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Rescue talk buoys — and worries — JCC members
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Rescue talk buoys — and worries — JCC members

“We need a Jewish community center that welcomes everybody"

The Ruth Hyman Jewish Community Center in Deal has been like a second home for Mollie Sasson of Eatontown since she moved to the shore from Brooklyn at age 13. This June would have marked her 14th year as a JCC fitness instructor.

With the JCC in bankruptcy and leaders working hard to find a solution, longtime staffers and members are both wary and hopeful that the center will not only be saved but restored to the community hub it once was.

Sasson has since found a new job at a local gym, but, she said, she will never find the same sense of warmth and unity that the JCC represented.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t miss the JCC and its people. It is a huge hole that is missing from the community,” Sasson told NJJN. “We desperately need a Jewish community center that welcomes everybody. It is important for Jews to stick together regardless of background.”

Many community members remain hopeful that the center will be revived by parties in the Deal Sephardi community who have expressed interest in investing in the center. If so, longtime members hope the famously tight-knit Sephardim will encourage diversity at the center. In its 72-year history, the JCC membership has included, in addition to its Jewish members, mixed-faith families, Jews by choice, and non-Jews.

“I'd love to see the JCC re-open with the same environment as before, that’s geared toward the Jewish community and promotes Jewish causes, but definitely is not exclusive. Otherwise I would no longer patronize the facility,” said Dr. Lewis Wetstein of Interlaken, a member for 10 years.

Such concerns, and many more, remain unanswered as the JCC continues to engage in debt negotiations with TD Bank. The bank initiated foreclosure on the facility this past spring.

“The process continues to be slow. I’m sorry, but at this time we don’t have any updates,” said Jeffrey Saka of Deal, president of the Deal Sephardic Network’s board of directors and a leading player in the negotiations with the JCC.

“As soon as we have something to report we will reach out to you,” Saka wrote in an e-mail to NJJN.

Repeated calls and e-mails by NJJN to members of the JCC board were not returned.

As the situation at the JCC became more uncertain, Chris Katz of Ocean Township canceled her family membership after 13 years.

“The JCC was like a home where you socialized with people you have known forever. But everything just started dying out. Many of the fitness classes and after-school programs were no longer being offered,” Katz said. “I would love to see the JCC return to how it once was — a center that welcomes the community at large, including non-Jews.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Monmouth County reiterated its standing offer to help bring parties together in dialogue.

“It will take a while to come together, but the JCC is still open,” said federation executive director Keith Krivitzky. “Jewish federation is committed to working with interested parties to maintain the JCC facility in the Jewish community and make it available to broad segments of the community.”

To members who continue to frequent the facility, like Wetstein, the atmosphere is bleak. “The situation at the JCC is terrible. Members are leaving daily,” he said.

For Betty Ades of Long Branch, who has been a member for 23 years, the JCC offered a strong sense of community as well as fitness programs she described as incomparable. But her immediate concern is the survival of the Axelrod Performing Arts Center, located within the JCC facility.

The Axelrod PAC continues to move forward with a full slate of programs, said its CEO, Jess Levy. Upcoming Axelrod programs include a new Jewish/Israeli film series sponsored by the Monmouth federation in April, and the Tony Award-winning musical 42nd Street in June. The Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts program — now under the Axelrod umbrella instead of the JCC’s — will present the musical Alice in Wonderland Jr. in May.

“The Axelrod has had discussions with the Deal Sephardic Network regarding the administration of the theater should they assume ownership of the JCC property. We are hopeful that a resolution of the JCC financial situation will be reached by the end of April,” Levy said.

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