Bird's eye view of Oakland plot
The three-acre site in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood planned for a new center for East Bay Jewish life. (Courtesy/JCC East Bay)

$41M purchase puts East Bay Jews on track for a new community hub

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Updated March 1 at 10:35 a.m.

For three decades, prominent real estate developer and philanthropist Moses Libitzky has envisioned creating a central address for East Bay’s growing Jewish community.

Then a few years ago, he came across a for-sale notice for what seemed to be an ideal solution: an 83,000-square-foot property in Oakland, with private parking and proximity to BART. It was the campus and corporate office of Nestlé-owned Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream.

“When this one showed up, it was love at first sight,” Libitzky said. “We couldn’t not buy this. The idea of a Jewish campus at this site was just too tempting to pass up.”

Moses Libitzky
Moses Libitzky

In December 2019, his commercial real estate company, Libitzky Property Companies, closed escrow on the site for $41 million. Since then, he has undertaken transforming it into a community hub, working in partnership with the JCC of the East Bay, which will be one of the hub’s nonprofit anchor organizations. Eventually the campus could house dozens of Jewish nonprofits.

The 3-acre property is situated in Oakland’s desirable Rockridge District, a tree-lined area populated by restaurants, cafés, specialty markets, wine bars and nice homes. Several retailers occupy one of the buildings along College Avenue, and Libitzky has expressed an interest in maintaining that mix.

The main motivator was finding a more desirable home for the JCC. Founded in 1978 as the Berkeley-Richmond JCC, the JCC East Bay serves more than 9,000 people every year with adult programming, a preschool, summer camp and afterschool programs. Its main branch is a 107-year-old landmark building in North Berkeley, which is showing signs of age and which, Libitzky said, is not an ideal gathering spot for much of today’s Jewish community.

The Rockridge site, by contrast, “is an ideal location,” he said. “It’s a place people like to come to.”

The JCC already has moved its administrative employees to one of the office buildings at the new site. It is continuing to operate its preschool and other programs out of the Berkeley building, while planning to open a second preschool at the site.

“We are not abandoning Berkeley,” said the center’s CEO Melissa Chapman. “We are maintaining our services in Berkeley.”

Chapman said philanthropic investment of this magnitude in the East Bay Jewish community is long overdue.

“It means it is finally the time that donors are recognizing the size of the community here,” she said. “The Bay Area has the fourth-largest Jewish community in North America. Yet we [East Bay] are the only Bay Area Jewish community without a hub. What we’re looking to do in Rockridge, this new site, is to create a place that speaks to the East Bay Jewish community.”

Melissa Chapman
Melissa Chapman

In the Jewish Community Federation’s 2018 study of regional Jewish life, the East Bay had the largest number of Jewish households, 54,000, representing 37% of all Jewish households in the Bay Area.

As part of a multiyear leaseback agreement, Nestlé Dreyer’s will remain onsite in the property’s main 55,000-square-foot building for another three years. It will then take a couple of years more before the campus is fully occupied by Jewish organizations and various nonprofit partners, Libitzky said.

Moishe House Oakland-Rockridge has already made the move, operating out of one of the four residential homes on the property since 2020.

Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, based in Berkeley, is having discussions about moving to the site. If it does, it will have the second-largest footprint after the JCC.

“We’re in an exploration process and we are interested in the idea and the potential,” said Robin Mencher, CEO of JFCS East Bay. “We were founded by members of the Jewish community in Oakland, so having our offices return to Oakland feels like an opportunity to honor our roots and serve the community’s needs now and in the future.”

Robin Mencher
Robin Mencher

Even some San Francisco-based organizations are considering picking up and crossing the bay. Keshet, which provides services to the LGBTQ community, is one of them. Another is Jewish LearningWorks, the central agency for Jewish education in the Bay Area.

East Bay groups currently without physical homes also may be in the mix, including the Jewish Studio Project and the Aquarian Minyan congregation.

“We will be working, especially with those that don’t have brick-and-mortar [locations], to see how the space can be accommodating for them, as well,” Chapman said.

The Jewish nonprofits, Libitzky said, will be paying virtually zero rent, and the plan is to eventually transfer ownership of the property to a separate nonprofit entity.

“It’s one of the worst business operations we’ve ever had,” he joked.

Libitzky’s investment in East Bay Jewry is the latest in his long history of philanthropic commitment to the Bay Area Jewish community at large. Raised on a chicken farm in Connecticut and the son of Holocaust survivors from Poland, Libitzky said, ”The idea of preserving my Jewish heritage is important to me.”

Libitzky described himself as a believer in “entrepreneurial philanthropy,” an idea that donors are partners, not just funders. Reflective of shifting fundraising models in his area was the 2019 absorption of the Jewish Federation of East Bay into the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, a process in which he was deeply involved.

Libitzky’s brother-in-law, colleague and best friend, Nathan Petrowsky, is vice president of Libitzky Property Companies and serves on the board of the JCC East Bay. According to Libitzky, he brought the property to Libitzky’s attention. And Chapman said Petrowsky has played an instrumental role throughout the process.

“Nathan’s fingerprints are all over this, in addition to Moses,” she said.

Chapman and Libitzky said there are all kinds of ideas for how to use the new campus. Some proposals include transforming an events space into a venue for weddings, b’nai mitzvahs and theater performances. There are also plans for creating co-working offices, after-school care for K-5 students, summer and year-round camp, and outdoor spaces for people to gather.

Community input is being sought, and the JCC is working with Rosov Consulting, a Berkeley-based professional services firm for Jewish nonprofits, to conduct a survey of potential partners and stakeholders on how best to utilize this new Jewish community asset.

Some may question the future of a project focused on a brick-and-mortar model now that Covid-19 has transformed how people access Jewish life. Many organizations are opting to keep some form of their virtual programming, even as the pandemic recedes.

The pandemic did cause the project to have stops and starts, Libitzky said. “Before we could even take a breath, Covid hit, so our progress kind of slowed down on the project,” he admitted.

But Libitzky is undeterred, and focused on the larger picture. “People need places to gather,” he said. “Synagogues aren’t doing that well, and JCCs have become the secular synagogue.”

Now, the process of creating a center for Jewish life in the East Bay represents the realization of Libitzky’s long-held dream.

“He has had a plan for a larger Jewish community hub for a minimum of 30 years,” Chapman said. “I saw the original notebook. So he’s had this in his head for a really long time, and sometimes a beshert thing happens and a perfect kind of property happens to come on the market. And this did.”

Ryan Torok

Ryan Torok is an L.A.-based freelance reporter and former Jewish Journal staff writer.