When a few members of the Metropolitan Jewish Community Center in Rockville broke away to establish a branch in the District in 1985, they set up headquarters in a town house near Dupont Circle. Today the center needs a larger facility, according to Arna Mickelson, executive director of the D.C. Jewish Community Center.

"We'd like to move back to our old building," she said. "It's a piece of romance, a piece of drama. We're interested in returning to our old home."

The "old home" is the large building at 16th and Q streets NW that served the area's Jewish community from 1926 to 1967, when the center moved to Rockville to be closer to the people it served.

The building has been vacant for two years, since the University of the District of Columbia moved. The city still owns the building, but the center may be able to buy it. "They're interested, and we're interested," Mickelson said. "We've been talking about it . . . . Although nothing is definite, it's certainly possible."

The talk of moving again results from the growing number and needs of Washington's Jewish community.

Martha Schwartz, the community center's program assistant, said that as the District's Jewish population has grown, to about 25,000, so has the need for a place where the people could foster their Jewish identity.

"A {Jewish} community center is different from a synagogue," Schwartz said. "There's a sense that to be involved in a synagogue you're getting involved in the religious aspect." However, as there are many different kinds of Judaism, joining a synagogue means choosing to follow a particular doctrine.

"When you join a center, it makes no difference what kind of Jew you are, or whether you're religious at all. We're here for everybody," Schwartz said.

Mickelson agreed, "We're here to make it possible to live a Jewish life style in the District." She said the doors are open to non-Jews as well.

"Our membership is growing because we're considered a happening place," Schwartz said. The center has a formal recreation program with sports activities for all ages, adult services, and a cultural arts division that brings special programs of Jewish interest to the D.C. area. It also has a Judaic studies department, offering classes and a library of Jewish books.

Mickelson said that because most of the center's members are young professional singles, the center tries to provide a social environment and activities through which they can meet and mingle.

The staff at the community center tries to cater to all members, offering child care, sports for all ages, quilt making and outings for the senior members, and programs for its handicapped members.

The center also has community action programs through which it hosts political forums or does community work. On Christmas, a group of community center members relieved volunteer staff at several local shelters for the homeless.

Although the center offers many programs and activities, it could not serve its more than 9,000 members without the members who work as volunteers.

"Behind all our efforts is a staff of dedicated volunteers," said program director Richard Posner. "Getting people to volunteer is a way of getting them to invest in the agency . . . not financially, but investing themselves, their time."

Posner said working with the organization at this stage gives them the feeling of building something up.

The center will celebrate its third anniversary as an independent organization this spring. It operates on proceeds from its programs, and funds from the United Jewish Appeal Federations, the business community and its members, according to board Chairman John Risher. "We have expanded by leaps and bounds," Risher said. "Our budget has grown from about $200,000 to about $700,000."

Now the center is focusing on expanding beyond its town house. "We hope to get a new building within the next three years or so," Risher said.

Managers at the community center agree that they need a new building to accommodate their growing membership. As it stands, the center's building at 20th and P streets NW serves primarily as a facility for conducting business. "It's hard to accommodate our large membership in this small building," Posner said.

One member said the community center's town house creates a "warm, home-like" environment. The members who attend the classes held there, she said, share a certain "closeness . . . . We have to . . . squeeze past each other through the doorways."