredible to see the generational involvement, from families that were involved at Prospect Street to families whose children’s children are in the nursery school. If you look at the centennial committee today, you’ll see 20-somethings and 80-somethings all serving on committees. The success of the JCC comes from generation after generation paying it forward for the next generation, and there have been a lot of folks doing that. It’s really a true home and a galvanizing place for Jews throughout the community.”

The JCC’s 100th anniversary celebration kicks off with a Centennial Gala on Saturday, March 12. For information visit stamfordjcc.org/gala2016/centennial-gala or contact Shannon Jacobs at (203) 487-0965 or sjacobs@stamfordjcc.org.

CAP: Governor Ella Grasso (background) was among the dignitaries on hand at the groundbreaking for the Stamford JCC’s Newfield Ave. building.


Stamford gears up for the JCC Maccabi Games

By Cindy Mindell

STAMFORD – It’s no small feat to pull off the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest. The week-long sports competition and creative-arts experience brings more than 1,000 Jewish teens ages 13-16 from all over the world into a host community and involves just as many volunteers, who provide food, lodging, and transportation, and help run all aspects of the athletic and artistic programming.

But the Stamford Jewish community enjoyed hosting the Games so much in 2006 that the JCC board voted to do it again this summer — and to up the ante by including the ArtsFest as well. From August 7 to 12, Stamford will welcome hundreds of teen athletes and artists from North and South America, Israel, and Europe, who will be joined by a 300-member local delegation.

Stamford is one of three North American Jewish communities to host the 2016 Games, alongside the JCC of Greater Columbus, Ohio, and the St. Louis JCC in Missouri.

Launched in 1982, the Games are co-sponsored by the JCC Association of North America, Maccabi World Union, Maccabi Canada, and Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel. Some of the Games notable past participants include Mark Spitz (swimming), Mitch Gaylord (gymnastics), Ernie Grunfeld and Danny Schayes (basketball), and Brad Gilbert and Dick Savitt (tennis).

The JCC Maccabi ArtsFest was first held in 2006 in Baltimore, Md. as a separate event and was eventually combined with the Games into one experience. ArtsFest offers Jewish teens master workshops with artists-in-residence in eight creative fields and culminates in a final showcase.

“We have a tremendous number of artistic professionals and talent in the community and a lot of kids who are very interested in the arts, so we didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to host ArtsFest this year,” says Mike Gold, co-chair of the Stamford committee.

Beyond honing participants’ athletic and artistic skills, the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest promote a broader agenda of community involvement, teamwork, and pride in being Jewish. On the field, athletes participate in 10 sports, while in workshop venues, artists work with artists-in-residence in a range of creative pursuits. Off the field and outside the studio, participants enjoy opening ceremonies, evening social activities, and “JCC Cares” community-service projects. In addition to the medals awarded in athletic competitions, the Stamford event will also present medals to participants who model and embody “Midot,” exemplary character traits that reflect the values and spirit of the JCC Maccabi Games and ArtsFest.

Gold was first involved in 2006 as chair of the transportation committee — “one of the most challenging and, without question, the most rewarding experiences that I have ever had,” he says – and went on to coach the Stamford girls’ basketball delegation the following two years (when his daughter participated as an athlete) and then joined the national advisory team of lay leaders who help host communities set up the event.

“As a member of the Stamford JCC board of trustees, I was in the group who did a feasibility study about hosting the 2016 event and was then asked to be a co-chair,” he says. “They certainly didn’t need to ask me twice.”

The same goes for co-chair Jeannie Kriftcher, who was also a member of the feasibility study committee and decided to sign on for the 2016 games co-chair because of her experience with the 2006 Games. “Our family hosted four Israeli athletes for a week and we are still in touch with them today!” she says. That year, Kriftcher also co-chaired the opening ceremonies. “These experiences, together with my love for the JCC and its staff and members, as well as my years of volunteering in many capacities, made me jump at the opportunity to co-chair the Games and ArtsFest when I was asked,” she says.

Gold says that hosting the Maccabi event is a “labor of love” on the part of the community, and applauds the executive steering committee that supports him and Kriftcher – including JCC CEO Eric Koehler, JCC board president Jeff Goldblum, and Games director Rachel Rothman. Kriftcher points to the invaluable support provided by the City of Stamford mayor’s office, police department, and board of education. The event, she says, galvanizes the Stamford Jewish community, but it also benefits Greater Stamford as well.

“The Maccabi Games and ArtsFest are a tremendous opportunity to bring out both Jewish and non-Jewish residents as volunteers,” Kriftcher says. “We bring the athletes and artists to many Stamford sites — including Boys and Girls Club and the Museum and Nature Center — to ‘mitzvah’ projects: clean-up, nature-based projects, or just special time with the children at the club.” In addition, the thousands of family members and coaches who accompany the visiting athletes frequent local businesses, making it a win-win for the entire community.

Stamford mayor David Martin echoed the sentiment at the October press launch of the event. “It is an honor for the City of Stamford and the Stamford Jewish Community Center to be hosting the 2016 Maccabi Games,” he said. “What a coup for our city and our JCC. We look forward to welcoming athletes from all over the world to Stamford next August and showing them the talent in our local athletes.”

For more information: stamfordjcc.org/maccabi or Rachel Rothman, rrothman@stamfordjcc.org / (203) 487-9049.

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