Sunrise, sunset &mdash A day in the life of the new JCCSF is nonstop action

With the opening of the new $60 million JCCSF, the hub of Jewish life in San Francisco shifs to the corner of California and Presidio. The center will have its grand opening from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 28, at 3200 California St. So how’s it going so far? What follows recounts a typical day in the life of the new JCCSF.

The morning sun has only just topped the horizon, but at the JCCSF fitness center, they are already there: the modern urban cavalry mounted on stationary bikes and treadmills taking them miles to nowhere.

It’s a beautiful sight to the staff of the facility. When the new complex opened earlier this year, planners hoped for a spike in fitness center enrollment. 2,500 new members was their most optimistic forecast.

“We got 6,000,” says Aaron Rosenthal, communication director and enthusiastic cheerleader for the center. “We’re struggling in a good way.”

On this chilly Thursday morning, it seems as if all 6,000 showed up for a workout.

At the JCCSF aquatics center, the buff and the beautiful occupy every lane in the Olympic-sized pool. A swim class for babies is about to start in the smaller pool, new moms clutching their frisky charges in the 4-foot-deep water.

Suddenly, a crowd of Russian seniors passes into the pool area. Staffer Zhenya Tartakovsky leads them on a top-to-bottom tour of the facility. “In Russia, we never have this,” she says, speaking for the wide-eyed immigrants. “They all say, ‘Thank God I’m still alive to see it.'”

As the fitness center crowd thins out by late morning, about 50 seniors arrive at the JCCSF for their daily hot kosher meal. They fill Fisher Family Hall, as adult programs manager Shiva Schulz delivers a few announcements. “Our rabbi will be available to teach you the Jewish prayers,” she tells them.

Not all gathered plan to take her up on it. At least a third of the seniors who come for the daily meal are non-Jewish, many in fact Chinese. But this is a nonsectarian lunch, and as long as they can pay the $1.50 suggested price of the meal — catered by the Jewish Home — all are welcome.

Some stick around for the 12:30 p.m. bingo game. Eleven seniors, their walkers stacked against the back wall, gather around a table in a second floor utility room. But with their grave and silent concentration, it might as well be the main casino of Caesar’s Palace.

“B-4,” intones pit boss Jack Nayerm pulling bingo balls out of an hourglass-shaped wire spinner. “Before what?” chimes in Frances Schwartz with the oldest bingo joke on earth. It must have brought her luck. She won two bucks.

All morning, foot traffic has been steady but unusually light. Receptionist Alexandria Yarra picks up on it. “It’s eerily quiet,” she says laughing, though she knows that could change any second. To prove her right, the phone immediately starts ringing off the hook and she’s back on track.

Upstairs in the center’s airy chapel, the staff Talmud study group meets for its regular Thursday lunchtime session. Today, under the tutelage of JCCSF staff Rabbi Scott Slarsky, they read a portion from Tractate Brachot 3b on the topic of what one may utter in the presence of the dead.

“One does not speak in the presence of the dead except words relating to the dead,” says Slarsky quoting a sage. Staffers Andrea Guerra and Brian Garrick question the rabbi, who cites contradictory claims suggesting one may speak only words of Torah in the presence of the dead.

It’s parse and parse again till lunchtime’s over.

Down the hall, in a soundproof second-floor room, the eight-piece San Francisco Jazz Collective runs through a few cool tunes. This is no garage band. It’s the resident ensemble of venerable Bay Area jazz organization SFJAZZ, and includes such world-class players as saxman Josh Redman and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. The band is gearing up for an upcoming concert at Kanbar Hall, the JCCSF’s showcase for live music and theater.

But few in the building have a clue. Such is the scope of the cavernous center that a thousand activities may go on at once, and no one, say, enjoying a tranquil moment in the main floor atrium would ever guess.

Just a few feet from that atrium, the center’s staff gathers for its quarterly meeting, the first in the new building. With Purim coming, Slarsky couldn’t resist. The rabbi comes out clutching a banjo, dressed in a gorilla suit and pink bikini. Dignity personified.

He serenades the staff, then tells a Purim story or two while everyone noshes on complimentary hamantaschen. Is this a great religion or what?

Upstairs in one of the dance studios, the world’s youngest ballerinas get ready for their first plié. Well, not exactly. It’s more about arm flapping and head-bobbing. Teacher Elizabeth Frye hopes her pre-ballet class will simply get her toddler/students interested in body movement.

Tristan Gelfer of San Francisco brought daughter Madeline, 3, to the class. But despite Frye’s reassuring manner, Madeline isn’t too sure about it all, crying every time Mom leaves the room. Gelfer doesn’t sweat it. She’s a longtime JCCSF member and has been bringing her kids to the center for a while.

Up on the third floor, older children from more than 15 local public schools begin arriving for the center’s extensive after-school program.

It’s like summer camp every day.

Though homework time is factored in, kids swim, use the gym, bake challah and do any other fun activity Karen Einbinder, the center’s director of the youth and family department, can dream up.

“There’s plenty of Jewish content” in the afterschool programming, says Einbinder, even though only half of the children are Jewish. “All the kids know the prayers.”

Three satisfied customers are Joel Talkoff, 9, Austin Okada, 10, and Victor Makarov, 11. When not hovering around the foosball table in the rec room, the boys hang out with the many friends they’ve made there.

“I’m semi-part-Jewish,” points out Makarov, who’s been a regular here for years. His friend Okada shows off his own knowledge of Judaism by pointing out that on Passover, “the herbs taste bad.”

The boys can’t chat long. They’re off on a JCCSF field trip to the park. On the way out, they pass the late afternoon exercise crowd ready to re-invade the fitness center. Evenings are even busier than the mornings, according to physical trainer George Kohler. “From 6 to 8, it’s chaos,” he says.

“There they’ll huff and puff till closing time. In other parts of the complex, the weekly ceramics class meets, its amateur potters making clay art on spinning wheels. The adult tap dance class is hoofing it down the hall, and the swing dancers are warming up in their third floor studio.

It’s a typical day and night at the JCCSF. As planners intended, there’s something for everybody, day in, day out.

Outside on California Street, closing time: stragglers have scattered, the moon is high and icy winds blow down from Twin Peaks. The buses are running, but infrequently now, as the thrum of the city dulls for the night.

Tomorrow morning at the JCCSF, it starts all over again.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.