Refugees, couples, kids recall memories for JCC exhibit

But for more than a century, the center has been much more than a refuge for emigres. For 121 years, it's been one of the city's best-loved places for celebrating a community — or even reconstructing one.

"I lived in a basement room and came to the center every day to shower, swim, play Ping-Pong, chess and meet people. Many years later, my children learned to swim at the JCC," Bates told JCC Director Nate Levine, who quoted him in a letter he wrote and distributed inviting members to offer up their own stories of the center.

The letter asked those with fond memories of the JCC to contribute writings, photographs, "remembrances and memorabilia…to build an archive for future generations." When a substantial collection is assembled, the memorabilia will be exhibited at the California Street center. Those who have memorabilia can call (415) 346-6040.

"I met Helmut Bates my first week on the job as [new] director… Over the past few weeks, dozens of people have shared their own personal connection," Levine wrote in the letter.

High school student Katie James has fond memories of the JCC's Havurah Youth Center, where she found refuge from the torments of elementary school.

"When I was in fourth grade, I had to transfer to a new school," she wrote in an account she contributed to the collection.

"Somehow, I was chosen as the class scapegoat…My mom found the JCC as a place for me to go after school to have fun until she could find a better school.

"The staff [at the center] cared for me and understood how bad I felt…Wonderful things happened for me there. I began to believe in myself again."

Gertrude Wasserman didn't hesitate to register for classes at the JCC when she and her husband moved to San Francisco in 1979. Inspired by a staffer, she began to volunteer.

"I made costumes and wrote and put on shows and rummage sales."

She also chaired committees, decorated, gave and arranged lectures, won a citywide art exhibition and started a couples club. Wasserman eventually won the Jewish Community Federation's Volunteer of the Year award.

"Now, even though we've moved to Novato and my husband has had three strokes, damaging him mentally and giving him kidney failure, and I have lost my sight, I am still functioning. I'm still on the board," she wrote.

Not everyone who has warm and fuzzy feelings for the center is Jewish. Myla Dee Chan, a Chinese-American youngster, wrote that she will always cherish Tuesday basketball.

"The coaches are patient, caring and gentle to me. They deserve more $!" she wrote.

Levine has also urged sweethearts who met at the JCC to tell their respective tales and submit related memorabilia for the archive. Some of these couples will be honored at the Sweethearts' Luncheon and Dance scheduled for today at the center.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.