Four generations of the Chase Family celebrate Jewish Orange County

Walking through the halls of the Merage Jewish Community Center today it’s hard to imagine that the facility hasn’t always been at its home at 1 Federation Way in Irvine. In reality, the facility is just about to celebrate its 18th birthday. There’s a vibe to the J that’s uniquely Jewish while at the same time sporty and youthful. There’s a certain “taam”, the Yiddish word for taste that you can sense when you smell the warm scent of challah baking in preparation for Shabbat. Or you can hear in the ubiquitous clicks of mah jongg tiles and sound of laughter as preschoolers climb, swing and pedal and older children gather on the sports fields and in the courtyard. Walk by the gym anytime of day and you’ll hear the thump and swish of basketballs or, more recently, the swat of pickleball paddles. The early morning swimmers, the fit and the want-to-be-fit of all ages work out in the gym, step to the beat at Zumba or carry their yoga mats to classes.
    In 2004, the outline of a 220,000 concrete building pad appeared on the vacant lot, and the shell came to life as the central address for Jewish Orange County. A trailer appeared next and hard hat tours of what was to be one of the premier fitness centers in the community attracted members from the nearby communities.
    The goal was to be a place where Jews of any or no affiliation would feel welcome. More than that, it was designed to be a home for Orange County’s Jewish community and neighbors and friends alike. When the J opened its doors in August of 2004, 1,200 member families signed up. Every year since the J has expanded and refined its program offerings.
    Scott Braswell, CEO of the Merage JCC says, “We’ve chosen to celebrate the J this year because 18 is a special number in Jewish tradition. Chai, the Hebrew word for life, also refers to the number18. That’s because each Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent, and the sum of chet (numerical value of 8) and yud (numerical value of 10) is 18. As a result of its connection to the word for life and we’re celebrating how much the J has enriched the life of the entire Orange County Jewish community.”
    The history of the Orange County JCC goes back farther than 2004. In 1977, nine Laguna Beach families determinedly turned a rented former hamburger stand into the JCC of South Orange County. In 1983 another enthusiastic group of Jews started the JCC of Central Orange County in Garden Grove on what was formerly a junior high school campus. In 1990 the centers merged and located on Baker Street in Costa Mesa. Meeting the needs of a growing Jewish community, Allan Fainbarg and Arnold Feuerstein donated a community building in Costa Mesa, merging the two JCCs.
    Our metropolis continued to grow, and community leaders further imagined what a Jewish community could be. Fainbarg and Feuerstein encouraged the sale of the Costa Mesa building to jump-start a community-wide expansion effort. Broadcom co-founders and philanthropists Henry and Susan Samueli donated property in Irvine and later the Merage and Stern families, and a group of generous donors, built the Samueli Jewish Campus. The Campus evolved into the permanent home of Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School, and the Merage Jewish Community Center which provided offices for the Jewish Federation Orange County, Jewish Family Services, the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County, the local chapters of Hillel and Jewish Bureau of Education.
    Dan Bernstein the J’s first CEO stated, “On the first day we opened our doors, no one knew if it was going to be empty or packed. We closed our eyes and crossed our fingers. On that day and every day since, thousands of people have come through our doors,” Dan continues, “whether they are watching a movie or exercising together they come as a community.”
    Irv Chase, the JCC’s first board chair said, “Reality exceeded expectations. The center is nothing short of miraculous for this community. Our vision is to ensure Jewish continuity in Orange County.” And today’s board chair, Hal Altman, also heralded the vision of our leaders, “Eighteen years later our community is the better for it. The Merage JCC on the Samueli Campus is not just a building, but the true center of the Jewish community in the OC. It will continue to grow and prosper for generations to come.”   


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