With new home, Etz Chayims shlepping days are done

The Village People thought it was fun to stay at the YMCA. Palo Alto’s Congregation Etz Chayim would prefer to “live” at the YWCA.

The 9-year-old unaffiliated, liberal congregation ended a long and winding search for a permanent home last week when it purchased the former YWCA — yes, that’s a W — of the Mid-Peninsula in Palo Alto.

A joyous Rabbi Ari Cartun said the purchase signaled the death-knell of Etz Chayim’s era of shlepping.

“We can stop shlepping so much. Everything is in boxes. We have to keep our ark in a cabinet. We’ll be able to do our adult education on Sunday mornings [on the same site] where the kids are, you won’t have to shlep across town to our office,” said Cartun, the congregation’s rabbi for the past eight years.

Etz Chayim currently operates in several rented sites and a rented office, with services usually held at a Presbyterian church.

“We’re scattered everywhere. We couldn’t put up any announcements and couldn’t display anything.”

Cartun hopes to be leading services in the former YWCA by September.

Lucy Berman, the congregation’s facility search co-chair, said the YWCA site fit nicely into all of Etz Chayim’s critical categories.

First, situated on Alma Street near Palo Alto’s southern border with Mountain View, it’s centrally located among the congregation’s 275-odd member families. It’s also near the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and the proposed Campus for Jewish Life. Second, as a functioning community center — with picturesque gardens and playgrounds on a 2.1-acre site — it’s largely ready to use, as is. And, third, the site is equipped with ample parking spots, which it shares with a nearby church.

And, most importantly, “it was available,” said a laughing Cartun.

In the past three years, Berman estimates that Etz Chayim has eyeballed at least 50 sites — many of them former manufacturing facilities or warehouses — and made a handful of bids. But this deal, which officially closed on Friday, April 2, was the first one to work out.

At the YWCA’s behest, financial figures were not made public. Berman noted that the congregation’s capital campaigners believed between $5 million and $8 million would be needed, and “I can tell you we’re within that range.”

And, unlike many of the warehouses or small manufacturing facilities in the region, renovations will be a lot less expensive, requiring several hundred thousand dollars, rather than millions, “and that’s a big difference,” said Cartun. “We were expecting to pay that much for land, because that’s Palo Alto.”

The 13,500-square-foot YWCA building was constructed in the early 1960s, and has operated continuously for the past four decades. Etz Chayim and the YWCA had been in negotiations over the site for more than a year, even before a June 2003 announcement that the Y’s Mid-Peninsula branch was to be discontinued.

Berman, meanwhile, is ecstatic to have a site where congregants don’t have to disassemble the room after every service.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work for everyone in the congregation to have to move constantly and shlep stuff all over the place,” she said.

“That has basically been our focus, and we’d rather the focus was on the things we want to do, rather than the logistics of doing them.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.