Jewish Community Center: 100 years and counting

08/12/2014 1:30 PM

08/13/2014 2:26 PM

On a typical summer weekday, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City hums with activity from before dawn until after dark.

The center, at 5801 W. 115th St. in Overland Park, welcomes toddlers to seniors to participate in activities that make it Johnson County’s largest and most diverse community center.

When the fitness center, the heart of the JCC, opens at 5:15 a.m., adults begin arriving to pound treadmills and lift weights. The driveway is jammed at 9 a.m. as children as young as 2 get dropped off to attend one of the JCC’s summer camps. Seniors can even get rides to the JCC ($2 each way) to take part in its Heritage Center, which offers socialization through fitness, recreation, education and lunch.

The activities can continue as late as 10:30 p.m., with the performance of a play in the White Theatre, basketball in the gymnasium or softball under the outdoor lights.

From around the area, folks come by the thousands. The center counts 8,500 members, up 2,000 from just four years ago. Nearly 3,000 young people take part in basketball, soccer, baseball, tennis, karate and other sports programs annually. About 1,000 adults each year participate in basketball, softball, tennis and other organized sports activities. And its theater productions drew more than 12,000 people last season.

The theater was why non-Jewish teenager and budding thespian Reat Underwood was at the JCC with his grandfather, William Corporon, on April 13 when a gunman — allegedly white supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller — shot and killed them as they stood outside the White Theatre. Shortly after, Miller allegedly shot and killed Terri LaMano outside Village Shalom retirement and care center nearby.

The shootings came in the midst of the JCC’s yearlong celebration of its centennial anniversary. Banners on the center’s campus proclaim, “100 more.”

JCC CEO Jacob Schreiber said the center has emerged from the tragedy stronger than ever.

“What the attack taught us was that when this place was attacked, everybody felt attacked,” Schreiber said. “It’s a challenge to find one person in a 10-mile radius that hasn’t been to the JCC or participated in a program or who isn’t 1 degree of separation from a participant. It really came to the fore, and people appreciate that more now.”

The JCC was established in 1914 as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, or YMHA, a counterpart to the better-known Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA. It later became egalitarian by adding “YW” for “Young Women” to its name and then in the early 1930s adopting the JCC moniker.

The YM-YWHA was located in a River Market building for its first two years, moving to 3123 Troost Ave. between 1916 and 1924. In those early years, Jews were not welcome at gentile country clubs and certain other institutions, so they founded their own, like the community center, Oakwood Country Club in 1881 and Menorah Hospital in 1931.

But non-Jews were always welcome at the JCC.

Over the years it has followed the migration of the Jewish community south and west across the metropolitan area.

It built its next building at 1600 Linwood Blvd., which opened in 1924 and remained in use until 1961. That building featured many of the amenities that remain staples of the JCC today: gymnasium, pool, track, theater and classrooms.

Between the Linwood site and today’s JCC at 5801 W. 115th St. there was a magnificent midcentury modern building at 8201 Holmes Road, which was occupied between 1961 and 1984. It added an outdoor pool, ball fields and tennis courts to the mix, all of which have been carried over to today’s JCC.

The JCC is arguably the single most important institution ever established by the Jews of this area.

Think about it. The various synagogues are centers of religious life, but non-Jews rarely set foot in them. Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy has strengthened the community by transmitting Jewish learning, but only a sliver of the local Jewish population, generously estimated at around 19,000, attends. The Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City collects millions of dollars each year for Jewish charities and institutions from Kansas City to Eastern Europe to Israel, but few non-Jews have ever heard of it.

The JCC alone welcomes non-Jews to become members, to swim in its pools, to take part in its preschool and camps, to participate in its theater programs.

Thousands of non-Jews have joined the JCC over the years to use its sports and fitness facilities, thereby getting to know the Jewish members as they sweated and played alongside them. Hundreds of non-Jewish children have enrolled in its preschool, absorbing just a bit of Jewish culture along with snacks and ABCs. Plenty of gentiles have acted in or attended theatrical productions put on by the JCC.

The JCC is an artful blend of activities that appeal to all and programs that cast Jewish culture in its best light. The success of that soft sell for the Jewish community was seen in the aftermath of the April 13 shootings. People from around the country and the world, including President Barack Obama, reached out to express their sympathy.

Not only does the JCC reach out to the general community, but it plays a role within the Jewish community that no other institution does. Although Judaism is a religion, there is also the historic concept of a Jewish people, and within that there are many non-observant, even atheistic Jews. They don’t join synagogues or give to the Jewish Federation, but they like to play sports or see movies with other Jews. The JCC keeps them connected to their community.

My own father is, or at least was for most of his life, one of those hardly observant Jews. He grew up joining youth clubs based at the JCC and playing sports there, and enjoyed that much more than synagogue study or worship.

Back in the 1940s, groups like his Del-Rays, modeled after college fraternities, gathered at the JCC on Linwood Boulevard for meetings and organized dance parties with their female counterparts in the rooftop garden. He still recounts the sports they played in the gymnasium and on the fields nearby, and he has continued a lifelong passion for fitness, playing tennis up through this year, his 84th.

He married my mom, whose uncle, the late Edward Devins, was the JCC’s president through much of the 1960s. It was at that time that Dad became a board member and vice president.

My parents met world-renowned writers Kurt Vonnegut and Alex Haley, who came to town as part of the JCC’s visiting author series. They passed on to me Vonnegut’s advice about writing, essentially “Just do it — every day!” They vividly recall being spellbound by Haley’s talk about discovering his African ancestors, as told in his then-about-to-be-published blockbuster, “Roots.”

As a child and then a teenager, I spent many hours at the JCC on Holmes Road. I attended summer camp. I still have my championship trophy from the Nat Neusteter Baseball League. I can almost smell the Coppertone mixed with chlorine and taste the Chick-O-Stick candy from the snack bar at the outdoor pool.

Dad taught me to play aerial tennis at the JCC on Holmes, and I loved it. Aerial tennis, or aerial darts, is like badminton but with wooden paddles and a heavier birdie, played inside on a wooden gymnasium floor. You could jump up over the 7-foot net for a kill shot, or dink it or simply volley. The game was never popular nationwide, but rather in pockets of the country here and there, including Jewish community centers in several cities. The JCC on Holmes played host to several national tournaments. Sadly, aerial tennis is all but forgotten today.

I remember attending one of the first, if not the very first, rock musicals ever produced in the Kansas City area in 1970 at the JCC’s Resident Theatre. “Your Own Thing” was an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” updated with psychedelic lights, long hair and a live rock band. Dee Wallace, who would go on to play the mom in the movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” was one of the discotheque dancers in the cast.

The Resident Theatre was one of Kansas City’s first community theaters, going back to the 1930s, and it produced shows at a high artistic level, giving lots of local thespians their starts and lots of well-known shows their Kansas City premieres. Impresarios Dennis Hennessy and Richard Carrothers of The New Theatre (and before that the Tiffany’s Attic and Waldo Astoria dinner theaters) got their start directing shows at the Resident.

Richard Piland wrote and in 2011 self-published a book, “The Illustrated History of the Resident Theatre Kansas City, Missouri 1932-1983.”

“The Resident Theatre was monumental for theater in Kansas City during the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” Piland told The Jewish Chronicle in 2012. “It was one of the best community theaters in the country.”

The other show I remember seeing at the Resident on Holmes was a perfect example of what the JCC does best: present cultural events that have Jewish content but that appeal to all types of people. It was a production of Robert Shaw’s 1968 drama “The Man in the Glass Booth,” which was inspired by Israel’s 1960 kidnapping from Argentina and 1961 war-crimes trial of former Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.

When white flight picked up steam in the 1960s, however, most members of the Jewish community moved to the Johnson County suburbs, and in 1984 the JCC followed. After a brief interregnum housed in the former Nall Hills Country Club building at 6201 Indian Creek Drive, the JCC reopened in 1988 as the centerpiece of the Jewish Community Campus. The campus includes the Hebrew Academy and the offices of the Jewish Federation and a couple of other agencies, too, but most people know and refer to it as the center.

I played a lot of men’s basketball at this center, until my knees wore out a few years ago. I still go to yoga class there and work out in the fitness area (OK, not often enough!) and swim in the pools. I worked with then-JCC Cultural Arts Director Beatrice Fine to establish the Kansas City Jewish Film Festival in 1998 to coincide with Israel’s 50th anniversary of statehood.

The new center was built without a theater, bringing to an end the Resident Theatre tradition. But in 2005 the Lewis and Shirley White Theatre addition was dedicated, thanks to the titular philanthropists. The JCC carries on the Resident tradition there, producing top-notch community theater that regularly brings Jewish issues to the forefront. More than 12,000 people attended shows at the White Theatre this past season.

As it has since 2010, the JCC is once again sponsoring its annual KC SuperStar competition, an “American Idol” knockoff that serves as a fundraiser and a platform for talented high schoolers to strut their stuff. The winner gets a $10,000 scholarship. Comic actor and area native Rob Riggle hosts the Aug. 24 finals at Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College, at which time, no doubt, tribute will be paid to the victims of the hate crimes of April 13.

Since the shootings in April, Schreiber said, the JCC staff has received additional security training. Other measures are being contemplated and will be announced soon, he said, but they won’t detract from the welcoming atmosphere at the center.

Nor will the center back away from its Jewish heritage.

“Studies from around the country show that the more Jewish a JCC is, there is no impact on whether non-Jews want to join,” he said. “It only impacts whether Jews want to join. Sometimes it’s not Jewish enough for them.

“We’re very sensitive people, and we don’t want to offend non-Jews. But they (non-Jews) like to be in a place where it’s about values and culture and family and community. Aren’t those the American values that are talked about in every election?”

Schreiber said the state of the JCC “is as strong as it’s been in decades,” citing increases in membership, participation and annual budget. He shares the credit with sports and fitness director Bob Hennecke and the staff of the Child Development Center (a preschool), which expanded its capacity from 150 to 260 five years ago. There’s still a waiting list to get in.

“We managed to do it because of a very good, motivated staff,” Schreiber said. “We tightened up operational controls and created ideas like KC SuperStar.”

Lawyer Bob DeWitt was president of the JCC from 1980 to 1982, and he led the “Linwood and Holmes Reunion” event on June 8 that drew hundreds of longtime members to the campus to schmooze and relive some of the old days.

“Through the years the JCC has served not only the Jewish community but the general community in many ways,” DeWitt said. “There have been the cultural events — the theater, the lectures, the art exhibitions. There’s health and wellness. The physical education facilities are second to none in the community.

“A large proportion of the members are not Jewish, but it’s always been that way. They are dedicated members,” DeWitt said.

He noted the Heritage Center serves seniors and children from all over the area come for the preschool.

“It really is a community center.”

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