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Community hall is essential facility for JCCs, say officials
March 14th, 2003
At meetings on Feb. 13 and 17, the Whitefish Bay Village Board struggled to evaluate various aspects of the proposed plans for remodeling and expansion on the Karl Jewish Community Campus.
The board members appeared to be striving to draw distinctions between parts of the plans involving the educational, cultural and religious programs offered by the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center and those involving the social, recreational and physical fitness programs and options.
With such distinctions in mind, on Feb. 17 the board, meeting as a committee of the whole, excluded plans for an expanded and relocated social/community hall from the draft motion. The MJF proposals call for the hall to be moved into a new addition west of the current JCC building and for the hall to accommodate 400 people, up from 336 in the present community hall.
Some members of the seven-member board said they had reservations about that facility because of the ambiguity of its purposes, as Trustee Raymond Krueger put it including that it could be rented out for bar mitzvahs, weddings and other commercial events that might bring significantly more traffic to the facility.
Village officials and other observers said the hall and other excluded items could be put back into the draft motion at the next meeting on the subject, scheduled for March 17, or before the board takes its final vote.
But the initial exclusion of the social hall was a particularly disappointing development for JCC and MJF officials. JCC executive vice president Jay Roth told The Chronicle (Feb. 21 issue) that no center can survive without a community hall.
Is that feature truly so important? The Chronicle spoke further with Roth, with officials of other JCCs and with a leader of the national JCC movement to find out. All of them said a community hall is in fact a vital part of the educational, cultural and religious aspects of a JCCs mission.
As the Milwaukee JCCs mission statement says, the center provides the total community with a forum for open dialogue regarding matters affecting Jewish life here, in Israel, and throughout the world. It initiates diversified social, educational, recreational and cultural programs within a Jewish setting.
Leonard Rubin, senior vice president for program services at the Jewish Community Center Association of North America, said, Almost every JCC I know of has an auditorium and large gathering place to do a variety of different programs . It is an essential part of a JCC.
One of the missions of a JCC is to be a place of association for the Jewish and general communities, Rubin continued. A community hall is the place in which it happens.
Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the 14,000-member Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, said a community hall is critical to a JCC.
For one, it is a pareve community space for the Jewish community, one in which all streams of the community can feel comfortable accessing, Schreiber said.
David Sorkin, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit, elaborated that Orthodox and Reform Jews might not want to set foot in each others synagogues, but the entire spectrum of the community will come together at a JCC.
Mark Shore, president and CEO of the 7,000-member new Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., emphasized that such a facility can be used for many different purposes.
His JCCs hall has been used as an auditorium for concerts, films and plays; a banquet hall for bar and bat mitzvah celebrations; a dance hall for Israeli folk dancing; and when we do overnight activities for kids, it becomes a dormitory.
Schreiber added that his JCC has used the halls at his JCCs two sites for televised debates between political candidates, which adds to the role of the JCC in promoting community civic values and adds to the visibility of the JCC in the community, in terms of reaching out beyond the walls of the Jewish community.
So important is the function of this kind of space that when the Detroit JCCs two facilities were recently remodeled, in the first phase of a multi-million dollar project, the auditorium/community halls were the cornerstone of the renovations, said Sorkin.
No stage or sightlines
The community hall space the Milwaukee JCC currently has is woefully inadequate to serve all these kinds of purposes and needs to be replaced, according to Roth.
He recalled that the previous JCC on Prospect Ave. had Karger Auditorium, which was bigger than what were proposing, and the Jewish community gathered there. Thats what the center is missing [now].
All were asking for is a decent facility because the current community hall has limitations that over the years have resulted in diminished usage, Roth said. In my opinion, its a crime to bring in a great speaker [to a room in which] there are two pillars blocking views, theres a gymnasium on top so you can hear basketballs bouncing, and theres no stage and no sightlines.
Moreover, Its hard for us to understand what [the village board members] concern is because many of the functions they are discussing are already held at the JCC in difficult space like the gymnasium or the Ritz Theater. In fact, the community hall is part of what was approved in 1985 when the MJF purchased and the JCC moved onto the Karl Campus, he said.
The village for some reason has this image that were going to have an inordinate increase in programs and numbers of people, Roth continued. The reality is thats not going to happen.
That is because, said Roth, the village has placed caps on usage. The JCC currently has some 2,600 membership units, but only 1,231 people can be on the campus at any one time, and only 410 can be in the JCCs building at any one time except for a limited number of 12 special events per year (large-scale events like an Israel Independence Day celebration) and 90 scheduled events (smaller-scale events like lectures, concerts and plays).
As for the revenue-producing use of the hall for weddings or bar mitzvah celebrations, Roth said the JCC will limit these to two per month and will count these toward the total of 90 permitted scheduled events.
But then, the resistance to the project in Whitefish Bay seems to have an exceptional character. Theres always been periods of time when a JCC had a challenge in putting a facility into a community, said Rubin, who has talked with Roth about the situation. But I dont think Ive seen anything like this.Brian Schreiber