The Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last week, is like a circus with many center rings. It is a circus that draws 60,000 participants a month and operates on a budget of more than $3 million a year.
The center on Montrose Road in Rockville, where it moved in 1969 from 16th and Q streets NW in the District, is home to a variety of classes, performances and exhibits of dance, plays, music and art and a complex of playing courts, pools and other recreational facilities.
The center draws 39 percent of its income from activity fees, 23 percent from dues, 16 percent from the United Jewish Appeal and the rest from fund-raising, endowments and grants, sales and the United Way campaign.
The executive director, Robert Weiner, said the center's "basic role is to help ensure the survival of the Jewish people on the American scene" by keeping alive traditions, customs and history.
Israeli fairs, festivals and folk dances are held annually, as is a book fair that the center says features the largest selection of books of special interest to Jewish people available at one place in the Washington area.
Spokeswoman Deana Morrison said the center's extensive recreational facilities are the major draw. They include an indoor pool, a weight room, exercise room with universal gym, three handball courts, a squash court and a full-size gym. There are locker rooms, saunas and whirlpools. Construction is under way on an outdoor pool and four more game courts.
Annual fees range from $250 for a family membership (plus a one-time $125 building fund contribution) to youth memberships at $100. Older members pay $25 to $75, depending on income. Morrison said no one is turned away because of money.
Non-Jews may join, a spokeswoman said, but most of the 13,000 members are Jewish. Membership is required for those who want to use the physical fitness and recreational facilities and for participation in selected children's programs, including day care and kindergarten.
Other classes, open to nonmembers, include more than 250 courses, ranging from Yiddish and Hebrew, ceramics and drawing, to preschool sessions for toddlers and parents, dancing and swimming. There also is a cardiac rehabilitation program, geared to persons with cardiac problems or hypertension.
A 70-member symphony gives concerts October through May.
Exhibits of Judaic art change monthly in the art gallery. Workshops in such Judaic traditions as weaving ritual garments and treating ceramic ritual items are often scheduled.
Four resident dance companies are part of the dance school. They include Deaf Dimensions, a group that performs for the hearing-impaired with a combination of dance and signing; the Center Dance Ensemble, which combines modern dance and ballet; and two Israeli folk troupes, Kinor for adults and Kallil for teen-agers.
Events for the handicapped are planned so that persons with similar abilities can attend the same events. Camp Yohad, a part of the summer program, is for handicapped children up to age 16. Where possible, the children participate in other camp activities and there are small groups to meet specific needs.
The center shares 21 acres with Revitz House, an apartment building for senior citizens; a nursing home; the Jewish Social Services Agency; and the Jewish Council for the Aging. All are independent agencies.
Thursdays at the center are dominated by a schedule for older participants. Activities include classes in Hebrew and Yiddish, discussions with state and local officials, dancing, bridge and trips to area attractions.
For $1 the seniors, numbering about 250 each week, get a hot kosher meal served up in a setting much like that of a giant family reunion. Six satellite centers for older persons now operate in Maryland, two in the District and two in Virginia.
Last summer, for the first time in the center's history, financial problems forced center employes to take nine-day forced vacations. That won't happen again this year, Morrison said.
What happened then was the result of "a shortfall in anticipated funding," she said. The shortfall, which occurred when $10,000 of a contribution was not sent by United Jewish Appeal, prompted the center's first membership drive. During a four-month campaign, 1,578 new members joined.
Robert Weiner, director for 25 years, will retire June 30. He said the precursor of the center, the Young Men's Hebrew Association, started in 1911, was not like others of its kind begun in other American cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In heavily industrialized American cities, such centers were often settlement houses helping Jewish immigrants, especially those from Eastern Europe, adjust to life in America.
The founding members of the Washington organization were interested in preserving their heritage and in bringing together young Jewish men who came to Washington to work for the federal government, founding member Edward Rosenblum wrote in a history of the early years.
For years, the young men met at various locations before opening the center at 16th and Q streets NW in 1926.
By the late 1950s, 300 were using the health club daily. Washington's Jewish population was rapidly growing, but many members were moving to the suburbs. Following the demographic trends of Jewish families moving from the District to the Maryland suburbs, the directors decided to move out. Most of the center's members now live in Maryland.