Center of attention: Jewish community center reaches out to everyone

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DENVER | Exclusion was hard to find at the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center on a recent Friday morning.

A sense of community -— that key word in the center’s title — was at play at the Denver JCC as older, retired members came for fitness classes and the youngest members reported for daycare programs. Small groups of members worked up a sweat in yoga and Pilates classes, while others exercised in one of the center’s two salt-water pools. The 10-acre complex was a magnet for all members of the surrounding community just west of Aurora, Jewish or not.

“About half of our members in the Sports and Fitness (program) are not Jewish. But they’re tied in to the community,” said program director Rachel Brown. “Whatever the emphasis is, we see people come together … This place is like a social center for a lot of peoples’ lives and has been since they were small children.”

That’s not to say the place is completely bereft of cultural cues.

A quote from the 12th century Jewish scholar Maimonides adorns a large wall in the center’s Sports & Fitness Center; a vivid color photo of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem takes up another. The massive shape of a menorah on the west wall is visible to cars driving up and down Dahlia Street on Denver’s east side.

All of those elements are really no wonder. Since opening in 1922 in a small space in west Denver, the cultural orientation of the Jewish Community Center of Denver has been right there in its name. Like the similar Jewish community centers that started popping up across the country before it, the Denver facility always kept the Jewish religion, culture and tradition at the heart of its mission.

The JCC’s mix of instruction, exercise and culture is open to all, but getting that message out to the wider community has been a challenge. According to JCC staff, many still see a false sense of exclusion when it comes to the JCC.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” said spokeswoman Talia Haykin. She compared the mission of the JCC to that of the Young Men’s Christian Association facilities, which eventually took on the shortened title of “the Y.” Historically, YMCAs offer a similar mix of classes and community resources. “It’s hard. People hear ‘Jewish’ and they think it’s not necessarily for them.”

Brown mentioned features like the men’s shvitz, a massive steam bath that’s drawn a loyal cadre of members for more than half a century.“This place has the ability to retain members like no other because people are so tied to it,” she said.

A wide spectrum of people were easy to spot on a sunny weekday last week. Aspiring artists of all ages and backgrounds worked clay in a pottery class helmed by instructor Carol Redmond. Toddlers in the center’s preschool program spent the morning engaged in a very specific curriculum called the Reggio Emilia approach — the teaching style stresses tactile learning, independent thinking and interactions with other students.

In the newly refurbished Elaine Wolf Theatre on the south side of the building (the theater and associated classrooms are officially part of the Mizel Arts and Culture Center), public school students from across the metro area sat in on theater and acting classes. The main, 400-seat theater was dark for the day, but a children’s stage adaptation of the story “Rumpelstiltskin” directed by Denver theater vet Billie McBride would run later in the weekend. 

That cultural wing plays a big part in building bridges to the wider community. The Singer Gallery has hosted artwork by local artists and European masters like Marc Chagall. Since formally reopening as the Elaine Wolf Theatre in 2012, the center’s amphitheater has hosted internationally renowned musicians, artists and filmmakers. From the annual Denver Jewish Film Festival to the Jewish Arts, Authors, Movies, Music fest, the theater run through the Mizel Arts and Culture Center has worked to complement the biggest venues in Denver and Aurora. 

“We’re really trying to collaborate with more arts organizations in Colorado,” said Ely Hemnes, festivals coordinator for the MACC. “Our hope is to be a player and to converse with them so we can all be better artists.”

The mission of improving the larger community goes deeper than the arts program here. The cultural context may be Jewish — the center closes for holidays like Passover, has gender-specific swim times for deeply religious members and stays open on Christmas. Still, the JCC remains a facility with a bigger aim: to provide important services to all community members, no matter
affiliation.

“In this day and age, we may not have the same community needs that we did 90 years ago,” Haykin said. “We’ve changed and adopted to the times. We provide this top-quality programming, and it just so happens that we are a JCC.”  

For schedules, membership rates and other details about the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center, call 303-399-2660 or log on to jccdenver.org.

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]