The Jewish Community Center is more than a physical space.
Since its inception in 1915, the JCC has been the focal point of the city’s Jewish community. Not surprisingly, then, a Dec. 5 celebration of the center’s 100th anniversary drew hundreds of people.
Margie Adelmann, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg—the umbrella organization that supports the JCC—calls the JCC the “central unifying organization, where people come together, where all are welcome for cultural, fitness and educational opportunities and to learn more about Jewish life and traditions—regardless of how they practice Judaism.”
“No matter which synagogue a family was affiliated with, Harrisburg Jewry joined together at the JCC,” noted Marian E. Frankston, co-chair with Marcia Cohen of the celebration.
Throughout its history, the JCC’s programming has been “extensive and eclectic,” including pottery, photography, dramatics, gala dances, bowling, basketball, gymnastics, swimming and handball. Adult classes have ranged from philosophy to politics.
“When I was a youngster, my brothers, sisters and I were at the JCC six days a week,” Frankston recalled. “We attended the Yeshiva Academy, now Silver Academy. One of the most popular activities was ‘iddy biddy’ basketball. There was a program called ‘Sunday Funday’—for children with teen counselors—and an active teen lounge for meetings, dances and games.”
A Jewish community existed in Harrisburg before 1915, boasting several communal organizations and businesses and three synagogues.
However, it lacked a central building. Community leader Louis Brenner formed the local Young Men’s Hebrew Association, which provided Jews with recreational, educational, social and cultural activities, and Leon Lowengard became its first president.
In 1921, these community leaders purchased a large private house on N. 3rd Street. That building, now the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center, remained the JCC venue until 1958, when the current structure was built Uptown. In 1995, the federation launched a campaign to renovate and expand it.
Over time, services and programs were added, including the Community Review, a bimonthly publication “reflecting a true cross-section of Jewish life”; the Early Learning Center; the day camp, now at Green Hills Swim Club; and the Yeshiva Academy.
During the turbulent times of the Holocaust and World War II, Rabbi David L. Silver, spiritual leader of Kesher Israel Congregation, established the Yeshiva, a Jewish day school, in the JCC. Harrisburg became the first American city with a population of fewer than 5,000 Jews to have a school teaching both Judaic and secular studies.
“Rabbi Silver was a special man,” said Merv Woolf.
Woolf, born and raised in Harrisburg, started using the JCC at an early age.
“I went to Hebrew School and to the gym,” he recalled. “I was on the basketball and swim teams. It was a place to go when my mother took ill when I was 7. I’d walk there and spend the whole evening.”
Later, Woolf got involved in theater, including an elaborate production of the musical “Pal Joey.” He also recalled the JCC’s New Year’s Eve gatherings.
Over the years, Woolf and his wife DeDe have served on “every committee.” He was on the board of the Yeshiva Academy and the building committee that oversaw the 1996 renovations.
In addition to historic events, the community was besieged by natural disasters, including the massive flooding of the 1972 Tropical Storm Agnes and by Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.
In 2004, the community mourned the passing of Albert Hursh, who had worked at the JCC and the United Jewish Community (the predecessor to the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg) for more than 70 years, serving as executive director of both.
Hursh was a “dominant leader who will long be remembered,” said Morton Spector, who was born in Williamsport but moved with his family to Harrisburg in 1948.
Shortly after his father’s heart attack in 1956, Spector was asked to get more involved in the community.
He chaired the annual campaign and was president of the JCC and later, a board member and chair of the United Jewish Community. The JCC’s Freda and Harry Spector Room is named for his parents.
“The center was always the melting pot, able to maintain visibility for both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities,” he said. “All the organizations, such as Hadassah, Anti-Defamation League and Israel Bonds used it as a home base. It was for Jews of all religious denominations.”
For Spector, the heart of the JCC is the Yeshiva, of which he was a president.
“It brought kids and their parents into the building,” he said. “The Yeshiva and its mission embody the JCC.”
Alyce Spector, married to Morton for 65 years, grew up in Paxtang and took two buses to N. 3rd Street to Hebrew School at the JCC five days a week. She remembers basketball games, fraternity and sorority meetings and Broadway shows at the JCC.
Always active, Spector was president of Young Judaea, a Zionist youth movement, a Hadassah member, and president of the PTA at Yeshiva and of Israel Bonds, among other positions. She founded a program promoting tolerance and diversity in public schools through the federation.
She has vivid memories of collecting money to settle immigrants in Israel. During the Six-Day War in 1967, “an emergency campaign raised the highest per capita contributions of any community in the country,” she said.
Lillian Rappaport heads the Hebrew High for public school students and the federation’s Holocaust education programs. The latter include the annual “March of the Living” to Poland and Israel for teens and the “Reading of the Names” of Holocaust victims. The community also built a Holocaust Memorial in Riverfront Park.
A Harrisburg native who returned after years in New York, Rappaport loved growing up in a small, close-knit community.
One “profound memory” was the center. She took art, bowling and trampoline classes and attended the Yeshiva and after-school program.
“After doing my homework, I went to the JCC,” Rappaport said. “It had everything, but the activities were secondary. Everyone was there.”
The younger generation is represented by Emily Doctrow Freeburn.
“My parents and I were born in the city, and three-quarters of my grandparents were raised here,” she said. “Many of my aunts, uncles and cousins also chose to raise their families in Harrisburg.”
Freeburn considers herself “lucky” to have grown up in a tight-knit community where many people feel like family and the JCC feels “like home.”
She participates in the young adult leadership cohort, which helps train leaders, and serves on the board of the Silver Academy.
“I feel like I spent my entire childhood at the JCC, between attending the ELC [Early Learning Center] and the Yeshiva Academy to after-school activities like swim team and basketball, to community/family activities such as the Purim Carnival,” Freeburn said. “I would also go to the JCC to watch my dad play basketball or to hang out while my parents were in meetings.”
As an adult, she uses the gym, and her husband has participated in sports leagues. The couple is expecting a first child this month and is looking forward to raising a family at the JCC.
“Because we all felt welcome at the JCC, we experienced a real sense of unity,” concluded Frankston. “We were a community who joined together in joy and in sorrow.”
The Harrisburg Jewish Community Center is located at 3301 N. Front St., Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-236-9555 or visit www.jewishharrisburg.org.