PJCC gets new dose of Judaism

One would think that, by definition, a Jewish Community Center should offer its patrons a healthy dose of Judaism.

But at the Peninsula Jewish community center in Belmont, the feeling among the workers has been that the center isn't offering enough.

This feeling has led to the formation of L'Chaim, a new program aimed at infusing Jewish education, thinking and commitment into the center.

Funded by $65,000 in grants ($55,000 from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, $10,500 from the Koret Foundation and the PJCC), L'Chaim is accomplishing its goal through the education of staff, teachers and board members.

The program, which began in October, is also enriching the Jewish content for all ongoing PJCC activities.

"The federation was eager to have centers introduce more Jewish content into the organization and its programs," said Susan Folkman, chair of the JCF's planning and allocations committee. "Jewish education is a priority for us, and that's why I'm glad L'Chaim is finally happening."

So is Judy Edelson, PJCC executive director and the guiding force behind L'Chaim.

"People feel very strongly that the center should be a Jewish place," said Edelson. "Obviously, we've always had a Jewish component here, but with L'Chaim, we're making more of a conscious decision to promote Jewish continuity."

L'Chaim is making its presence felt from top to bottom. Professional staff, phone staff, fitness staff, and lay leaders all are involved in taking classes and participating in discussion groups on a once-a-month basis.

The programs are led by Educational Program Coordinator Amy Kassiola and Jewish educator Rachel Brodie, who both joined the PJCC staff to direct L'Chaim. The sessions have names like "Lunch and Learn" and "Supper and Study," and they cover topics that range from the philosophical — should the PJCC have a kosher kitchen? — to the practical — how to address non-Jewish members at holiday time.

"The classes and discussion groups are generating a lot of positive feedback," said Kassiola. "Especially from the non-Jewish staff, who find they provide a supportive environment for their questions about Judaism."

A perfect example of L'Chaim's influence in enriching Jewish content can be seen in Shabbat Club. The Friday afternoon program for 5- to 8-year-olds engages children in Jewish crafts and songs, and a Shabbat celebration with candles, challah and grape juice.

Recently, the children got an opportunity to experience for themselves what it was like to be an immigrant coming to Ellis Island in early 1900 America. Playing the roles of their newly arriving ancestors, the youngsters — complete with immigration papers and babushkas — had to state their name, place of birth and other vital statistics to an immigration "officer."

L'Chaim's presence will be felt again Sunday when a Tu B'Shevat seder takes place for kids and their families.

Edelson, the executive director, believes that with staff members more well-versed in all things Jewish, they will be better equipped to help the PJCC achieve its goal of becoming the center for Jewish community life on the North Peninsula.

"Jewish education and enrichment is not a one-shot deal," she said. "It's part of an ongoing process, one that we hope will continue when we open our new Foster City campus in 2001."

The federation would like to see this type of programming throughout the entire Bay Area, said the JCF's Folkman.

Special funding was also allocated as to the Marin JCC and the JCC of San Francisco to enrich and expand their Jewish programs.