The Seattle-area Stroum Jewish Community Center, founded in 1946, began as a social and recreational club for Jews barred from membership in non-Jewish clubs. It has evolved into a center for the revitalization of Jewish identity and community, and attracts Jews from all denominations and affiliations. It has two facilities, one in Seattle (at 2618 NE 80th Street) and the other on Mercer Island (3801 East Mercer Way). Programs include sports and fitness for all ages, classes in Hebrew and in Yiddish, a Kindergarten enrichment program, seniors clubs, and many activities for teens, among others.
In Seattle, the Jewish Community Center (JCC) began in 1946 as an “Interim Jewish Center Committee” under the umbrella organization of the Jewish Federation.
In 1949 the JCC formally opened its doors under the strategic leadership of first president Norman Davis and secretary Harry Ash. Alfred Shemanski was also an early leader of the organization.
Since its inception, the “J” has gone through a myriad of institutional and building changes. Historically, the JCC, reflected the mission of Jewish Community Centers throughout the United States. It was conceived as a place for Jews to come because they did not have anywhere else to go, due to restrictions prohibiting Jews from many non-Jewish social and recreational clubs. It was a place they could participate in activities with a particular American twist and style: basketball, arts classes and lectures, summer camps, social clubs.
Today the Seattle “J,” like Centers around the country, reflects the community objective of promoting a Jewish Renaissance. Simply put, their program priorities have shifted. Now program goals are designed to attract all Jews in order to encourage Jewish identity and to foster Jewish continuity.
A centerpiece to this community agenda is the Seattle Jewish Community Center's Early Childhood Services (ECS) Department. The ECS Department began in 1964 in a little house in Bellevue with four children. Today their pre-school, day-care, and summer day camp serve the developmental need of hundreds of children a year. Family Jewish education is highlighted as well.
After-school enrichment clubs, as well as summer camp specialty programs, comprise another important component of the “J’s” mandate. In particular, the athletic facility, including an Olympic-size pool, always-busy basketball courts and a small gym with state-of-the-art gymnastic equipment provide a backdrop for the informal education that occurs in the building.
In 1997 the Seattle “J” hosted its very first regional Maccabea Games with participants coming from up and down the West Coast, as well as New York and New Jersey. A growing emphasis on senior programs serves the ballooning population of those who are 60 plus years of age. Recreational and educational activities bring seniors together from around the community. Health screening and other kinds of social service assessments are central to this program.
Cultural Arts also ranks high on the SJCC agenda. A critically acclaimed play series and a youth theater are hallmarks.
Emphasis on the role of Jewish education, not only in an informal arena like theater arts, but also in more formal classes, grew out of the commitment of the “J” to meet this need through a partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. Both institutions joined together in the idea of creating a center for adult Jewish education. The acclaimed Melton School was initiated in 1994 with a grant from the Shulman Loeb Foundation. Now, hundreds of adults meet on Tuesday nights at the Center to study Jewish history, Bible, and ethics.
Although the JCC’s program focuses on the revitalization of Jewish learning and practice, the historic goal of acculturation remains a strong component. Specifically, the Russian aliyah (incoming) to Seattle since the early 1990s has driven the JCC’s program. The large numbers of Russian being absorbed into the Seattle community have directed and defined pre-school, camping, senior services, and adult enrichment programs. Once again the “J” has become the Settlement House.
The physical facility, shaped by the objective of reaching out to all kinds of Jews, has been transformed over the years in order to attract the greatest concentration of constituents. In 1969, the “J” relocated from a downtown hub, at the Elks Club on 4th Avenue and Spring Street, to its present site on Mercer Island. Herman Sarkowsky, building fund chair, worked to hire architect Paul Thiry, who designed the Seattle Center, the Frye Art Museum, and other notable buildings, to construct the Mercer Island facility. The Jack Benaroya Company built the structure.
In 1981, shortly after an expansion and remodeling, the center faced a financial crisis. In a dramatic attempt to raise cash, the entire operation of the facility was shut down for several days. Samuel Stroum (1921-2001), a past president of the Center, assumed a leadership role to head this emergency campaign and make up the shortfall. Stroum’s commitment and energy paid off and the lights were turned back on. The “J” was renamed the Sam and Althea Stroum Jewish Community Center. Shortly after the financial crisis, a community census revealed that while a large concentration of Jews lived on the Eastside, many resided in the north end of Seattle. In 1984, a north end Branch of the SJCC was established. In the ensuing years a building was dedicated, a growing pre-school created, and enrichment programs for children and adults developed.
Today the Stroum Jewish Community Center is dedicated to engaging a diverse population of Seattle’s Jewish community for the purpose of education, recreation, and Jewish enrichment. In the fall of 2007 the Seattle facility moved to 2618 NE 80th Street.