Pardon our dust: Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life taking shape

Right now, it’s a mess.

Braced by scaffolding, ringed by mud puddles and scattered steel girders, the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life is still under construction. Way under.

But during a walking tour of the Palo Alto site, architect Robert Steinberg seems like a proud papa showing off his baby. Forget that the baby won’t be “born” for another 12 months or so.

“This is the love of my life,” says Steinberg, the CJL’s lead designer, now seven years into the project. “It’s more than an architectural opportunity. This is an opportunity to impact the Jewish community for generations.”

It’s easy to see how. Now nearly one year into construction, the 8.5-acre, $147 million complex is intended to become the crown jewel of the South Bay Jewish universe. It might be roughly the same size as the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, but the campus’ multiple structures and ample outdoor sections make it seem much larger.

The Oshman Family JCC and Moldaw Family Residences at 899 Charleston together legally own the campus and take up most of its 435,000 square feet. However, the CJL will have a lot more going on than those two entities.

An outdoor amphitheater and the towering Albert and Janet Schultz Cultural Arts Center add to the project’s impressive scope. There will also be a town square, a sidewalk café, the return of the popular bob and bob Judaica store to Palo Alto and office space for agencies such as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Bureau of Jewish Education.

If anything, the campus resembles a compact Jewish city, something Steinberg and the other campus visionaries intended all along. “We tried to design an Old City like in Jerusalem,” he says. “We really tried to change the game.”

Steinberg was well-suited for the job. He’s the son of Goodwin “Goody” Steinberg, the architect who designed Los Altos Hills’ Congregation Beth Am decades ago, the same synagogue he attended most of his life. Now the South Bay native is putting his stamp on the most ambitious Jewish construction project ever in the region.

His concept began with building the entire project 12 feet above street level. It’s a way of having the CJL make aliyah — a term that most commonly connotes moving to Israel, but is actually the Hebrew word for “going up.” In Steinberg’s design, the whole campus literally goes up.

(And there’s more to that than mere metaphor: The structure is also elevated to make room for a large ground-floor parking garage).

Keeping things in an Israeli groove, the color palette throughout will be based on the so-called “seven species,” fruits and grains mentioned in the Bible such as wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates.

Crisscrossing the campus will be palm, fig and olive tree-lined pathways, a meandering “rehov” (Hebrew for “street”) not unlike Jerusalem’s famed Ben Yehuda Street. There, according to the vision of the CJL’s designers, Jews of all ages and stages of life will come to stroll, sit and mingle.

In other words, if you build it they will shmooze.

Alan Sataloff, CEO of the Albert L. Schultz JCC (which officially changes its name to the Oshman Family JCC on Jan. 1, 2009) is one of the key players in the CJL. He’s been down this road before, albeit on a smaller scale, heading a capital campaign to renovate a JCC in Richmond, Va. This project has him even more excited, because for years the old JCC was housed in rented space.

“It was always a dream to build [a JCC],” he says, “to create the staff and campus culture from the ground up. We were able to describe what our vision was. Steinberg would take that and transform it into something physical.”

Most Jewish community centers boast a state-of-the-art fitness center. The Oshman Family JCC’s new Goldman Sports and Wellness Complex may be the one to beat.

The complex features a full-size basketball court, yoga studios, spinning rooms and a 7,000-square-foot fitness center lined with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the South Bay hills. Each cardio machine will come with a personal TV screen that also has Internet access.

The aquatic center features a lap pool and a huge heart-shaped, wheelchair-accessible pool with water-park slides. It features what’s called beach entry, which means you can just walk into the pool much as you would the ocean at seaside. There’s even an adjacent birthday party room where kids can get as wet and wild as they like.

The JCC will also feature a separate multistory preschool with 12 classrooms (one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel). Other sections of the complex feature an arts and crafts room, a teen lounge and scores of Internet-ready classrooms and meeting rooms.

The stand-alone 9,000-sqare-foot cultural arts center will rival Kanbar Hall at the JCCSF. Like Kanbar, it will have retractable seating for dinners, weddings and b’nai mitzvah parties, or it can be used as a concert hall seating nearly 400. It also features a rooftop terrace and a grassy outdoor reception area for champagne toasts.

To reinforce that this will be a Jewish institution, the cultural arts center’s interior design will include fabrics and installations that evoke biblical desert images, from tents and tabernacles to chuppahs and sukkahs.

The entire campus should pass muster with environmentalists, too. Steinberg says the campus is as green as can be, with such innovations as bamboo floors (a renewable resource) and a state-of-the-art energy management system.

Then there is the 300,000-sqare-foot Moldaw Family Residences. An adjunct institution of the Jewish Home in San Francisco, the Moldaw residences will accommodate 193 senior apartments — most for independent living, though 11 will be reserved for seniors with dementia. Each costs from $700,000 to $1 million, with 24 units priced significantly below market rate (in the $300,000-$400,000 range). Those and all other units are already close to selling out.

Current Jewish Home CEO Daniel Ruth will be CEO of the Moldaw Family Residences, as well, though he is planning to hire an executive director to supervise the separate non-profit organization and its proposed staff of 90.

Ruth, too, is pleased with the progress so far — not just with the Moldaw residences, but the entire campus. “It has been thoughtfully designed to promote intergenerational opportunities,” he says. “It’s unlike anything else in the country in terms of trying to co-locate seniors with other age groups.”

Just to hammer home that point, all Moldaw residents get a free JCC membership so they can take part in most campus activities.

Earlier this summer, the Moldaw Family Residences won a gold award from the National Association of Home Builders in its 2008 Best of 50+ Housing Awards competition (in the category of Continuing Care Retirement community). The association cited the campus for its innovative intergenerational concept.

Though they will have their own private courtyards and communal dining areas, Moldaw residents will basically live right on top of the JCC and the campus’ nonstop Jewish party.

That was the idea.

“This is the focal point, the beacon, for the Jewish community in the South Bay,” Sataloff adds. “It’s the physical manifestation of people creating a central meeting place.”

Why bother? For one thing, the South Bay is home to the fastest-growing Jewish community in the Bay Area. This was confirmed in a 2005 demographic study, which showed the region as having a larger Jewish population that San Francisco, as well as the highest synagogue affiliation rate in the Bay Area.

Sensing this rising tide, back in 2001 a coalition of local Jewish organizations announced the purchase of the old Sun Microsystems headquarters and their plans to build a proposed campus on the 12-acre site.

This was an ideal location. Kehilla Jewish High School is across the street on Fabian Way, while the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School is only half a mile away. Many of the South Bay’s synagogues are no more than a 15-minute drive.

Four of the 12 acres were quickly sold off to a commercial developer to build private housing. With what was left, the Jewish community got busy and started fundraising.

Thanks to $15 million and $20 million lead gifts, respectively, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and the Koret Foundation landed the naming rights, and in 2005 the project was officially designated the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life.

Other major donations soon followed from M. Kenneth and Barbara Oshman ($10 million), the Jewish Community Endowment Fund ($10 million), the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund ($10 million) and others. This money saw the project through 18 public hearings and, ultimately, unanimous city council approval.

Finally, in August of last year, bond financing was secured and construction began. So far, Sataloff says, the project has collected $134.6 million of its $140 capital campaign.

For some of those working on the site, the CJL is more than a job. It’s a mission.

Randy Popp is an associate principal with Steinberg Architects, and has worked closely with Robert Steinberg from the beginning. He’s not only one of the hard-hat sporting, orange vest-wearing crewmembers: The South Bay native has also been a JCC board member.

So he takes this project personally.

“I grew up at [Palo Alto Conservative congregation] Kol Emeth,” he says. “This is what everyone was hoping for.”

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.