Playground at Palo Alto JCC takes kids to ancient Israel

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You haven’t really lived until you’ve frolicked on a giant pomegranate. Or slid down a bunch of grapes. Or crawled through an olive.

All of that and more — such as balancing on a huge stalk of wheat — will be possible at the Oasis Experience, a children’s playground in the planning stages at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. Officials are targeting early 2016 for a grand opening.

The estimated $1 million play area is part of an effort to beautify and green up the campus, officials said, though the 4,300-square-foot Oasis will add meaningful Jewish content, as well.

“Part of our vision is to make the campus a Jewish neighborhood,” said Zack Bodner, CEO of the OFJCC. “Parents will be able to have an adult conversation with friends, or work out or take a class, and their kids can enjoy the campus freely. The Oasis will be the epicenter.”

The playground is part of the OFJCC’s plan to invest some $15 million in capital improvements over the next five years.

Located in the JCC courtyard across from the café, the Oasis will draw on the shapes, colors and feel of a biblical desert. The plans include rocks and other things to climb on, a giant pomegranate with removable “seeds” (mini-pillows) and a twisty footbridge that will require holding on. But parents need not worry. The rocks won’t be real, and what might appear in sketches to be water is actually just blue matting. Everything will be fabricated with soft materials such as vinyl and rubber.

Adding to the “Jewish journey” theme will be play structures based on the seven species — wheat, barley, pomegranates, grapes, figs, olives and honey — that are listed in Deuteronomy’s description of the Land of Israel. Plans also call for a “nomad tent” with outdoor pillows, with benches to accommodate parents, grandparents and others.

“When I was growing up, my parents told me to go out and play, and be back by dinner,” Bodner recalled. “I think many of us with kids wish we still lived in that world. Sadly, that era of free-range kids is over. But we want to recreate it at the Oshman Family JCC.”

Ron Holthuysen

Hired to design and construct the playground is Richmond-based Scientific Art Studio Design, a firm that people might not know by name, but one whose work certainly is known throughout the Bay Area. The studio built the iconic, giant baseball glove at AT&T Park, Lookout Cove at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito and the $3.2 million, 36,000-square-foot playground that opened in 2013 at the San Francisco Zoo.

Ron Holthuysen, a native of Holland who started the firm 25 years ago, admits he is something of a big kid himself. Otherwise he couldn’t have dreamed up so many grand playscapes.

“I sometimes say I am a professional child,” he said. “My job is to be that child and not lose that connection to having that view of life that any dream can become reality.”

Holthuysen, 59, isn’t Jewish, so before designing the Oasis project he studied up on Jewish history and culture. One thing he knew was that he didn’t want to make it about camels and sand — though the area will be shaded by palm trees.

“Jewish culture is so rich,” he said. “When I started digging into this project it turned out there were so many interesting story lines and cultural connections. It was nice to create something that has many layers of meaning rather than just a playground. It became clear quickly I wanted something that was not just swings and rockers, but more of a sculptural element that would uplift the plaza.”

The project came about when senior OFJCC executives formed a task force to conceive ways of making the campus more beautiful and kid-friendly. A playground seemed the way to go, but it had to be special.

Final design of the Oasis Experience

After Ronit Levy, the center’s director of cultural arts, took her 5-year-old to the San Francisco Zoo’s playground — which features life-size animal replicas, including a breaching blue whale — she told her colleagues “We’ve got to find out who did that.”

“The people at Scientific Arts are creative geniuses,” Bodner said. “When we brought them to our campus, they immediately saw the enormous potential here. They heard what we are all about — enriching lives, building community and inspiring Jewish journeys.”

Mimi Sells, chief marketing officer at the OFJCC, hopes the Oasis will prove to be big hit with kids.

“It’s not pre-programmed play,” she says. “It’s free form, open to their creativity. We wanted a place where kids can run free. As the space evolves, we can create new activities around it, such as planned story times or musical activities.”

The “Jewish journey” theme hit home for Holthuysen.

“I had no idea [Judaism] was such a positive and celebrative culture,” he said. “I grew up in the Netherlands just after World War II, so anything related to Jewish culture was sad, somber and dark. When I started reading what the culture is really about, it was easy to come up with something very positive.”

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.