Stroum Jewish Community Center project underway for new auditorium

Members of the construction crew work on the new control room area at the Stroum Jewish Community Center.  - Contributed Photo
Members of the construction crew work on the new control room area at the Stroum Jewish Community Center.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

Remodeling is probably not the right word for the $5 million construction project focused on a complete rehabilitation of the existing theater/auditorium and adjacent public space within the heart of the Stroum Jewish Community Center on East Mercer Way. Reinvention or renewal just might be a better way to describe it and the changes that lie ahead for the center.

SJCC CEO Judy Neuman calls it a transformation for the facility that will lead it to becoming an even more essential element for Jewish life here and the larger community it serves.

Over the past many months the SJCC leadership has met to sharpen its view of the future for the institution based on its underlying values and the desires of its members.

The last capital campaign for remodeling the center was in the mid-1990s.

Most important in these discussions was the focus on the cultural aspects of Jewish life, Neuman explained.

“That is our overriding mission,” she said.

“When we chose to focus on the auditorium and the adjacent public areas first, we had to look at how they fit in within our mission and values,” she explained. She pointed to the center’s mission statement, “to create outstanding programs, partnerships and spaces that welcome everyone to learn, grow and celebrate Jewish life and culture.

“And there were some relatively straightforward questions that we asked ourselves,” she continued. “What do our members want more of, and how do we accomplish those goals?”

A new, flexible auditorium/theater with adjacent, expanded open spaces integrate both the center’s focus on Jewish culture and the desire to have a place for gatherings and celebrations for members and the larger community, she said.

But the JCC is not just for those who are Jewish, she explained.

“We serve as an outreach to the Jewish community for Jewish life and culture. We are very culturally based. But our membership includes a large share of families and individuals who are not Jewish,” she said.

To set it all in motion, the board of directors set about asking a small group of donors for money to get this first phase of construction underway.

“While this is not an insignificant project,” Neuman said, “it is the first of many that we believe we will do in the future. The idea is to successfully bring this one to completion, then demonstrate its success — and that of the ‘J’ — then build on that success for the next phase.”

The project is already well underway with a complete gutting of the existing theater/auditorium. The new space will have seating for 350 rather than 230 in the old configuration. The new seats can be easily folded away into a much smaller unit than before, freeing up floor space to be used for celebrations such as bar mitzvahs, weddings and the like.

In addition, the old space was windowless and had dark coverings on the walls and seats. The plan calls for placing several skylights in the roof and windows along the north side, which can be covered with a touch of a button during performances and shows.

Nearly 200 people can be seated at tables for plated dinners in the remodeled space. The existing stage will remain.

The entire space will be rewired and reworked for a state-of-the-art digitized theater experience with a sound system and visual amenities that can showcase films, host musical groups and plays or dance performances.

The adjacent open gathering spaces flow into the theater and can be separated if needed, keeping the arrangement flexible.

When it is not being used for programming by the center, the space will be available to other users, such as the Jewish Film Festival every February, or private events.

No matter the use, it will really become a theater for the community, Neuman said.

Neuman emphasizes that this is not a money-making enterprise. “Our first obligation is to our members, but we will want to share with others,” she said.

But of course, as any property owner knows, upkeep is key.

And to that point, the first order of business for the 92,000-square-foot building was to replace the roof at a cost of $600,000.

At the present time, the SJCC is operating at capacity, she said, pointing to the parade of children enrolled in summer activities marching through the hallways.

“We have 12,000 visitors every year,” she said. “We have many needs to deal with.”

And the ‘J’ is committed to sustainability, Neuman said.

During the demolition, nearly everything is being recycled or repurposed. Even the auditorium seats are not being sent to a landfill. Parts and pieces of those are being reused.



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