Hundreds of people are expected next weekend at a series of events to mark the 100th anniversary of the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore. They will arrive from at least 12 states, and nearly all say they are coming because they consider the JCC a second home.
“It gave more to us than whatever we could ever give back to it,” said Jack Stahl, who is 81 and has been coming to the JCC nearly every day of his life.
Since 1972, the JCC has stood on a pristine 11 acres on one of the highest hills in Marblehead, with sweeping views of the Atlantic. Stand around for a moment and chances are you'll hear children playing or a ball bouncing. With its impressive fitness facilities — ranging from a gym and weight rooms to exterior and interior pools — the place appears idyllic for someone looking to work off some stress, or just schmooze.
But it wasn't always so easy for members.
The JCC's history mirrors the path many Jewish families have taken on the North Shore over the last century. The majority were poor and came from Eastern European countries. Most spoke only Yiddish and headed to Lynn, which became a hub for newly arrived Jews. And many congregated in the Brickyard — a downtown neighborhood that was later bulldozed during urban renewal. Over time, Jews set up businesses, sent their children to college, and by the 1950s had begun to move to the nearby towns of Swampscott and Marblehead.
“The JCC took kids off the street and helped build character,” said Stahl, who is representative of the thousands of Depression-era children the facility served in its first several decades, after it was founded in Lynn 100 years ago. Started as a men's club for Lynn-area businessmen, it quickly changed focus and became a place where Eastern European Jews could come with their families to learn English, and make connections and find work.
The center, which was in downtown Lynn for 61 years, also made children's programming its priority — providing a safe haven for kids, with a schedule that was chock full of athletic events, clubs, record hops, and summer camp days.
During its time in Lynn, it had five downtown locations and steadily grew to become one of the largest secular Jewish organizations in New England. In addition to its children's programming, Jewish luminaries visited the Lynn JCC in its early years, helping to raise the institution's profile. Visitors included Albert Einstein, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, and Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president.
Even as it branched out, with its members helping to create Amesbury's Camp Bauercrest, the Jewish Federation of the North Shore, and the area's former Jewish Social Service Agency, lifetime members say the atmosphere and role models they met at the JCC changed their lives.
“Nobody cared if people had money or not. Everybody was equal,” said Ken Sorkin, who is helping to organize the reunion, which includes events at the JCC Marblehead campus and a Chinese restaurant in Saugus.
Sorkin spent much of his youth in the 1940s and '50s at the Lynn JCC, which was known for its basement bowling alleys, and its nationally ranked basketball and volleyball teams. He went on to lead the JCC's Camp Simchah in Middleton and says nearly all of his friends were made at the center.
By 1958, Lynn's Jews began to create suburban enclaves and the JCC followed the changing demographics, purchasing the current Marblehead site. Its first priority was to build a pool for its camp, and instead of hiring construction crews to clear the land of rocks, it relied on a group of eager volunteer teens like Danny Singer.
“We wanted to help,” said Singer, who now lives in Arizona and plans to attend the reunion. He said the biggest lesson he learned at the JCC was to attend college and to respect one's family. “The worst sin you could bring on was to do damage to your family name. That was driven home at the JCC on a regular basis.”
In 1972, the Market Street building was taken by eminent domain during urban renewal, and the Marblehead JCC opened. For most of the next four decades, the JCC continued to grow. In 1978, it became the first JCC in the country to open an infant-toddler day care program for children.
“We saw a change in society, a change in attitude in women,” said Bea Paul, who cofounded the program and worked at the JCC for 26 years. “Part of it was that women were educated and getting educated, and staying home was not fulfilling enough. And part of it was a financial need to maintain a certain lifestyle.”
In 2009, the JCC went from a solvent institution to nearly bankrupt in a matter of months. During a four-month period that year, it lost 20 percent of its membership after a new YMCA opened less than 2 miles away in Marblehead. In 2010, it sold its wooded campground in Middleton for $3.65 million — a move that paid off its creditors and allowed it to create a new business plan. While the JCC has had trouble finding a permanent leader — it has had four executive directors since 2009 — its membership has steadily grown in the last three years, and the organization is on track to make money next year, said Maria Samiljan, who serves on the JCC's board of directors.
Part of the business plan called for remaking the facility into a wellness center and focusing on its core businesses, early-childhood education, camping, and fitness. It streamlined its payroll, and hired Medifit, a private company, to manage it fitness, aquatics, recreational, and membership programs.
Samiljan, who attended preschool on Market Street and sent her children to preschool at the Marblehead building, credits her upbringing at the JCC as the reason she volunteers almost full-time at the facility. “It was an incredible place for my children to grow up in, and I'm hoping it's going to be a great place for my grandchildren to be someday,” she said.
For more information on the JCC reunion, contact Joan Lawrence at 781-631-8330, extension 129, or e-mail email@example.com.