JCC of New Haven plans a Grand Re-Opening after devastating fire
By Stacey Dresner
WOODBRIDGE – After a four-alarm fire ravaged the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven more than a year ago, JCC leaders hustled to make sure members were accommodated during the long and arduous clean-up and renovation that followed – the Yeladim Early Childhood Center program was relocated to classroom space in nearby Congregation B’nai Jacob and the fitness center was moved temporarily to an industrial space in Woodbridge.
Despite that, the JCC lost one-third of its membership.
“I think a lot of that had to do with just the reality of it. Even though we opened a temporary fitness center and we had programming all over the place, it was a challenge for people, especially because we didn’t have showers in our fitness building,” says Judy Alperin, CEO of the JCC and the New Haven Jewish Federation.
Still, she says, many members stayed on, continuing to support the JCC even though they may have paid gym memberships elsewhere during the renovation process.
David Trachten, a longtime JCC member who grew up going to the JCC when it was on Chapel Street, heard about the fire just hours after it broke out and toured the damaged building a few days later.
“It was pretty bad,” he remembers. “It was clear we were going to have a lot of work ahead of us.”
But he and his family – wife Stacey and their three kids – remained members of the JCC during the long haul to rebuild.
“I felt more than any other time it was important to me to maintain our membership,” he said.
And despite the fact that the community looked at the option of not rebuilding after the fire, but rather, running JCC programs in a wider geographical area to benefit the Jews who have dispersed to areas other than Woodbridge, Trachten said that in the end, the Amity Road facility was seen as the community’s anchor.
“We learned we have to do a more ‘hub and spoke’ approach, what came out in the long run is we need that central address; we need to have that place that everybody calls their Jewish home in the community,” Trachten said.
It’s been a long time coming, but come Sunday, March 18, Trachten and other faithful members will be rewarded for their loyalty when the JCC of Greater New Haven holds its Grand Re-Opening.
The re-opening, which will begin at 1 p.m., will include ceremonial ribbon cuttings and activities centered around JCC Mitzvah Day, which begins in the morning with mitzvah projects – or good deeds – throughout the community.
“People are going to roll up their sleeves and do good with all kinds of tikkun olam projects and then the celebration will be back here,” Alperin says. “There will be a mitzvah fair, mitzvah projects. There is going to be a very festive atmosphere with fun, food and activities.”
The entire public is invited to the re-opening and to tour the facility, now fully restored, refreshed and re-enhanced with several new offerings aimed attracting back old members and wooing new ones.
“We are already starting to see people coming back,” Alperin says. “We do plan to win back not only those we lost but to attract many more because we think there is so much more here within our walls than there was before.”
That “so much more” includes a new cafe, a larger and refurbished health and fitness area with several new additions, and some new innovative spaces dedicated to “co-working” and the DIY “MakerSpace” craze.
“We have made a lot of transformation, programmatically,” Alperin says. “You know, the fire was awful and tragic, but pretty much since the day after the fire we’ve maintained that we were going to turn lemons into lemonade and turn this great, huge challenge before us into an opportunity. I believe we are doing that. I think we are already starting to see some of those new realities come into focus, which has been exciting. But it’s also important to recognize the fact that this is a community building and there’s lots of new programs and things that are finding their genesis here…Our mission and mandate is to service the entire greater New Haven community and we intend to do that.”
For Alperin and the rest of the JCC leadership, that means doing much more than just fixing the damage wrought by the December 2016 fire.
The accidental four-alarm blaze began in the JCC’s lower level men’s sauna and did $2.4 million worth of damage to the building. This included extensive fire and water damage in the lower level, resulting in the complete replacement of the double basketball court and aerobics studio. The building’s main structural beam also had to be replaced. Much of the rest of the building suffered from smoke damage.
After a debate over whether to reopen the Amity Road building, the board of directors of the Jewish Federation and JCC voted six months after the fire to restore and reopen the facility, hiring the architectural firm Svigals + Partners to work on the design.
During the last year, even as work was going on throughout the building, some parts of the JCC began reopening.
“We’ve been reopening in stages pretty much since the summer time,” Alperin explains. “We created a new way to access the building from the outside so that our pool and our racquet ball courts could be used as early as June…We had a family changing/locker room which was very tight quarters that everybody sort of shared until this past weekend when we reopened our regular male and female locker rooms.”
In September, the early childhood center reopened.
“Over the summer we did a complete refit of the [ELC] spaces,” Alperin says. “It wasn’t really affected by the fire, other than a little bit of cleaning that needed to be done, but we just felt that since our families had been out of the building for six months off-site in a synagogue, it was an opportunity to make the investment, so they came back to a brand new school.”
“It’s great,” says Marla Wasser, who has two children at the school, a daughter in the JCC’s kindergarten and a son in the three-year-old program. “As quickly as the teachers set up in B’nai Jacob [after the fire], they set up everything back up at the JCC again so quickly too. When we walked in we were just amazed by how beautiful, bright and clean everything was. Our kids were very excited.”
One of the March 18 ribbon-cutting ceremonies will take place at the freshly scrubbed school wing, which will be renamed The Beverly Levy Early Learning Center (ELC).
Levy, who died in 2014, was an avid supporter of the Anti-Defamation League and a staunch advocate working on raising awareness and a cure for women’s reproductive cancers.
“Beverly always had a commitment against hate and discrimination, and she was deliberate in saying that it really starts with our children. That is one of the reasons for this initiative at the early learning center,” says her husband, Dr. John Levy.
Dr. Levy and his entire family, including Beverly’s 98-year-old mother, will attend the ribbon-cutting.
“It will be a day of mixed emotions,” Dr. Levy said. “But it is a legacy and a message that we want to continue as a family because the message was so strong.”
More than $30,000 was spent on the early learning center, which got all new floors, new paint and new cabinetry.
Lana Gad, former director of the preschool at Congregation B’nai Jacob, has been named interim director of the new ELC. The JCC has begun a nationwide search for a new permanent director.
“We are looking for a visionary leader to take the school to the next level,” Alperin says.
After the ceremony at the new ELC, attendees will do a larger ribbon-cutting in the JCC’s main hallway, providing an opportunity to “thank all of the people who have helped to bring us to this moment and to talk about our future and what that holds,” Alperin says.
Attendees will get a chance to visit the brand new Café 360, which opened in January with sleek new finishes. The café offers Willoughby’s Coffee and kosher food from local caterers, including Abel’s Catering.
“We wanted something that would be a destination for everybody of all ages,” says Alperin of the space, which sits, as she describes, “at the crossroads” of the building – connected to each of the center’s hallways.
A new open seating area sits near the café in the space formerly used as the babysitting room, and café tables and stools and comfy armchairs now have been placed throughout the main JCC hallway to allow café customers to spill out into the hallway and enjoy the bright open space. Behind the café is the “Terrace Room,” with plenty of tables for eating and playing mah jongg or bridge, and with access to the terrace space outside.
Down the hallway, a new babysitting and family room has been renovated to include its own bathroom, play space and a special corner for nursing mothers.
Along the walls of the hallway will be the Hoos Family Art Gallery, which will feature arts from local artists as well as items and artifacts from the New Haven Jewish Historical Society. The Vine Family Auditorium has received new wall coverings, lighting and audio and visual equipment.
The enhancement of the JCC also includes two brand new, cutting-edge spaces designed for the needs of today’s individuals and families.
“The Cube,” a high-end ‘co-working’ space with several worktables, upgraded WiFi, and a printer and copier, offers a convenient workspace for JCC parents, entrepreneurs and freelancers to work.
Next door is MakerSpace, which gives children of all ages the opportunity to participate in a range of activities including crafts, wood-working, ceramics, computer programming, internet classes and sewing. MakerSpace will feature classes as well as open studio time for members to do their own creative thing.
In the lower level of the JCC, which took the brunt of the fire’s damage, an extensive amount of work has been done.
A new seating area and fitness desk greets those coming down stairs to the Health & Wellness Center. The fitness room, with its cardio machines and weights, has been enlarged, and new TRX equipment lines one wall.
A spinning room now features 30 brand new Schwinn stationary spinning bikes, and a new larger room for exercise classes has received shiny new wooden-plank floors.
New locker rooms for men and women have been built and feature new floors, tiling and lockers. The spa areas for both men and women have been completely refitted and now feature new whirlpools, saunas and a concierge desk.
The floors of the Beckerman Gymnasium, which were badly damaged in the fire and from water damage, have been replaced, including one that is a durable, multi-purpose floor to be used for activities like floor hockey. Nearby is the rock climbing room and high ropes course designed not just for fitness members but also for use at birthday and b’nai mitzvah parties and during JCC camp programs.
Alperin estimates the cost of the entire project as between $6 and $7 million.
While insurance paid for some of the damage, a capital campaign was begun to pay for additional cleaning and for all of the updates to the facility.
“We are in the middle of the campaign now, looking for support from everybody who is willing to help,” she says.
“Insurance is a wonderful thing and we are very grateful that we have good insurance, but it only puts you back to the way you were the day before the fire,” Alperin explains. “And the way we were the day before the fire was not positioned for the future of this Jewish community. We needed to change, and we have.”