The Jewish Community Center is almost a second home for a Bexley family that isn't Jewish - an indication of the center's broad community appeal on the eve of its 100th-anniversary celebration. Marikate Leavens, husband Thomas Mack and son Noah exercise at the gym, swim in the two pools, go to the annual book fair and take in an annual Hanukkah play.
The Jewish Community Center is almost a second home for a Bexley family that isn’t Jewish — an indication of the center’s broad community appeal on the eve of its 100th-anniversary celebration.
Marikate Leavens, husband Thomas Mack and son Noah exercise at the gym, swim in the two pools, go to the annual book fair and take in an annual Hanukkah play.
“A lot of non-Jewish people tend to use the center for quality day care and stay for the gym, pool, cultural programs and other benefits,” said Leavens, 45.
Jews and non-Jews alike will participate in the yearlong celebration at 1125 College Ave. — starting at 2 p.m. Sunday with an afternoon of activities.Since 1950, the center has stood out as a hub for health and fitness; social, cultural and educational activities for all ages; preschool and after-school programs; and summer camps.
Noah Mack, 6, takes swimming lessons and attends the after-school program at the center. (From babyhood until kindergarten, he was enrolled in the child-care and preschool offerings.)
When his parents, who are Christian, joined the center in 1993, they immediately felt welcome, Leavens said.
“Many of our friends have come from the center,” she said. “We’ve never had an issue about it being a Jewish center. I focus on it more as a general community center.”
Of the more than 6,500 members or about 3,600 families, an average of about 1,500 people a day use the facility, according to a center estimate.
“It’s a gathering place for everybody — from birth to seniors,” said Joe Sniderman, president of the board of trustees. Sniderman, 63, and his family have been involved for more than four decades.
Four generations of the extended Wasserstrom family have been active at the center since the 1950s.
Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, when his parents were members, Reid Wasserstrom remembers going to the center regularly for youth activities and basketball games.
The Columbus native joined the center in 1966, just after he got married and just before he and his wife, Fran, began raising their own family.
“Living in Bexley when I did, it was a rather closed community,” said Wasserstrom, 68. “Being a JCC member allowed me to meet a lot of friends from other parts of the city, so it expanded my view of the world.”
Founded in 1913 by Joseph “Pop” Schonthal, the center found its first real home in 1918 when Schonthal bought the old Hoster Brewery Mansion on E. Rich Street and renamed it the Hermine Schonthal Community House (later the Schonthal Center) after his wife. A new center was built in 1950 at its present location.
Since 1983, when the center was rebuilt again, it has expanded its reach by opening satellite spaces near Dublin and in New Albany for children’s educational programs.And the center is growing again.
Ground was broken Dec.?6 on a 16,000-square-foot expansion of the College Avenue facility that will include a new gymnasium, indoor batting cages and more meeting and recreational space.
“Today, the JCC really is a community of communities,” Executive Director Carol Folkerth said.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to belong,” she said. “Everybody feels comfortable being together at the JCC.”
In its early decades, the center took the lead in integrating the wave of Jewish immigrants coming here from Eastern Europe and Russia.
Yet, as Jews have become assimilated into American society, the center’s mission has shifted, and its programs have expanded to meet new needs.
“Today,” Folkerth said, “our mission is to help those Americans understand what it means to be Jewish. In some ways, we’ve come 180 degrees from where we started.”Anniversary events
Highlights of the 100th-anniversary celebration of the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave.:
• 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday: Kick-Off Birthday Celebration, with games, entertainment, cake and ice cream, and the unveiling of the center’s historical timeline and time capsules in the lobby
• Feb. 10 to March 30: “Fiddler on the Roof” exhibit of all Gallery Players productions of the musical from 1972 to 2013, in association with the new Gallery Players production March 2-17
• May 23: JCC Grand Celebration at the Lincoln Theatre, with singer-pianist Michael Feinstein, who grew up in Columbus and performed at Gallery Players — with a post-show reception at Graeter’s, 2282 E. Main St., to include an ice-cream flavor created for the center’s anniversary
• May 31 to Aug. 31: “The Center of It All,” a Jewish Historical Society exhibit of artifacts and memorabilia, in the center’s lobby
• Oct. 6: Family Day Celebration, a communitywide festival with arts, crafts, food, entertainment, athletic competitions, dancing, bowling and educational and children’s activities
• Nov. 3-14: Columbus Jewish Film Festival
For more information, call 614-231-2731 or visit www.columbusjcc.org.