Some Favorite Sites
Government/ Community Links
You Don’t Have To Be Jewish ...
by Paul Bass | Oct 19, 2012 1:51 pm
Otis Johnson didn’t think he was breaking barriers. He was just going to nursery school.
The year was 1957. Johnson was 5 years old. He lived in the Brookside housing projects.
New Haven’s Jewish Community Center was downtown on Chapel Street in those days. Johnson’s parents signed him up there so he could attend the nursery school.
Now it’s 2012. And the JCC is 100 years old.
It no longer is in that Chapel Street building. (Yale’s art school is.) Like many of the Jewish families who lived near the center of town back in the 1950s, New Haven’s JCC moved west, across the New Haven-Woodbridge town line to Amity Road.
And, as in Johnson’s day, you don’t have to be Jewish to join. Ask the many people who work out there or attend events daily.
Saturday night the JCC holds a 100th birthday party. Starting at 7 p.m. it features a havdalah (ending of Sabbath) ceremony, then cocktails, dancing, and a gourmet buffet.
The occasion rekindled memories for Otis Johnson, who today serves as New Haven government’s fair rent director.
He found his old membership card.
And he found a newspaper photo of the nursery school. Johnson, who is African-American, is pictured front and center with a helmet on his head, his body on a tricycle. The caption mentions the JCC’s “integrated” nursery school.
Johnson forwarded the two pieces of history to the JCC’s Weinberg. She has been collecting all sorts of memories like those from members past and present. Some of those memories be featured in a video presentation at Saturday’s event. (For more information on the event, contact Weinberg at 203-387-2522 x 216.)
Weinberg, meanwhile, submitted the following history of New Haven’s JCC:
The story of the JCC begins with the founding of the Young Peoples’ League in1912. This organization, which changed its name to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, or YMHA, in 1913, held its meetings in a loft at 200 Orange Street. The Orange Street building also headquartered organized charities of New Haven, a fact which reflects the JCC’s connection to charities from early on.
In June of 1915, the Young Women’s Hebrew Association was formed. YWHA members organized activities including piano, sewing and gymnastics, and often invited guest speakers from Yale University to their meetings at 301 George Street.
The YMHA remained at Orange Street until 1918, when they purchased a one-family house at 304 Crown Street which would become their new headquarters. In1921 the YWHA joined the YMHA at Crown Street and engaged the first paid director to plan for the community. The JCC finally had a building all its own, but space was limited and many felt it was time for a new, modern building. Plans were made to build a new facility in an adjoining lot on Crown Street, but due to financial concerns construction never began.
The new era finally began in 1935, when the YMHA and YWHA merged to become the Jewish Community Center, headquartered at 7 Dwight Street, a building contributed by the Hebrew Institute. The Dwight Street building offered ample space and facilities, allowing the JCC to offer many programs for the first time, including health and fitness activities, outdoor summer day camps, and afterschool programs. It was a period of growth for the JCC, and by the mid-1940s it was clear that it had already outgrown the Dwight Street location.
On June 3, 1947, the JCC’s board of directors instituted a community fundraiser to raise money “to be used to build a new Jewish Community Center.” After reaching the campaign goal of $750,000, the JCC held a ground-breaking ceremony on June 1, 1952. The site was the former location of DeCaprio’s Motor Sales at 1156 Chapel Street. The new JCC, an early work of famed architect Louis Kahn, was completed in 1954; the official dedication was held on April 14.
The JCC flourished on Chapel Street and became the cornerstone of an upper Chapel Street revitalization. Then, as now, a strong membership was key its success. Thousands of people’s lives were touched by hours spent at the Chapel Street JCC; its many features included a teen lounge, a basement woodworking shop, summer day camp on the roof, a swimming pool, a health club, and bowling lanes.
By 1976, however, use of the downtown facility was in decline. In 1981, a study by the Jewish Welfare Board recommended the Center relocate. In 1982, the Chapel Street facility was placed on the market and the JCC began making plans for a move. In August of 1985, the JCC decided to lease and renovate a fitness facility on South Bradley Road in Woodbridge, later known as the JCC West Rock Fitness Center. Later that year, the fundraiser for the new building began, raising over $3.5 million in its first phase. The sale of the Chapel Street building was finalized that December.
The Chapel Street era officially ended on Saturday, June 21, 1986 with a commemorative party called “Sold on the Center.” Nearly 1000 people attended, many from other states, to honor and reminisce about the Chapel Street JCC. Lavish decorations, a wide array of refreshments, and seven different bands made the party a night to remember. The celebration continued with a reunion basketball game the next day; 80 varsity alumni from as far away as Florida and California suited up to play the last game in the JCC gym and sign a game ball for the cornerstone of the new building. With that, the Chapel Street location was put to rest. On Wednesday, June 25, 1986, the JCC moved to its transitional headquarters at 566 Whalley Avenue.
During the transitional era, JCC activities were scattered across a variety of locations. In addition to the Whalley Avenue and South Bradley Road locations, the JCC also utilized the fitness facilities at the Hopkins School; Yeladim was hosted at Shepherd Glen School and 995 Sherman Avenue in Hamden. Despite the lack of a unified facility, this was still a productive era for the JCC, with plenty of programs and events to satisfy its rising membership numbers.
Throughout the transitional period, plans for a new facility continued. First and foremost, the committee had to locate a suitable plot of land on which to build. Numerous sites were considered, most in Woodbridge (roughly the geographical center of the local Jewish population). One promising site was disqualified in 1986 when it was unexpectedly reclassified as Class 1 Wetlands. In 1988, a new possibility arose when the Connecticut Light and Power Company announced its intention to sell a 127-acre tract in Woodbridge. The site was adjacent to Route 63 and had easy access from the Merritt/Wilbur Cross Parkways, making it an ideal site. Using funds raised specifically for a new facility, the JCC purchased the plot in late 1990. The site was cleared early the next year, and a groundbreaking ceremony took place on May 17, 1992.
After raising a total of $18 million toward the new building, construction was completed in late 1993. The 100,000 square foot facility was designed by Herbert Newman and Jay Alpert; their concept was a bright and open layout reflecting the spirit of the community. Tours of the yet-uncompleted facility at 360 Amity Road began in July, with completion expected in October. Unfortunately, the town’s building inspection ran overtime, and the opening had to be postponed until November.
The delay had no effect on the community’s enthusiasm, though, and the JCC debuted with a week of special events beginning on Sunday, November 14, 1993. “The Big Week” started with a ribbon cutting and mezzuzah-affixing ceremony, followed by the New JCC Neighborhood Block party, in which the new facility was celebrated with music, performances, and fun activities for all ages. The rest of the week featured special lectures, social events, and fitness groups, ending with a gala party called “L’Chaim JCC - A Toast to the Community” on Saturday the 20th, and a reunion basketball game in the new gym on the 21st. The opening, and the facility itself, were a huge success, and everyone agreed they were well worth the wait.
Even as the JCC settled into its new building, it was clear that the spacious property offered new possibilities for expansion, and in 1994 it again sought a construction permit in order to build additional facilities, such as the outdoor pool and summer camp area. Once those areas were finished, the JCC finally seemed complete, bringing an era of construction to a close.
In the intervening years, the campus has changed little but its programs and offerings continue to follow the needs of the community. Whether providing health classes, child care, or services for hurricane victims (as it did in the aftermath of Irene in 2011), the JCC continues to stand as a monument to community spirit, cooperation, and the fellowship of the Jewish population.
Post a Comment
There were no comments