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The Boston Globe: “Jewish center expands it community reach”

It was almost three weeks before anyone answered the advertisement that Sharon High School athletic director Bob Sondheim placed in the Sharon Advocate. He was looking for a volunteer – preferably someone with some fitness training – to supervise the school’s weight room, a former two-car garage at the back of the gymnasium, with a concrete floor, unpainted walls, and exercise equipment from the 1960s.

“The weight room had very old, rusty machines,” Sondheim said. “You can underline the word `rusty’.”

Sondheim finally got a call – from Joyce Dwyer, the director of the Striar Jewish Community Center in Stoughton. Dwyer said the JCC’s fitness director would be able to provide training to students at the high school two to three days a week at no cost to the school. He would not, however, be doing so as a volunteer – but as a paid JCC staff member.

The JCC also offered to donate a few of its exercise machines, as well as white paint for the walls and special flooring. In came a spinning bike, a machine for pull-ups, a bench press, a squat rack, and other equipment.

Reaching out to a public school, and to the community at large, is not new for the Striar JCC. In fact, it’s one of the organization’s missions, although many local residents don’t realize that.

One does not have to be Jewish to become a JCC member; the Striar facility does not even collect data on what percent of its members adhere to the Jewish faith.

“We’re open to everyone: same-sex couple families, grandparents raising grandchildren, interfaith families,” said Mark Sokoll, president of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston.

Jewish Community Centers are nonprofits that are funded in part through contributions from Jewish organizations such as Combined Jewish Philanthropies. There are more than 350 JCCs and related organizations in the United States and Canada, according to the JCC Association of North America.

Sokoll said one way to serve the community is to “run high-quality, unique programs at the JCC, the types of programs that people will travel for.”

The cost of memberships varies depending on the type of household, but once members make it inside the JCC, they can take advantage of several unusual programs. In January, for example, the JCC added a new children’s class called “Simply Circus” – giving elementary school-age youngsters an opportunity to learn to walk on a tightrope and juggle. “They don’t offer it anywhere else in the area,” said Melody Howard Ritt, JCC communications director.

The Striar facility serves about 2,200 households from the area south of Boston, according to Ritt. The Striar JCC has added 10 staff members since last year, increasing the number of people who work for the center by a third. Its campus offers an indoor and outdoor pool, indoor track, basketball court, and a gymnasium with rows of treadmills and other new equipment. There is also a preschool, an art gallery, and various programs for children, adults, and seniors.

“We want to reach out and build connections to the community; we want to bring the benefits of the JCC to the broader community,” Ritt said.

The Striar center’s connection to the region is already strong – as was evident a year ago. On March 6, 2006, vandals painted several large swastikas on the side of the center. The community was outraged. More than 100 people of many religions turned out immediately to help erase the Nazi symbols. The event evolved into a show of interfaith solidarity that overshadowed the hate crime.

Indeed, the center’s reach is increasingly broad, and its policies reflect that.

Last fall, the Striar, along with other Jewish Community Centers around Boston, decided to open their health and fitness rooms during the hours traditionally reserved for prayer in observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

The expansion of Saturday hours was in response to Striar members’ desire to have expanded access to the center’s state-of-the-art facilities.

Reaching out to schools is very much part of its program. Last spring, JCC’s staff member Kathy Stern started a running program at Sharon Middle School. Forty students participated in the free program, called “Teens on the Fly,” which culminated with a 5K road race at the JCC.

“For 90 percent of them, it was the first time competing in a road race,” Dwyer said. In addition, swim teams from Stoughton and Mansfield high schools have arranged to use the facility’s swimming pool for training.

And the connections between the JCC and surrounding schools may grow.

Sondheim recently invited Dwyer to tour Sharon High School’s athletic fields, so she could better understand his athletes’ needs. Dwyer accepted, although she is not making any promises.

The school’s needs are many. A recent school budget proposal actually calls for the elimination of all after-school sports next year.

In the fall, the Dance Academy at Siagel Productions will bring dance classes for boys, girls, and adults – including hip hop, jazz, tap, acrobatics, ballet, and break dance – to the Stoughton JCC. “Dance is very popular right now with children,” Dwyer said.

More than anything else, the Striar JCC is valued for offering activities that the whole family can enjoy together. “Somebody can dance, somebody can sing opera, somebody can play basketball – all at the same time at one place,” Dwyer said.

Robin Ekpunobi, 43, who attends yoga and choreographed weightlifting classes at the JCC, exemplifies this point.

“My husband takes basketball on Sundays,” Ekpunobi said, pointing to his name on the plaque on the wall.

She said that although her husband is not Jewish, the basketball team appreciates him because he is tall.

“My daughter likes to swim. My neighbor had an opening at the art gallery; he’s an artist here. My father comes to the heart rehab center. My kids are … in the preschool book.”

Said Ekpunobi, “It’s a wonderful place that the whole family can enjoy.”

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