A story last week on the Jewish Community Center's building purchase gave an incorrect address of the current downtown center. It is at 1836 Jefferson Pl. NW. (Published 8/16/90)
The name carved in the sandstone frieze above the entrance to the building at 16th and Q streets NW is once again accurate.
Twenty-two years after the District's Jewish Community Center moved to Rockville, abandoning the four-story building bearing its name to accommodate the exodus of its members to the suburbs, the center is coming home.
A group of city stalwarts running a growing community center program out of a town house on P Street has purchased the stately 65-year-old building from the D.C. government and plans to refurbish it into a lively and visible cultural center again.
"It will add a great deal to the community as a whole in addition to its being a very special place for the Jewish community," said Tamara Handelsman, a center board member.
The building was sold to the city in 1968 for $1 million; the purchase price now is $2.5 million, but center leaders say at least $7 million in renovations are needed for the building, which has been vacant for six years.
Center leaders say the P Street facility has been growing rapidly in recent years, mirroring increases in the Jewish population here. A 1983 study by the United Jewish Appeal Federation estimated the number of Jews living in the city at 25,000. Last year, about 15,000 people participated in one or more of the cultural, educational, athletic, social or day-care activities at the P Street center, according to center leaders.
Plans for the new building include a swimming pool, a theater, an art gallery, squash and raquetball courts, and an expanded library, classroom and day-care facilities.
"It should be a showcase for culture," said board member Aviva Kempner, a D.C. filmmaker. "I want this to be just like the 92nd Street Y in New York."
The building at 16th and Q has a rich history, which explains the strong ties to the site.
"That splendid edifice gave a sense of prestige and unification," said Lawrence Gichner, an art appraiser whose uncle, Sam Gichner, was the center's first treasurer.
The effort to build the original center began in 1921, when Jewish community leaders sought to combine the activities of separate men's and women's youth groups under one roof. Fund-raising efforts were organized by developer Morris Cafritz. And in 1925, the new building was dedicated in a ceremony led by President Coolidge, who called it the Jewish community's "monument to the achievements of the past and a help in the expansion of these achievements into a wider field of usefulness."
Mort Wilner, a D.C. lawyer whose parents attended the ceremony, still remembers the first meeting to raise money for the building. He played in the opening baseball game and served on the board of directors for 25 years.
"During World War I, people at the center took care of young Jewish soldiers and sailors with entertainment and classes for those who were far from home," Wilner said. "Before World War I, Jews were divided over when you came over and whether you were Reform, Orthodox or Conservative. The center brought them all together socially and moved the differences away."
Silver Spring residents Morris Cohen, a dentist, and his wife, Dottie, remember how the center functioned as a meeting place.
"They had Sunday afternoon tea dances," Dottie Cohen said. "When I was about 14, I was first able to go. It was the most wonderful introduction to a social life. Everyone was very open and friendly. It was a melting pot that served an enormous community need for our immigrant parents who didn't know American ways yet."
In 1939, Eugene and Agnes Meyer, then owners of The Washington Post, donated an additional wing, which housed a library, recreation center, health club and handball courts. The center continued to be an active hub for theater, classes, sports and weekly rooftop dances for more than 40 years until it was moved in 1968 to the new complex on Montrose Road in Rockville.
"There was elation at the center opening in Rockville," said the center's first vice president, Lee Rubenstein. "But for people, like myself, who lived in Washington, it was a loss . . . . Things were going on in Rockville, but it wasn't 16th and Q."
A few members who continued to live in the District got together in 1979 and formed a new membership group led by lawyer Harry Plotkin and his wife, Esther, who now live in Bethesda. The group incorporated in 1985 and soon began discussions with the city about purchasing the old building.
It had, over the years, been used by various tenants, including, briefly, the University of the District of Columbia for classrooms. In 1984, the worn facility was vacated and never reopened.
"It's very important to be returning to a location that's given a lot of history to the Jewish community. Every day we meet people who met their spouse there, or whose parents met there," said center president Stephen Altman, a lawyer with the Justice Department. "It confirms the decision made . . . years ago that we should have a center near the White House, on one of the major thoroughfares of the city."