It was a bad day for Tracy Ucuzoglu when she learned the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center preschool would abruptly close, leaving her in the lurch about what to do with her 5-year-old son.
The stunning announcement Dec. 15 alarmed many JCC parents, all of them wondering who could take in their children on short notice. It turned out several East Bay Jewish institutions were ready and willing to do so.
Following the closure, the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, under the supervision of director of early childhood education Michelle Tirella-Green, opened a help line for parents to facilitate placement of their kids. And three local Jewish preschools stepped up to take in nearly 80 children who were displaced.
The Contra Costa Jewish Day School kindergarten in Lafayette took in 13 children — including Ucuzoglu’s son — while the schools at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette took in 43 and 10 children, respectively.
“It was a really devastating experience,” Ucuzoglu said of the JCC closure. “We received 48 hours’ notice. It became a grassroots effort to find new schools for these children.”
She and other parents immediately started calling East Bay Jewish institutions, and found sympathetic ears. “The wheels were set in motion,” she said. “It was a matter of families deciding where they would go, teachers not taking vacations [over the December break] and setting up classrooms identical to those [the children] had at the JCC.”
Dean Goldfein, head of school at the Contra Costa Jewish Day School, and Temple Isaiah Rabbi Judy Shanks attended a community meeting the day after the closure, where they assessed the situation.
“[Judy and I] were both on the same page,” Goldfein remembered, “and knew we could make this work. There was a real desire to keep the kids with their teachers in a Jewish setting.”
His bridge kindergarten program not only took in 13 children, it also hired two teachers from the JCC, ensuring continuity for the kids.
“We had to do a little bit of juggling on our end to incorporate them into our building,” Goldfein said. “It was a lot of work in a short period of time, but a week later we had contracts in place. The parents were extremely grateful.”
At Temple Isaiah’s Gan Ilan Preschool, early childhood director Liz Kaufman met with Shanks to develop a plan to take in 10 kids. They also hired one former JCC teacher full time, and several others part time.
“In times of distress we all reach out to help,” Kaufman said, “and this was definitely a time of distress. Here [the families] are totally happy, settled and relieved they have a place to go. The kids are with their old friends.”
At B’nai Shalom, the board called a special meeting shortly after the JCC closure. The preschool was able to absorb 43 children, which meant converting three meeting rooms into preschool classrooms and hiring several JCC teachers.
“It was very important to our board of directors that we do what we can for the community,” said B’nai Shalom Rabbi Jennifer Flam. “It’s been inspiring to watch different institutions throughout the East Bay step up and contribute what they can to ensure these children do not lose a sense of Jewish connection and feel supported by the broader community.”
As for the JCC itself, it sits locked and empty on Tice Valley Boulevard. Robert Rich, who remains the official JCC board president, said his top priority is to make sure former JCC preschool parents receive full refunds for tuition deposits and other monies paid in advance.
Rabbi Jim Brandt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, said his organization is on it.
“The federation and foundation of the East Bay are in the process of engineering a strategy to reimburse parents for prepaid tuition,” he said.
Added Rich, “We’ve been hoping to be in a position to spread some good news about that. We’ve been communicating to the parents that we’re working on it. By and large, they understand we’re making an effort.”
He also said the board is looking ahead to eventually selling the property. There are no efforts afoot to revive the JCC.
Like the preschool kids, older adults who formerly took part in JCC programming have been displaced. Janice Corran, executive director of the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, said her institution continues to open its doors to those seniors.
“Our plan is to include the former CCJCC seniors in any activities we offer,” Corran said, “from holiday meals to lectures and entertainment.”
The upcoming schedule includes a Purim lunch and a Passover seder, which in the past had drawn up to 100 seniors to the CCJCC. Now those events will take place at Reutlinger, 10 miles from the CCJCC.
Other JCC senior programs, such as thrice-weekly hot meals and the Alzheimer’s respite program, have folded, with participants given referrals to other county resources.
But former JCC director of adult programs Shoshana Eliyahu said other activities will live on. The senior opera club and discussion group will now meet at the Rossmoor senior adult community in Walnut Creek, a mile from the JCC site.
Her former clients “are finding other resources,” Eliyahu added, “but it’s not in the same atmosphere. I think the community is feeling the loss of the JCC. They are sad, not knowing what to do, and they miss the center as a place to socialize.”
Ucuzoglu also misses the JCC, but she’s happy to have her child continuing his education in a Jewish setting.
“It really restores my faith in our East Bay Jewish community,” she said. “The leaders really stepped up, and we instantly felt part of a new community, which was a great feeling.”