For a long time it seemed as though it could not be done: have a central place for Jews to congregate in Orange County, California. As a matter of fact, for many years, being a Jew in Orange County was an oxymoron, and as Irving Chase said, “[If you took a job in Orange County] it was like being transferred to Siberia.” But Jews in Orange County always found a place to gather—whether it was the synagogue, or the JCC in Laguna Beach, Garden Grove, or Baker Street in Costa Mesa, there was always a place. But it always fell a little short.
Then in the early part of the twenty-first century, a Campus Committee of approximately seven members changed that. At first, members like Chase, Mike Lefkowitz and Ralph Stern had no clear-cut goals. “We did not know what to compare it to,” said Chase. No one knew what was going to be built, and most of the goals evolved in a “learn as you go” process. It was not the usual way of starting a JCC, and that required someone who had experience in getting Jewish Community Centers off the ground—enter Dan Bernstein.
Bernstein was living in Sarasota, Florida. He and his wife loved the warm weather, but he wanted to go back to New York. “When Avi Namak approached me, I said ‘no’ three times,” says Bernstein. So what impelled Bernstein to say yes? “The weather, the new building, and the fact I did not need to wear a suit and tie!” laughed Bernstein. “Additionally, I felt an instant connection to the people who interviewed me.”
Fortunately, Bernstein’s disdain for ties was the advantage the Orange County Jewish Community needed! And the dream of a permanent building, where Jews could gather to learn, play basketball, swim, work out, or throw a pot, was realized on August 15, 2004. “Our goal was 500 families on opening day,” said Bernstein. “We had 1,100!” And the campus was packed with between 3,000 and 4,000 people interested in checking out the new JCC. Today that number has grown to 50,000 repeat customers walking through the doors each month, and the JCC has opened its doors to all, regardless of race, religion, age or family status. Diversity graces the halls of the Samueli Campus, and, as stated by the website, “…the programs and services at the JCC celebrate family, foster health and well-being, embrace tradition, create friendships, and expand cultural horizons all in a safe, positive, friendly and inviting environment.” It is fulfilling the vision of Bernstein and the original Campus Committee who saw it as a place to build Jewish lives.
When Bernstein came on board, he had another dream for Orange County. An avid sportsman who loves basketball, Bernstein made it his mission to bring the Maccabi Games to Orange County. In 2007 the Maccabi Games put Orange County on the (Jewish) map. The Opening Ceremony, held at the Honda Center, brought together 9,000 spectators and 3,000 Jewish teen athletes who waved flags and banners as they paraded around the floor. It was an evening that brought Jews in Orange County together under the premise of pride, strength and community. Many Jews who had not stepped foot in a synagogue for years, or into a JCC for that matter, attended the opening ceremonies. The five-day event hosted sports ranging from soccer to dance, and in addition to the 15,000 people involved in the games, 800 Jewish homes opened their doors to Jewish athletes from around the world.
“Since then,” said Bernstein, “people from all over want to come to the Merage JCC!” In 2013, Orange County again hosted the JCC Maccabi Games and Art Fest. This time, 2,000 visiting Jewish teens from across the globe and thousands of members from Orange County’s own community, including 800 host families, 1,500 volunteers and 350 teen athletes and artists participated in the games.
But the Merage JCC is not all about sports and athletes. The JCC provides a place for Jews to gather outside of the synagogue. “When my kids were young,” said Chase, “you had to call around and possibly drive across town if you wanted your kids to play with other Jewish kids…. Now, you just have to go to the J.”
And it brings families together as well. “Where else can you come together as a family, then part ways as the grandparents go to the fitness center, the parents go to an art class, and the kids play in the gym—then a couple of hours later you meet at the café? That really happens here!” said Bernstein. “It is a safe place where you can feel connected Jewishly.”
But bricks and mortar were the easy part. “The most difficult challenge,” said Bernstein, “was to hire 45 people who had never worked at a JCC. It is a unique industry—you have to understand the JCC, you have to understand working with Jews…. You need an arduous work ethic and be okay with all the moving parts of the JCC.” Everyone was nervous about how the Merage JCC would turn out. The idea of a self-sustaining organization with membership fees was uncharted territory in Orange County. “We had to build an organization that served the mission and provided good quality programs and products,” said Bernstein. “We have that great value…. We have great programs, a great fitness center, a great preschool.” As with any new organization, there were growing pains, starts and stops to hiring, and attrition; but many of the JCC staff members that came on board in 2004 are still with the JCC 10 years later. “This is not science,” said Bernstein. “There is no magic; the staff knows they have to deliver. They know the expectations and they meet them. The staff delivers!” But regardless of the tenure, the staff has helped to make the organization what it is today. And according to Chase, “The success [of the Merage JCC] comes from the staff—from Dan Bernstein on down.”
So what is in the cards for the next 10 years? According to Bernstein, “It is time to give another community the opportunity to host the Maccabi Games!” So no games are scheduled for the OC. Bernstein plans on focusing on the JCC’s mission to keep Jewish people Jewish. How? “By enriching Jewish identity through programs,” he said. “And building memories of being Jewish.” It is Bernstein’s hope to start people on their Jewish journey as well as stay on their Jewish journey. The Merage JCC is the place for informal Jewish education. “The JCC is the destination for Jews who do not want to join a synagogue,” said Chase. “For some that’s enough.” For others, being around Jewish people makes one feel Jewish.
The community has grown since the Merage JCC opened in 2004. The JCC was respectful of synagogues and other Jewish organizations in Orange County, and that has worked in helping the community grow. “We’ve come a long way,” said Bernstein. “Now we’re at the point of solidifying things.” What does that look like? More global community partnerships; figuring out how to make people feel just that much more Jewish; building more Jewish memories; and showing Israel in a positive light.
The best way to describe the JCC, said Bernstein, is that it has a “social worker heart and business mind.” That is evident by the $300,000 in scholarships given away by the Merage JCC.
Dr. Lisa Grajewski is a psychologist working toward licensure. She is a therapist with Jewish Federation Family Services, and a psychological assistant with a private practice in Tustin. Dr. Grajewski has been writing for JLife since 2004.