The Essential Role of JCCs as a Jewish Third Space

Bill and Melinda Gates began their philanthropy with a focus on bringing Internet access to public libraries. In fact, the original name of the Gates Foundation was the Gates Library Foundation. Working as a member of the Global Libraries team at the Gates Foundation, I learned that libraries are valued as a “Third Space” – not home, not work, nor school, but a vital communal place that safeguards democratic values. Our work focused on creating and sustaining welcoming public spaces that provide important technological resources, programming, and a sense of community that might otherwise be lacking.

For the past two years, I’ve worked in an office at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center (OFJCC), situated within the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto. Here I have found a similar public space, albeit one rooted in Jewish culture and values.

Oshman Family CC

I typically arrive early in the morning to exercise at the fitness center, where I am warmly greeted by the staff at the front desk. The people I see and banter with throughout the center are a cross-section of Silicon Valley: people of all ages and genders, from their late teens into their 80’s, many from our Jewish community, intermingled with a cross-section of races and ethnicities.

I shower and grab a cup of coffee before walking across the beautifully designed campus to my office. The colors and landscaping throughout the OFJCC are based on the native plants, trees, and textures of Israel. I see parents dropping off their little ones for preschool, trusting the JCC to provide a healthy and positive learning experience in a Jewish context. The same diversity is evident among these families. Children from different backgrounds are all coming together to play, learn, and laugh.

I sit in my office to start work. Inevitably an older adult will knock on the door with a question. The Moldaw Residences, a senior living facility co-located on the Campus, is woven into the fabric of this JCC, with its residents an integral part of the community, too.

Residents of Moldaw Residences participated in mahjong games with children from the OFJCC's afterschool enrichment program (photo via Facebook)

Later in the day, I am greeted by school-aged children and teens on campus for afterschool care and an array of enrichment activities. They are running, playing dodgeball, learning Hebrew, singing, and gardening. This diverse group of young people is growing and learning together. There is a special energy on Friday afternoons, as some gather for a Shabbat schmooze.

I am often tempted to stay for the cultural and educational programs that take place each evening. There is a rich diversity here too. Champions of industry share insights into cutting edge approaches to stem global warming or respond to the international refugee crisis. Luminaries share best practices for raising children, grapple with the complexities of Israel, or present high-caliber musical performances.

Postmodern Jukebox performs at the OFJCC Annual Benefit in February 2020 (photo by Saul Bromberger)

The experience is unique but similar at each of the Bay Area’s other JCCs.

Each is a welcoming public space, rooted in Jewish values and culture, serving diverse audiences with a rich array of offerings. These are places where people connect and feel a sense of belonging. We are blessed in the Bay Area to have these Jewish Third Spaces – not home nor work nor even synagogue. Jewish families of different racial backgrounds feel at home, as do non-Jewish families. This enriching and engaging public sphere is of vital importance to who we are as a Bay Area Jewish community.

For the many in the Bay Area who identify as cultural Jews, JCCs offer space to connect to Jewish life in an accessible way. As we’ve learned from The Portrait of Bay Area Life and Communities, the Bay Area is home to one of the most diverse Jewish communities in the country. Having this public space in which people of all backgrounds are welcomed to experience Jewish life is fundamental to establishing a sense of belonging and to creating meaningful Jewish pathways.

In addition, countless people of diverse faiths and backgrounds walk through the doors of our JCCs to use the fitness centers, send their children to preschool or afterschool activities, or attend public programs. They see the Hebrew language, hear the names of our holidays, and notice mezuzahs on the doorposts. In this environment, we positively express and share who we are as Jews, throughout the diverse tapestry of Northern California. This broader non-Jewish community appreciates the opportunity to work out, learn, eat, and debate together in these public spaces that we have built, making our Jewish community a tangible and significant contributor to the public good.

Top: Osher Marin JCC, PJCC, Middle: JCCSF, Bottom: JCC East Bay, Addison-Penzak JCC

Our JCCs pioneered a business model that enabled earned income to be the primary support of their operations.

This intentional design helped ensure their sustainability in ordinary times. However, today we are in an extraordinary time. Without the regular flow of income from fitness center membership, preschool tuition, and program fees, these precious Jewish communal spaces face serious risks without our committed support.

Just as the Gates Foundation made a mark by investing in public libraries, now is our time to invest in JCCs to ensure their long-term future. One of the best investments we can make to strengthen and safeguard our community is to ensure the long-term future of these Jewish spaces that welcome all and showcase the best of our community. The JCCs are my place, our space, and a Jewish public space where we embrace our entire Bay Area community.

Michael Chertok is the Federation's Director of Philanthropy for the Peninsula and Silicon Valley.

Learn more about Federation Philanthropy Partners.

Categories: Philanthropy, Community


October 15, 2020