JCC openingNot just a Jewish thing: New community center emphasizes multiculturalism more than

The pairing of Kitka with Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir recently at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco was the perfect example of the JCC’s commitment to multiculturalism.

The program, called “Songs from Mama’s Table,” featured folk songs from Eastern Europe and African American spirituals, both of which “are songs that women have learned from their families as expression of some universal ideals and thoughts,” said Nate Levine, executive director of the JCCSF.

When considering programming for the Eugene and Elinor Friend Center for the Arts, what’s Jewish isn’t the first thing on Lenore Naxon’s mind.

“I’m thinking about what’s good,” the director of the Friend Center said.

While no one affiliated with the JCC would doubt that it’s a Jewish institution at its core, the venerable San Francisco institution with the brand-new facility is increasing its efforts to market itself to non-Jews as well.

With a recreation center, preschool and after-school programs, wellness center and adult and arts programming, an estimated half of the people who use the JCC regularly are not Jewish.

And while it’s not the intention of anyone there to raise that figure, promoting a mission of multiculturalism and inclusiveness is a central part of its mission.

Case in point: the grand opening celebration Sunday, March 28 will be advertised in the San Francisco Chronicle as well as in j., in an effort to reach both unaffiliated Jews and non-Jews.

“The center has always been open to everybody, and we’ve always had a significant percentage of non-Jews coming,” said Levine.

While interfaith events took place at the old JCC, Levine said there will be many more opportunities at the new facility. Already, a panel discussion with Jewish and Catholic leaders on Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” was offered, co-sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. And Rabbi Scott Slarskey, the JCC’s Jewish educator, co-led a discussion on “The Passion” with a Catholic counterpart just for JCC staff.

A panel discussion on the Abrahamic faiths and a Jewish-Muslim seder are in the planning stages.

In fact, the JCC has a mission statement on its multiculturalism philosophy.

Alan Gellman, a JCC board member who lives in Oakland, says of the statement, “It’s not one of these things you put in a drawer somewhere. We use it every day, and talk about it all the time. You don’t deliver on this unless you’re acting on it every day.”

In a heading titled “multiculturalism,” the mission statement says: “We welcome the rich diversity of the community both within and outside the Jewish community.”

It continues: “We create opportunities for bringing multicultural perspectives to program offerings. We bring Jews together with other religious and/or ethnic groups to foster greater understanding. We welcome people of diverse religions, cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds to participate actively in the Center.”

In terms of the arts, the new facility makes things possible that never were before.

“Our whole commitment to cultural arts is so much greater, you can’t compare, said Levine. “It’s really the same philosophy we’ve always had, but in a much bigger arena.”

The JCC is hosting the SFJAZZ Collective, which is having its rehearsals there for a month. That would have been inconceivable at the old facility, Levine pointed out. While jazz is not explicitly Jewish, Levine said, there are certainly a large number of Jewish jazz fans.

“Jazz is multicultural, and having the center play a role in nurturing this wonderful collective, well, we’ve just never been able to do things like that before.”

Gellman stressed that the JCC is in a unique position to reach unaffiliated Jews as well. Research has shown that institutions like the JCC or the Jewish Film Festival are likely to be more of an entry point for the unaffiliated.

“We’re certainly about building community, but we know that people have different interests and different ways they’re going to come to us,” said Wendy Bear, director of planning and adult services. “We want to provide a lot of entry points.”

Gellman indicated that many Jews don’t find meaning in observing the High Holy Days or by praying in general, but still want to feel a part of the Jewish people. By taking part in activities at a primarily Jewish institution, they fulfill that need.

“We see ourselves as playing a vital role in Jewish continuity by strengthening people’s ethnic and cultural identity,” he said.

But in addition to reaching out to the unaffiliated, Gellman said the JCC is in a unique position to educate those who use it, regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliation.

“As a community organization, we have the unique ability to tie into the broader community, while educating that community about what Judaism is, and what that means,” he said. “That fosters better relationships with other communities.”

Gellman said that both the unaffiliated and non-Jews coming to the JCC, whether it be to work out or take an art class, couldn’t help but get a dose of Jewish values while there, even if it’s just by reading the quotes by prominent Jews in the entryway.

“You can’t miss our values when you show up,” he said. “People will see that there is Hebrew attached to them, but they’ll also see that this is about life and peoplehood.

“People will read this and think ‘that’s about me, I relate to those values,’ and these are the values that are woven throughout the core of who we are, how we act and what we do.”

While the JCC is not doing outreach to specific ethnic groups or communities, all kinds of things are going on behind the scenes with various communities.

The best example is the relationship between the JCC and a new India Community Center in Milpitas. Levine serves on the ICC’s board, and offers programming advice, while the ICC helps the JCC with some of its technological issues.

While cooperative programming between the two hasn’t happened yet, it’s only a matter of time, Levine said.

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."