Indian Americans create a center modeled after JCC

About two years ago, Nate Levine received a phone call. Would he be willing to meet with brothers Anil and Gautam Godhwani, who dreamt about opening an India Community Center?

The executive director of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco often receives such calls, and he is usually happy to offer his expertise. He said sure.

The brothers came to meet Levine — complete with a PowerPoint presentation and business plan — with a vision of a community center of their own. After spending about a decade in the software business, they told Levine they were ready to turn their energies toward the nonprofit world.

“They were very young, smart and energetic,” said Levine. “I was so impressed with their presentation. They had totally refreshing thinking and tremendous business acumen.”

Levine continued to meet regularly with the brothers, offering his advice in whatever way they needed.

The India Community Center opened earlier this year in Milpitas, and is the largest center for the Indian American community in the country.

Of the estimated 1.7 million to 2 million Indians in the United States, between 150,000 to 200,000 make their home in Silicon Valley and its environs, with “a lot of that growth in the last decade because of the Internet,” said Anil Godhwani.

“With the Indian community being so new here and so young, I think the focus was on survival and getting the companies set up and taking care of family,” said Anil Godhwani, who grew up both in his native New Delhi and in the United States. “Most of the wealth in the Indian community is very recent.”

Because of that, setting up such a center was not on the agenda until recently. But the Godhwanis noticed a need.

“My mom has taught North Indian classical music and Hindi for 40 years,” he said. “And you often see parents drive their children, and then wait outside in the car while they take that class, and then shuttle them to the next class.”

Seeing those parents waiting outside made the brothers recognize the need for a community center.

So while they visited various community centers for different ethnic groups, the local JCCs were an obvious choice.

“JCCs have been around 100 years, and we have never done anything like this,” said Anil Godhwani. “We needed advice with a lot of things, how to set up the correct infrastructure, whether it’s the board, staffing or what types of programs to offer, fund-raising. Nate and Sandy [Blovad, executive director of the Albert L. Shultz JCC in Palo Alto] have been extremely helpful in helping us create a framework, and avoiding the big mistakes.”

Anil Godhwani said they were especially intrigued to learn that up to 50 percent of the JCC’s membership is not Jewish. He’s hopeful that the ICC will attract non-Indian families as well and provide a window on Indian culture to the general community.

And just as JCCs do, the ICC offers programs for children through seniors, and a whole host of activities ranging from yoga and meditation to Hindi language classes and aerobics, classical Indian music to pop Indian music. The new center’s offerings are featured on its Web site,

One huge difference is that the ICC is not affiliated with a religious group. Since the two dominant religions, Hindus and Muslims, don’t mix much in India, the Godhwanis decided not to offer religious programming.

But Levine, who sits on the ICC board, says he appreciates the religious diversity its board has, with at least one Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Jain member.

Besides that, “It’s fun serving on a board of directors where I’m not the staff person,” said Levine, who is excited about the new relationship.

“It’s so consistent with the vision we have, that without diluting our Judaism, we can reach out to others who are trying to support their own culture.”

Both Anil Godhwani and Levine said they are talking about doing some joint programming — for children, especially — but that is still in the early stages.

One idea is to offer a performance with some Jewish musicians and Indian musicians, and share some of the Indian center’s yoga and meditation staff with the JCC.

“It would be fun to do it,” said Anil Godhwani.

Both Godhwani and Datta Nadkarni, the ICC’s executive director, drew many parallels between Jewish and Indian culture, including the reverence for family and the desire to preserve their traditions.

Nadkarni said the ICC could learn from the JCC’s experience integrating Russian emigres into the center, particularly the elderly, as many Indians have lived here for years but are only bringing their parents over now.

“We have a group of seniors, some are retired supreme court judges, controllers of accounts and were in very senior positions,” Nadkarni said. “And suddenly they’re in a totally new setup where they are reliant on their kids to drive them around.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."