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On 10-year anniversary, Oshman Family JCC celebrates more than Jewish life

How the Palo Alto campus grew into a culturally diverse destination

Since opening on the Taube Koret Campus 10 years ago, the Schultz Cultural Arts Hall has featured a mix of up-and-coming and internationally acclaimed performers. Photo courtesy of Tim Griffith.

When the Oshman Family JCC presented Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," it hosted four back-to-back performances in English, Russian, Hebrew and Mandarin.

Mandarin? You bet! For the past decade, the Jewish community center has served as a microcosm of the wider community, using the arts as well as myriad community activities — including a multicultural Shabbat dinner where Mediterranean and Muslim caterers serve food side by side — to bring families of all backgrounds together at its Palo Alto campus.

"We try and cater to all pockets of our community," said Luba Palant, director of community engagement at the campus. "We may host artists from the Russian community and performers from the Israeli community, while offering opportunities for religious Jews to host matzah-making workshops for Passover."

These events have brought together "people from all cultural and faith backgrounds, from Sikh to Christians to Jews and Muslims," Palant added.

On Aug. 18, the Oshman Family JCC (OFJCC) will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the opening of its Midpeninsula cultural center, the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, with a free community celebration.

The event will include family-oriented activities, water games for youth, a beer garden for grownups, a Mario Kart competition for teens and a Zumba party for all ages choreographed by the JCC's dance and fitness instructors. Performances feature musician and movement teacher Zhanna Shpits and the Fantasy Dance Group. A cooking demonstration is part of the festivities, and food will be available for purchase. Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth also is scheduled to speak.

The Oshman Family JCC has much to celebrate. Although a JCC has been part of the Palo Alto scene since the 1960s, the current campus, which incorporates eco-conscious technology, is its first permanent home. Since opening the doors of its custom-built 8.5-acre center at 3921 Fabian Way in 2009, about 25,000 visitors now pass through the campus each week to use the Goldman Sports and Wellness Complex, the Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, the Leslie Family Early Childhood Education Center or attend the center's many multigenerational programs. The center has grown to 11,000 members, according to CEO Zack Bodner.

And in recent years, its facilities and offerings have expanded, too. The campus now includes the new Freidenrich Community Park, which opened in 2018 and features a synthetic lawn, a running track, exercise equipment and outdoor recreational facilities. The adjoining Arrilaga Family Pavilion provides expanded classroom and conference space. And the expanded Nourish cafe now overlooks the Oasis outdoor play center for kids.

These additions, which were part of the original footprint for the envisioned campus, were able to be completed because of the generosity of donors, Bodner said. The campus itself, which includes the Moldaw Residences for seniors, as well as Jewish community offices, a co-working office suite and an Orthodox girls' high school, "was a monumental achievement for the Bay Area nonprofit and Jewish communities," he added. "When it was built, it was the largest project ever undertaken by a nonprofit organization in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties."

Serving Jews, on and off campus, is part of the OFJCC's mission, but it is not the totality. In arts and culture, Ronit Widmann-Levy, OFJCC director of arts and cultural programming, calls her approach "JEDIs for art," with JEDI serving as an acronym for Jewishness, equality, diversity and inclusion.

"These are divisive times and our job now is more important than ever," she said during an interview in her office. "Arts is a great vehicle to connect people, and we do that across the board in all our departments."

"We try to feature good art, above all, and serve a slice of each of the demographics that make up this community," said Widmann-Levy, who also serves as producer and curator for the independent TEDxPalo Alto events, sponsored by the OFJCC.

"It doesn't necessarily have to be a Jewish artist (or program). When Jews come around to hear (former Secretary of Defense) Ash Carter, they come together to discuss matters of the day." While stars like Mandy Patinkin and Alan Cumming fetched $150 and up, "some events are very inexpensive," she noted. "Some (performers) are very well known, some not. We catch them just before they become big stars."

Upcoming programs include pianist Yefim Bronfman, who performs Sept. 8; actors Jason Alexander and John Malkovich; and fashion designer-turned-cabaret artist Isaac Mizrahi. Also on the boards are the Capitol Steps political comedy troupe, the all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache and the Cirque Mei Chinese circus performers.

Kids' shows and family shows are heavily subsidized, she said, pointing to the JCC's School for the Arts, which she inaugurated several years ago. Last season, kids in the musical theater class presented a one-hour version of Disney's "Aladdin." In January 2020, "The Wizard of Oz" takes the stage.

The School for the Arts also features group piano lessons — two back-to-back pianos take the loneliness out of practicing — as well as ballet, cartooning and preschool music.

The Israeli-born Widmann-Levy, who also performs as an opera singer and has been with the OFJCC for seven years, chose to put much of her energy into children's programming since becoming a parent herself.

"A big part of our mission is making sure children are involved in participating in art programs," she said. "When children are involved in arts — in ensembles, singing, instruments — they're less likely to get into trouble as teens. It's such a life skill that can only be learned through the arts. Our goal is to give everybody a chance to participate."

Freelance writer Janet Silver Ghent can be emailed at ghentwriter@gmail.com.

What: Oshman Family JCC Ten-Year Festival.

Where: Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto.

When: Sunday, Aug. 18, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Cost: Free.

Info: paloaltojcc.org/events/ten-year-festival

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