Story and photos by Thomas Breen
In between practicing free throws and layups, Ricardo Harris watched his seven-year-old son play in a pick-up basketball game on the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater New Haven’s renovated court – the resumption of a tradition that took a year-plus break after a fire wrecked the place.
“I honestly love the JCC,” said Harris, a 36-year-old barber from Westville who has been a member of the local Jewish recreational, educational and community center for three years. “It gives me great bonding time with my kids. My kids get to meet other kids. It’s a one-stop shop: great food, great people. I couldn’t wait for it to reopen.”
On Sunday afternoon, March 18, Harris and over 1,000 other members, supporters and neighbors flooded the JCC’s campus at 360 Amity Rd. to celebrate the building’s official reopening of the 35-year-old facility, one year and three months after a fire broke out in the basement, rendering the facility unusable and the organization’s future uncertain.
As kids, parents and grandparents eagerly filled every square inch of the campus’s 106,000 square feet on Sunday, from the pool to the basketball court, from the makerspace to the café, the future looked bright for a facility that many visitors described as something like a second home.
Those different spaces were on full display on Sunday afternoon, both for the official JCC reopening ceremonies and for activities related to Mitzvah Day, a series of JCC and Federation-coordinated events meant to get members working together and doing good deeds.
White and blue balloons arced over the ground floor’s hallway as visitors stopped by the new Café 360 for a coffee or a pastry, or gave a high-five to a volunteer dressed in a smiling, life-size bagel costume. He was a fitting mascot for a building that was originally funded in part by money from Murray Lender, who helped introduce the frozen bagel as a staple of American grocery stores.
Inside the JCC’s Vine Family Auditorium, dozens of area nonprofits and Jewish organizations set up tables and pitched their services to families bouncing between a face-painting station and a popcorn and cotton-candy vendor.
Mitzvah Day activities lined the hall outside the auditorium. Students wrote thank you letters to military service members in the U.S. and Israel. JCC Youth and Family Coordinator Eliana Sugarman helped children build activity bags filled with stickers, stress balls, and get-well-soon cards for patients at the Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital.
Volunteers helped bake 35 trays of lasagna for the local immigration and refugee nonprofit, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS). Others made no-sew fleece blankets to be donated to a local pet shelter.
“This is part of my community,” said Jodi Seidner as she gave out free samples of snickerdoodles and brownies from her online desert business Sweet Seidner’s Bake Shop. Her husband Jacob said that his family has been coming to the JCC for over 16 years because of the safety, camaraderie and community that it affords. Both said that you could not walk down the hall without seeing a handful of people you knew and wanted to catch up with.
Past the co-working space where volunteers made phone calls on behalf of the JCC’s capital campaign, past the group exercise room where visitors finished up a late morning yoga session, a stairwell led to the building’s basement, which is home to the JCC’s myriad exercise and recreational facilities. There is a fitness center with new stationary bicycles and workout equipment. Volunteer trainers and specialists stood by to offer free blood pressure and body composition tests, while a masseuse worked his way through a line of visitors waiting for a massage.
Although the sauna, steam room and locker room whirlpools were still under construction, the basketball courts, racquetball courts, swimming pool and toddler jungle gym were all very much open and in use.
“There’s something here for everyone in my family,” Alli Nork said as she crouched on the sidelines of the renovated hardwood basketball court, watching her son play in a pick-up game. She said that her family have been members for five years, and that they regularly use the basketball courts, gym, pool, and fitness center. “It feels like home,” she said.
Past the three racquetball courts is one of the new spaces in the renovated facility: a rock-climbing gym, with a 20-foot climbing wall facing a shorter but wider bouldering wall, both replete with candy-colored hand and foot grips.
Back on the ground floor, dozens of visitors celebrated the renaming and dedication of the Beverly Levy Early Childhood Learning Center, and then moved on to the JCC’s official ribbon-cutting in front of the café.
JCC Executive Director Scott Cohen said that the JCC currently has around 4,000 members; its rolls were closer to around 6,000 people before the fire. He said that many of the renovations, particularly the different lounge areas filled with couches, tables and chairs that pop up in various corners throughout the building, were designed to encourage socializing between classes and workouts. He said that the new building and its programs are geared towards providing a space for people to hang out and talk and build a community.
“From chaos there was order,” said Jewish Federation President Norm Ravski. “A scientist that passed away this week, Stephen Hawking, said that the mark of intelligence is the ability to adapt. And we have a lot of intelligent people working here at the JCC.”
“Every Sunday should be like today here at the J,” he continued. “This should be the heart of the community. This should be the place that all of us come for meeting people: for meeting old people that we know, for meeting new people that we want to know, and for having a good cup of coffee.”
This article is an excerpt of an article that appeared in the New Haven Independent and is reprinted with permission. To read the article in its entirety, visit www.newhavenindependent.org.
CAP: Crowds fill the hallways of the JCC during Sunday’s reopening ceremony.