MJCC campus celebrates five years and a renaissance

Five years ago, Ron Mogel sat in his new Marin office watching the sun rise — and the parking lot fill.

It was opening day of the Marin Jewish Community Center's new campus, a $14 million, 67,000 square-foot facility on 11 acres of oak-covered hillside. Mogel, executive director of the JCC, watched as a 20-year-old dream finally came to life, and hundreds of families drove up to see it materialize.

"I just had this sense of `If you build it, they will come.' And there they were. It was wonderful," recalls Mogel.

More than 10,000 people a day passed through the campus that first weekend, to see not just a new fitness facility, but a constellation of Jewish organizations located side by side at the San Rafael site.

The Marin JCC — first established in 1947 — shares its current space with Brandeis Hillel Day School, Congregation Rodef Sholom, Marin Kindershule, Jewish Family and Children's Services and satellite offices of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council.

"It's a real Jewish neighborhood in Marin County," says MJCC associate director Michael Kamler, who was been with the agency for 15 years.

Kamler calls the five-year old campus "a magnificent statement of collaboration."

Major funding for the project was provided by private donors and foundations including the Koret Foundation, the Marin Community Fund and the Bernard Osher Foundation; the JCC's full name is the Bernard Osher Marin JCC.

On any given day, 2,000 Marinites of all ages pass through the campus to play basketball, swim, eat a knish at the JCC's dairy cafe, attend an Israeli dance class, catch a film-festival screening, or go to nursery school or synagogue services.

"We've really established a renaissance in Marin. There's truly been a revitalization of the whole fabric of Jewish life as a result of the campus," Mogel says.

Currently at 8,000, the MJCC's membership is at capacity and organizations housed on the campus say they have grown since its opening. Rodef Sholom, for example, has seen a membership increase of more than 25 percent in the last five years, according to Rabbi Michael Barenbaum.

"It's not just the building; it's all the activities, the way we function as a community," says Barenbaum, one of the original framers of the campus concept 20 years ago.

The MJCC's CenterStage program, at the 400-seat Hoytt Theater, has fast become one of the center's major community draws.

Last week, singer-pianist Michael Feinstein performed a concert in honor of the building's fifth anniversary. Noted performers including monologuist Spalding Gray, singer Andrea Marcovicci and comedian Kevin Pollak have included the MJCC in their West Coast tours this year.

Dozens of fitness classes at the center's gym go beyond typical athletic offerings such as step aerobics and stretch into more esoteric disciplines including fencing, cardiac rehabilitation and Latin dance.

The MJCC also offers instruction in areas from dollmaking to massage, with a growing number of workshops on Jewish topics such as biblical Hebrew and Jews on film.

But whether it's a Shabbat service or a class in braille transcription that pulls Jews toward North San Pedro Road, the resident rabbi says just the act of coming together in one location enhances the quality of Jewish spiritual life in Marin.

"One thing Judaism gives people is a sense of belonging, of being part of a larger Jewish world," says Barenbaum. "That sense of well-being is something people experience here."