Sunday Story: L’Chaim! –

If you’ve traveled Monument Avenue near Willow Lawn sometime over the past 63 years, chances are you’ve noticed the brick building housing the Carole and Marcus Weinstein Jewish Community Center. Originally located on Idlewood Avenue, the JCC was opened in 1946 by Jewish Richmonders to establish a gathering place after World War II. Today, it serves as a community center for people of all creeds, nationalities and races. In fact, more than 75% of the membership is non-Jewish.

With offerings including a fitness center, arts and culture events, an award-winning preschool program, after-school care, summer camp, clubs and social activities for seniors, and much more, the JCC has continually expanded its programming to serve the needs of its membership and the community at large. On Sunday, May 22, at 6 p.m., the community is invited to celebrate the JCC’s 75th anniversary with a party on the plaza that will include food, live music and family activities.

“That’s what really I think is so unique about us as a place. It’s like a town square where everybody comes for something different but feels comfortable,” says JCC CEO Orly Lewis. “[Patrons] feel that they’re part of a community. … There’s a saying that one will never really remember what you’ve said, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.”

With more than 8,000 members, the JCC is still growing, though some of that growth slowed during what was one of the center’s most challenging years: 2020. Lewis became CEO in April 2020, with board president Ashley Brooks assuming her role in May 2020. Their first tasks were to navigate how to continue to serve the needs of their members safely during a pandemic.

“We quickly realized after the pandemic that we needed to do everything we can to open our doors again fully and widely because people depended on us,” Lewis says. “They depend on us for child care, they depend on us for wellness, they depend on us for connections, they depend on us for food.” The JCC reopened in mid-June of 2020 with services and programs resuming under safety guidelines.

“I think what the pandemic really showed was that no matter how much you tried to curtail or limit people’s connection, we’re sort of like magnets; we’ve got to be connected to one another,” Lewis says. “People want that, and they come here for that, so for us we’ve been back full speed. … Our membership in January, February and March [2022] has grown significantly more than pre-COVID records.”

A silver lining of the pandemic was the opportunity for introspection. The JCC has been able to devote time to assessing what’s being done well and what needs to be improved. The end goal is to develop a strategic plan to lead the JCC into the future.

“The needs of the community change over time, so to stay relevant, you have to change over time, so you have to do these things to refresh and keep your members and engage new members,” says board member and former president Shelley Gouldin.

Several capital campaigns over the years have led to improvements at both the JCC and its summer camp, Camp Hilbert, located in Goochland. In the mid-1990s, the JCC was outgrowing its space in an aging building. Former board president Ric Arenstein spearheaded JCC 2000, which included the largest fundraising campaign in the center’s history, raising nearly $20 million, and the center began extensive renovations in 2002.

Though the JCC has been fortunate to have dedicated leaders, staff, donors, partners and volunteers who have made it the thriving community hub it is today, at its heart, it’s the families that truly make the center what it is. There are countless multigenerational families who patronize the center, including that of board secretary and former president Lynn Schwartz, who grew up at the center and sent her own children to the preschool, which her grandson will start attending in June. Multiple generations of the November family have served as board presidents, beginning with Israel November (1948-50); Israel’s son, Neil November (1964-67); Neil’s cousin Richard November (1976-78); and Richard’s daughter, Shelley Gouldin (2016-18).

On May 22, Greg Bishop will be sworn in as the center’s first non-Jewish president. He first became involved with the center in the early 2000s, when his wife, Jodi, who is Jewish, was looking for a place to celebrate the Passover Seder, and his involvement grew from there.

“I would come to events here and get a little dose of the JCC, and each of those doses built up, and I’m like, ‘I like this place,’ ” Bishop says. “[I experienced] how welcoming it is, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great platform to do great work, period.’ ”

The JCC has had a long history, and it’s poised to have a long future. Lewis notes that complacency is not an option — it takes hard work by the leadership and staff to serve the needs of the community.

“I am envisioning [for the future] families and community members coming here for all their needs for their life journey,” Lewis says. “It’s very much what’s happening here, but you can’t take that for granted that it will continue to happen, and I’m hoping for a time when we can reach a larger audience, a larger segment of our community.”

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