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Jewish center turns 30, celebrates success

Lav Aneja of Dedham carries his son Neil, 3, at JCC Grossman Camp in Westwood.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Lav Aneja of Dedham carries his son Neil, 3, at JCC Grossman Camp in Westwood.

As the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston celebrates the 30th anniversary of its Newton campus this year, it approaches another milestone: the fifth anniversary of the controversial closing of the Striar JCC in Stoughton.

But while the JCC no longer has its own building in the southern suburbs, the organization says it’s serving more residents there than had the Striar in its last year.

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The Striar had been losing money, which officials blamed on a shift of the Jewish community toward the southwest and increased competition from fitness centers. The building was purchased by the Old Colony YMCA in March 2009.

“The JCC felt it could more effectively serve the population by delivering its programming in a more geographically dispersed way,” Lauren Roth, JCC assistant vice president for marketing, said in an e-mail.

Still, the Striar’s closing remains a sore point in Stoughton. Many if not most of the JCC clientele transferred membership to the Y. In interviews, they praised the Old Colony Y for its facilities and community outreach, but some lamented the loss of a dedicated facility that could host a variety of activities.

“I miss the whole center the way it was,” said Mark I. Snyder of Stoughton, who was among the leaders of the battle to save the Striar. Snyder said the JCC had failed to fulfill its commitment to provide the same programming as before. “Are they doing everything they promised – making it a JCC without walls? No, they are not,” he said.

In her e-mail, Roth said the JCC “has maintained or increased its programming in almost every aspect of our business” in the south suburbs. “The only business that we exited was health and fitness.”

Last year, the JCC served nearly 4,000 individuals in the south suburbs through 85 programs at 41 sites, Roth said, adding that by comparison the Striar JCC served 3,000 Jewish participants in its last year.

The JCC’s satellite activities take place at synagogues, libraries, and other public spaces. In summer, the JCC runs camps in Westwood, Newton, and, for the sleep-away crowd, Maine. Specialized camps include one for young golfers at Ponkapoag Golf Course in Canton. The JCC uses the Old Colony Y for an aquatics program for people with special needs.

Much of the JCC’s programming in the southern suburbs is geared toward people on opposite ends of the age spectrum: seniors and families with young children.

Congregation Ahavath Torah in Stoughton hosts the JCC’s senior activities in the south suburbs. “Super Tuesdays,” held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekly, feature lectures, live music, book discussions, and a kosher lunch. Except for the summer, two monthly programs are also held at the synagogue: one a social club of Striar JCC alumni and the other, “Sabbath Delight,” a Friday-morning event that often includes a talk by a rabbi.

Harvey S. Levensohn, 69, of Stoughton is the JCC’s South Area senior adult programming coordinator. A retired educator, among other professions, Levensohn said the weekly Tuesday event often draws more than 70 seniors from as far away as Norwood and Quincy. He said he had 350 seniors on his mailing list.

During the school year, the JCC’s early learning centers at Temple Sinai in Sharon and Congregation Sha’aray Shalom Hingham serve ages 15 months to 5 years.

Karen Wald is starting her fourth year coordinating JCC activities for families with children under 5. She is assisted by several young mothers who serve as “hub connectors” for the region.

Wald and her team organize monthly programs, often geared around Jewish holidays, as well as family Shabbat services, outings to fun spots like a zoo or a farm, and “Moms Night Out.” Through the Welcome Baby Program, new mothers receive a visit from other new mothers, along with a basket filled with blankets, toys, and information on Jewish resources; Jewish Children & Family Services cosponsors the service.

Wald said the JCC aims both to promote religious education and to connect young families, especially those who live in towns with small Jewish populations.

Two decades ago, Wald, 54, worked in California, running the film production company for director Sidney Pollack. Today, she manages a budget that’s a fraction the size of the $50 million movies Pollack directed, but she says the organizational skills she honed in Hollywood serve her well.

The Sharon mother of two says that while her JCC work may appear less glamorous, it can be much more gratifying. Instead of looking at box office numbers in the Hollywood Reporter for feedback, Wald gets it instantly – and personally – from mothers and fathers telling her how much fun they had at, say, a holiday program at a berry farm.

During the school year, Wald emcees a weekly drop-in program at Temple Sinai in Sharon for the under-5 set that features storytelling and sing-alongs. Not only do parents accompany the kids, but so do grandparents, aunts, and nannies.

The program is run in conjunction with the PJ Library, which distributes free books and music to Jewish children throughout North America. Sponsored by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the program is operated in the Boston area by the JCC. The JCC says it has signed up 1,500 children from the southern suburbs.

The Sharon drop-in program is just one of many events the JCC sponsors to bring together PJ families. Several times this summer, it holds “PJ Library Goes to the Beach” at the JCC Grossman Camp in Westwood.

The families “can do Jewish in their homes and in their local communities in a way that’s comfortable for them,” said Mark Sokoll, JCC president and CEO. “And it connects them to something bigger.”

Although “centers” plural remains part of the organization’s title, the JCC now owns just one facility, the Leventhal-Sidman campus in the heart of the western suburbs.

Sokoll says that while the building itself generated excitement 30 years ago, today his organization must focus on programming that can compete not just with fitness centers but also Netflix, Facebook, and a host of other alternatives.

“Thirty years ago, there were things Jews do, ways Jews behave,” Sokoll said. “You build a Jewish neighborhood, a Jewish building, this is where the Jews are supposed to come. Well, in 2013, this is what we call the era of pervasive choice, in JCC language.”

For more on JCC South Area programs, e-mail southnewsletter@jccgb.org to sign up for its e-newsletter.

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.
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