Not only does Judy Edelson remember opening day of Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City, she remembers opening minute.
“I was standing in the front door. It was 5:30 in the morning, and I saw people coming to swim. I said, ‘My God, they’re really going to come,'” she recalled.
She was right. Since that day in May 2004, the PJCC has become a hub of Jewish life in the region, drawing thousands for various cultural activities, fitness programs and Jewish learning opportunities.
For more than two decades, Edelson stood at the helm as executive director, guiding the PJCC’s transition from its small campus in neighboring Belmont to the ample, 12-acre site in Foster City. But in January 2008, she will step down and say goodbye.
“By the time I leave, it will be 24 years associated with this center,” she said. “I’ve been part of something very important here.”
Though she is the first to credit her staff, board and donors, Edelson was a driving force behind the construction of the new PJCC. Philanthropist Lorry Lokey, who gave $11 million to the project, said Edelson’s personal appeal made a big difference.
“She landed me,” remembered Lokey of his first meeting with her some eight years ago. “She’s not a hammer-on-the-head type but had a nice, persuasive ring. You feel very comfortable she knows what she’s doing.”
On his way to that meeting, Lokey figured he’d offer around $100,000 but “it became clear they had a lot of money to raise.
“At lunch Judy finally popped the question,” he recalled. “I said, ‘How much do you need?’ She said, ‘About $5 million. I said ‘Make it six.'”
“Once you get to know Judy, you don’t say no to her,” added PJCC donor Phyllis Friedman. “She has such energy and vision. She’s always thinking about the people’s needs.”
Over the years, PJCC membership has more than doubled, from around 4,000 members to near 10,000.
“I see this as a culmination of my life’s work,” Edelson said. “I’m proud and excited every day I come to work.”
A native of Los Angeles, Edelson first connected with the Jewish communal world through camping, specifically Camp JCA in Barton Flats. As an adult she returned to JCA as director of their Malibu camp. That led to an eight-year tenure as director of Camp Tawonga.
“I loved Tawonga,” she recalled. “I loved the opportunity to transform kids’ lives and give them a chance to experience Judaism in the out-of-doors. I never got tired of it.”
From there she took a job at the Peninsula JCC in Belmont. “It was a very lovely, small center that a group of dedicated people had put together,” said Edelson. “We were there for 40 years. It looked like a little kibbutz, but there was no room for expansion.”
That led to the search for a new and bigger site. The Foster City parcel, once intended for a public high school, became the future home of the new PJCC.
All these years later, Lokey said proudly, “the PJCC, along with [the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco], are leading entities in North American JCCs.”
Edelson, 64, approaches retirement with her customary unalloyed enthusiasm. “The most precious thing we have is our time,” she said. “I’d like to explore other opportunities while I feel young and healthy enough — traveling, hobbies, maybe consulting.”
The search is on for Edelson’s successor, though friends acknowledge she will be hard to replace. Of course, the San Mateo resident hopes to be a presence at the PJCC for years to come.
“I hope they honor me with a membership,” she said.