50 years on Mercer Island; Fostering community through the SJCC

Celebration planned for Sept. 13-15.

The Stroum Jewish Community Center (SJCC) was incorporated in 1949 with the purpose of fostering Jewish social affiliation among the different groups of the Jewish community. In the late ‘40s, the Jewish body was divided — and the J provided a place for all Jewish people to come together.

This year the center celebrates 70 years since its inception and 50 years on Mercer Island. Originally the center (open to everyone) began in Seattle, after the Elks Building was purchased at Fourth Avenue and Spring Street.

In 1963, a basic facilities study — conducted by the Jewish Federation — looked at the best site for a new Jewish Community Center building. What they found was the Jewish population moving to the east, according to the SJCC’s 50-year Commemorative Book. Mercer Island was selected as the new site due to the price of available land. And since the 1968 groundbreaking — and 1969 opening — of the Island facility, the location has served as a central hub for residents in Seattle, on the Eastside and of course Islanders.

“As a minority, it’s important that Jews have a place, especially during that period of history, where they could celebrate and foster the unique traditions and holidays observances that were not the norm of the region around them,” said Amy Lavin, SJCC CEO. “Even today it’s important to cultivate those types of relationships and connections that allow these traditions to persist and grow over time.”

Lavin, like many other lifelong members, attended preschool at the center. She grew up going through many of the programs and worked at the SJCC and served on the board. Her own children attended preschool there as well.

“The J has kind of been a part of my whole life,” she said.

She’s heard stories of people who married their preschool classmates and the unions between those who attended camp together. There are children of preschool alumni who use the center, and soon-to-be grandchildren of alumni attending the preschool there. And she notes, having witnessed the growth of the center, many of the positives have stayed the same.

“The warmth of the community aspect and kind of the evergreen sense of the Jewish values that underlie everything we do and intergenerational relationships,” she said.

What has changed is growth and added programming. The recently implemented arts and ideas program screens more than 40 films and produces 30 stage productions each year. And new teen programs add dimension to the center’s offerings, which since the beginning has offered a summer camp. Now more than 1,200 kids attend SJCC summer camp every summer. Children are bused in from Mercer Island, the Eastside and Seattle.

Lavin says currently looking to the future, they’re hoping to complete upgrades to facilities, while respecting the neighborhoods in which the center operates. But before that happens, there will be a community celebration for the center’s 50th year on the Island.

The celebration starts on Sept. 13 and runs until Sept. 15, as part of the second-annual SeaJAM. There will be appearances made by actress Debra Messing and The Great Challah Contest will happen on Friday evening.

And everyone is invited to the celebration.

“Something that we really cherish is making sure there are those places where everyone feels welcome,” Lavin said.

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