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Turning 30, JCC expands its mission

Day-camper Tal Berreby, 6, chooses hula hoops as her after-lunch activity at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center (below).

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Day-camper Tal Berreby, 6, chooses hula hoops as her after-lunch activity at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center.

In 1983, the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center opened in Newton with a membership roll of 7,500 families and a dedication ceremony featuring speeches by broadcaster Ted Koppel and a who’s who of Boston area Jews.

This year, as the center prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary, it faces the challenges of a very different religious, cultural, and recreational landscape.

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While the Newton campus — with its indoor and outdoor pools; gymnasium and fitness center; music and dance studios; and auditorium for arts and cultural events — is busier than ever, JCC officials acknowledge that it takes more than bricks and mortar to build a client base.

“Thirty years ago, there were things Jews do, ways Jews behave,” said Mark Sokoll, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, the umbrella group that runs the Newton campus as well as preschools and summer camps. “You build a Jewish building, this is where the Jews are supposed to come.”

Many of the original members had been part of the mid-century exodus from once-heavily Jewish areas of Roxbury and Dorchester into Boston’s suburbs. The founders of the center in Newton wanted it to have “all the characteristics of a warm and loving Jewish neighborhood: friendships, sense of community, fulfilling activities,” said Sokoll, who has been at the JCC since 1988, the last 12 years as its CEO.

“Jewish identity is now no longer simply inherited,” said Sokoll. “This is what we call ‘the era of pervasive choice’ in JCC language.”

While the umbrella organization is called the Jewish Community Centers, there is actually only one center left. Four years ago, citing shifting demographics and competition from fitness clubs, the JCC closed its Striar Center in Stoughton (now the Old Colony YMCA, it has retained many Striar members). And this year, the JCC closed the Clearbrook Swim Club in Framingham, blaming declining membership and the need for costly renovations.

The Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead is a separate operation.

“Whereas the goal in 1983 was how can we acquire as many members as we can for the JCC, the goal today is how can we create programming and opportunities that are relevant and important for as many people as possible in Greater Boston,” said Sokoll.

While health and fitness remain a top priority, the JCC is putting greater emphasis on the J. Contrast that with the Young Men’s Christian Association, which deemphasizes the M and the C and now markets itself as simply the Y.

Based on surveys and focus groups, the JCC has found a hunger among Jews to connect with their religion, but on their own terms. “People are choosing us because they have a strong need they are seeking to meet in their lives,” Sokoll said. “It’s more of a thoughtful process because there are more choices, because the world is more open.”

Indeed, among the JCC’s members are many interfaith families and people who are not Jewish.

Sokoll emphasized that the JCC does not push any particular brand of Judaism on participants. He said, “We want them to be part of a community that does not judge, but a community that welcomes and says, ‘How do we help you on the Jewish path that you choose?’ ”

While many JCCs across the country are struggling, Boston’s has managed to remain in the black. In the works is a major capital campaign to finance renovations to the Newton building and revamped programming. Sokoll declined to disclose the fund-raising campaign’s goal or specifics on how the money would be spent. He said details would be announced in October, when the JCC marks its anniversary with a full day of festivities.

The event’s theme will be “Celebrating our past; reimagining our future.” But that reimagining has actually been underway for some time, as the JCC has spread throughout Greater Boston, from playground meet-ups in Arlington to kayaking on the Charles.

During the school year, the JCC runs five early-learning centers, for ages 6 months to 5 years, in Brighton, Hingham, Newton (at the Leventhal-Sidman campus), Sharon, and Wayland.

In the summer, the JCC operates day camps in Newton and Grossman Camp in Westwood, as well as the overnight Maccabi Camp Kingswood in Maine. Besides athletic and craft activities, it also offers special programs ranging from science and drama to kibbutz life and circus skills. All of the camps incorporate Jewish culture, traditions, and values.

Brookline siblings Maisie and Gabe Kramer have come to view the JCC as “the happy place” thanks to spending many summers at its camps, said their mother, Beth. Last month, Gabe, 9, attended the Kaleidoscope Creative Arts & Science Camp at the Newton campus, while Maisie, 12, went to Camp Kingswood. “What I’m so grateful for is that my kids are included with typical peers,” said Kramer, whose children have mild special needs. About 10 percent of the JCC’s 2,000 campers have special needs.

Key to expanding the JCC’s reach have been partnerships with synagogues and other Jewish organizations. It has provided Jewish books and music free to some 9,000 children over the last five years through a collaboration with the PJ Library. Funded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in West Springfield, the PJ Library serves families throughout North America and Israel.

Last year, the JCC sponsored some 100 events to bring together PJ families, such as Noah’s Ark Day at Lil’ Folk Farm in Holliston and PJ Library Goes to the Beach at Grossman Camp.

To engage more adults, the JCC last year launched a provocative discussion series, “Hot Buttons, Cool Conversations.’’

“The innovation in it is the word conversation, not debate, not lecture,” said founder and moderator Leonard Fein, a longtime fixture on the Jewish political and intellectual scene. The series got off to a roaring start with then-US representative Barney Frank packing the JCC’s auditorium for a program entitled “Truth, Lies and Politics.”

Fein and Sokoll hope to interest JCCs across the country in starting Hot Buttons programs. They would also like to raise its Internet presence, possibly streaming the series to a worldwide audience (you can see clips on YouTube).

In a pioneering partnership this fall, the JCC will host a Hebrew school that is the joint creation of three Conservative synagogues: Congregation Mishkan Tefila and Temple Reyim, both of Newton, and Temple Emeth in Brookline. While it’s too early to say what role the JCC will play, Sokoll said, his staff will be offering advice and giving the school the run of the facilities — from the art and music studios to the zip line in the gym.

Such a relationship between the JCC and synagogues would likely have been unimaginable when the Newton building was on the drawing boards.

Fearing competition, a group of synagogues threatened to urge congregants not to donate to the JCC, according to Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Greater Boston’s Jewish federation. But Shrage said that by the time he took the organization’s helm in 1987, the JCC and the synagogues were working together.

From a financial standpoint, Combined Jewish Philanthropies is the JCC’s biggest partner. In the fiscal year that just ended, it contributed some $1.9 million to the JCC’s $22 million budget.

The organization actually owned the 23-acre Leventhal-Sidman campus until May, when the JCC received the deed in what essentially was a cash-free transaction.

Shrage and Sokoll describe the transfer as a win-win. Shrage’s group won’t have to worry about, say, building maintenance, and the JCC has control of its own destiny.

“We now independently make all the decisions about what investments get made in the building,” Sokoll said.

After its recent merger with the much smaller Jewish Federation of the North Shore, Combined Jewish Philanthropies has become associated with the JCC of the North Shore. Several years ago, the Marblehead center was saved from shutting its doors by a last-minute financial rescue.

Would Combined Jewish Philanthropies push for a merger of the two JCCs?

Said Shrage: “If either or both sides need a matchmaker, we’d be happy to play matchmaker, but it’s best to let these things develop at their own speed.”

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

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