By Stacey Dresner
WOODBRIDGE – On Sunday, June 4 – exactly six months after a four-alarm fire damaged much of the interior of the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven – the annual “Touch a Truck” event was held in the JCC parking lot.
Hundreds of people – mostly families with small children – came to the event to touch and sit on top of fire trucks and bulldozers and to play on the JCC’s playground.
“It was such a great day,” said Judy Alperin, CEO. “But it wasn’t just that it was a great event, what was great was the energy. People wanted to be back there. They really have missed it…they were just so happy to be home.”
Some of the attendees went up the JCC building asking if they could go inside and were told that it was still off limits to the public.
But not for long.
Last month the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation and the JCC voted unanimously to return to and continue operating in the building in Woodbridge.
Recently, they hired Svigals & Partners, an architectural firm in Orange, and on June 5 eight different construction firms walked through the JCC and were expected to enter proposals for the project.
The decision to repair and return to the JCC was not an easy one. Following the Dec. 4 fire, there had been some question as to whether moving back would be the right thing for the local Jewish community.
While many community members were determined to return to the building, which sustained extensive smoke and water damage after the fire in the men’s locker room sauna, others suggested that the large building in Woodbridge should not be the epicenter of the New Haven Jewish community. Their idea was for JCC programming to branch out into other local areas with growing Jewish populations. Some also cited the cost of repairing the building as well as its future upkeep.
And so, for the past few months the board spent a good deal of time and effort gathering input from community members via a survey, focus groups, and a community town hall that attracted hundreds, before finally voting to return to the JCC building.
“There were multiple factors that drove the decision,” Alperin told the Ledger. “On the one hand, we definitely have critical mass who made their voices heard, through our online survey, our town hall and other outreach opportunities, to say that they missed their home at 360 Amity and they wanted it back. And we heard them. There really were significant numbers. There is no question that our demographics have shifted and that we have an obligation now to provide programming and services across our catchment area, which is very large. But still, in and around this general Woodbridge area there is critical mass to support the JCC.”
Alperin said that the decision also came down to dollars and cents.
“There is a financial calculus at play here,” she explained. “Initially in the aftermath of the fire, when we looked at the building we saw such devastation in key program areas that we thought the insurance settlement was going to be very large. … We felt that it was our responsibility, given that knowledge, to look at all the different options, because it might have made financial sense for us to come up with a different opportunity. However, the settlement now, we think, is going to come in somewhere around $2 to 2.5 million, and that is just not enough to cause us to relocate. Now we have a mandate to not exceed the insurance settlement dollars.”
The plan is now to renovate with the goal to “reclaim portions of the building and our operations in stages,” the board said in a press release signed by Alperin; Dr. Norman Ravski, Jewish Federation president; Scott Hurwitz, JCC president; and Scott Cohen, JCC executive director.
For now, according to the press release, plans are for several things to occur beginning this summer:
The JCC summer camp will open on the campsite at 360 Amity Road. The camp will have access to the upstairs portion of the building that includes the auditorium and nearby meeting rooms for rainy and extra-hot day activities as those areas were lightly affected by the fire and required nothing more than a deep cleaning.
Like the “Touch a Truck” event, several “Grill & Chills,” family social gatherings for JCC members, are planned for and will happen on the patio or “adjacent locations” at 360 Amity Road.
The JCC’s indoor swimming pool and the adjacent racquetball courts and playscape should reopen by June 19, pending elimination of continuing smoke smell, construction of various temporary walls and structures in and around the area’s “wet corridor”; electrical work and installation of fire alarm systems.
Work will also be done on the classrooms of Yeladim, the JCC’s early childhood center. The daycare and preschool areas were not affected by the fire, but the kindergarten room did sustain some damage. Yeladim has been operating nearby at Congregation B’nai Jacob since the fire.
“Our Yeladim families are very anxious to come back into the building,” Alperin said. “We want to do a bit of a face lift to that wing and we are working on scenarios for that as well. It needed a deep cleaning, which it got, but as we were walking through we realized our families deserve a little bit of freshening up. If we are going to come back into a renewed building, that space has to be renewed as well.”
And while Yeladim is in its temporary space at B’nai Jacob, the Federation and JCC are operating from a temporary office on Litchfield Turnpike and the fitness center is being temporarily housed in a space on Research Drive in Woodbridge.
Alperin said that doing a fuller integration of the Federation and JCC offices as part of the renovations is something they are looking at.
And another thing being considered is renting some of the building’s extra space.
“We’re still open to the possibility of halving off a section of our office building for an outside tenant,” Alperin said. “We are close to the Merritt, we are going to redesign the café and we are going to have a new fitness area. I would think somebody might be interested in working [where there are] all of those facilities.”