- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It’s hard to imagine that the big building at 1529 16th Street NW was boarded up once, and not all that long ago. Unimaginable because now, as the home of the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center — approaching the 10th anniversary of its renovated building on Jan. 12 and in the midst of an anniversary celebration that began in September — it seems always full of life and activity.

Even in a week when the center seemed consumed with its cultural side as it prepared for the 17th annual Washington Jewish Film Festival, it hummed with workaday energy.

Upstairs, children in the preschool program were just waking from a nap. In the gymnasium, staff members played a whoop-and-holler game of dodge ball on the basketball court.

The mix, its officers say, is part of its purpose.

“This is a place where the various activities connect with each other — where if, say, you’ve come here to join the fitness center, you might end up going to a play, signing up for a discussion group, enrolling your child in the preschool program, becoming a volunteer,” says Margaret Hahn Stern, assistant executive director of the “J,” as it’s called.

Reaching out

The interaction among the many at the J is a kind of evolutionary underpinning. It’s what makes it unique, an urban place that not only serves the Jewish community, itself varied, but is also an integral part of the Dupont Circle neighborhood and a highly visible part of the city itself.

Francine Zorn Trachtenberg, the current president of the center’s very active and supportive board of directors, says that’s a natural result of the center’s openness.

“Everything we do here, from the fitness center to education and all the cultural activities, are open to the general public, to everyone. You don’t have to be Jewish to go to Theater J, or to join the fitness club, or go to a lecture or take a class, or learn about Judaism,” she says.

“So what we’ve created here is a part of the neighborhood, part of the city.”

Arna Meyer Mickelson, the center’s chief executive, who is celebrating her 20th anniversary here, confirms the center’s emphasis on outreach.

“We bring people in,” Ms. Mickelsen says. “The Jewish community, that’s the main thing, of course, but also the community at large. And we reach out. That’s another basic tenet of the center’s life. We reach out to the community, to help the year round with a spirit of volunteerism.”

The high point of that is the J’s 20th annual Dec. 25 Community Service Day, when some 1,000 volunteers gather at the center and spread out across the city from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., on a variety of projects such as preparing meals and serving them for the homeless in some 20 shelters; throwing parties for sick children, visiting seniors in nursing homes, donating blood and distributing gifts.

“This is, of course, a way to reach out for us on a day that means so much,” Mrs. Trachtenberg says, “but it’s also a part of the philosophy and spirit of the center, to be a part of the community at large, and it’s a philosophy that’s practiced the year round.”

A cultural hub

Much of the J’s visibility derives from its cultural programs, clustered within the Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts.

Supported by a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the Cafritz Center’s interests run the gamut from theater to film to literature and music and put the J front and center in the District’s intellectual life.

Its umbrella covers Theater J, the center’s 250-seat, critically acclaimed professional theater, with some 1,400 annual subscribers; the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery and its many art exhibits; the annual Washington Jewish Film Festival, 11 days of Jewish-themed films from around the world whose 2006 schedule just wound up on Monday; the Screening Room, the festival’s year-round repertory arm; the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, held every fall; and the Washington Jewish Music Festival, a spring series exploring Jewish music.

While the content of all these offerings is often specifically Jewish in terms of material, themes, directors and playwrights, the result appeals to a broader audience.

Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J and co-director with Joshua Ford of the Cafritz Center, says that’s the intention.

“I’m reminded a little of New York in the 1930s and 1940s and all the intellectual ferment and activities — the writers, the debates, the creative and artistic Jewish community that existed there. I think we have some of that flavor here,” Mr. Roth says.

“We can do things, address issues, attract major artists like Tony Kushner or Sidney Brustein. I think what we do resonates in the greater community.”

Indeed. Mr. Kushner is the Pulitzer-winning dramatist famed for “Angels in America,” whose “Homebody/Kabul” was a Theater J highlight in 2004. Mr. Brustein is the eminent critic-turned-playwright. His “Spring Forward, Fall Back” had its world premiere at Theater J this season.

Mr. Ford, who is also director of the film festival, takes special pride in its broad appeal beyond the J. The film fest started out with seven films and now shows 40, along with talks and special programs.

“This festival has grown by leaps and bounds,” he says. “I think our festival, and others, have become a venue for movie fans or cineastes who can’t find the small films in theaters anymore.”

At the Bronfman Gallery, the center’s main exhibition space — now showing “The Song of Songs: The Honeybee in the Garden” by artist Debra Band, through Jan. 7 — gallery director Ila Furman, 27, says she feels very much at home with the mix.

“It’s such an opportunity to be truly creative, and to work in partnership with, say, the theater,” says Ms. Furman, who was previously director of the Touchstone Gallery at Seventh and D streets Northwest. “When the cartoonist Jules Feiffer had one of his plays here, we had an exhibition of his work in the gallery.”

From soup to nuts

This cultural pot keeps boiling even as the other activities that make the J a focal point for the whole Washington Jewish community — the workout center, the parenting groups, the preschool, the programs for infants and toddlers, the library with its collections of videos and books on Jewish heritage, genealogy, the Holocaust, Israel and Jewish humor; the Center for Jewish Living, the public service groups — swirl around it.

The J’s Fitness Center (formally the Henry S. Reich Health and Fitness Center), for instance, is one of its most used areas. With an indoor pool, a weight area, a gymnasium, a group exercise studio and two racquetball and squash courts, it has some 1,800 members, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

How do people concerned with the center’s arts enterprise manage to keep a disciplined focus, given the building’s bubble and bounce?

“Initially, we were a little concerned that it might be difficult for the artists — directors, performers, lecturers, the people who do their creative work here — to be surrounded by so much activity, that it would be distracting,” Ms. Mickelson says. “But that has not been the case. The opposite is true.”

Mr. Roth agrees. “When we have visiting artists, actors, writers, playwrights, they become wrapped up in what goes on here. I think they draw sustenance from the activity; it’s not separate and apart from the work,” he says.

Building a community

Some history is in order, a history of Jewish life and culture in Washington, which led to the rebuilding and renovation of the center into its present incarnation at the 16th Street site.

Back in the 1920s, a group of prominent Jewish visionaries led by Morris Cafritz and Joseph Wilner — names you’ll find all over the current center — raised money through the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and other groups to build a Jewish center in what they saw as the heart of Washington.

These men were a part of a vibrant Washington Jewish community, with roots in Eastern Europe, Germany and Russia. The center, then as now at 16th and Q Northwest and designed by B. Stanley Simmons, opened on a cool February day in 1925, dedicated in a ceremony by President Calvin Coolidge, who called it a “civic and social landmark.”

That center became the heart of the life of the Washington Jewish community. But in the 1960s, many Washington Jews began to move to the suburbs, a trend that climaxed to a rush after the 1968 riots in Washington. In 1969 the center was closed, and the five-story, 60,000-square-foot building — whose lobby boasted marble floors, marble columns and faux-mahogany ceiling beams — was sold to the D.C. government for $1 million.

The center, meanwhile, moved to Rockville as the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. Today it still serves the Maryland Jewish community.

In the meantime, a new generation began to grow in the District, and in 1979 two of its prominent members, Harry and Esther Plotkin, and their friends, began to make plans for a new center. In 1985 they formed an independent D.C. Jewish Community Center with offices in townhouses around the Dupont Circle area.

The board of directors began to raise funds to try to purchase the old center, now boarded up. Eventually, the building was bought back from the city (for $2.3 million) and a capital campaign was begun to completely renovate the building.

While almost all of the interior was demolished, the new center retains the solid architectural integrity of the old structure. The marble and faux mahogany of its magnificent 16th Street lobby were restored, connecting the center to its past.

The eventual cost of the renovation was $17 million. The new institution opened officially on Jan. 12, 1997.

At home

Today the Washington DCJCC calls itself a “center in the city,” a place for Jews and non-Jews to meet for everything from theater to ab crunches. Its officers estimate it serves 500,000 people a year.

Mr. Roth, a professional playwright, some of whose plays have been produced here, sometimes marvels at the center’s familylike, total-participation atmosphere and how it fuels creativity.

“My family and I use the facilities here, and Theater J has created avenues for discussion through the Peace Cafe, for instance,” he says.

Founded by Mr. Roth and other Theater J members, the Peace Cafe is a program that sponsors events bringing together Arabs, Jews and others concerned for a resolution to conflict in the Middle East.

Mr. Ford, who says the film festival almost envelops his life — organizing it, getting the films, bringing artists and directors to Washington — sees a dynamism at the center that allows him, at 34, to experiment with innovation.

“I was very lucky,” he says. “The people at the center here encourage younger people, and hire people to give them a chance to spread their creative wings.”

There’s a kind of cross-pollination at work here — among various components of the center, but also with the Jewish community at large, and with the greater society of the city and the cultural world outside.

“We’ve watched what’s happened around us,” Mrs. Trachtenberg says, referring to the recent surge of development and renovation, especially around 14th and P streets Northwest.

“I think we can say that in terms of the growth of the community, the activity and what’s happened around 14th Street and P Street, we were to some extent pioneers. People were coming to the center in numbers from all over the city when none of this was happening.

“That makes us a vital, focal point of the community,” she says.

Anniversary celebration

Since September, the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center at 1529 16th St. NW has been celebrating the 10th anniversary of its reopening, and it will mark the event through July.

But the centerpiece of these festivities comes on Jan. 12 — 10 years to the day since the Irving P. Edlavitch Building was officially opened — when a special luncheon will honor the people who made the renovation possible and will salute Chief Executive Arna Meyer Mickelson, now 20 years at the helm and considered the driving force behind the building’s redevelopment.

For complete information on the anniversary celebrations or the center’s programs, call the center at 202/518-9400 or see www.washingtondcjcc.org.

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