Philanthropist Bernard Osher had one response when Rabbi Brian Lurie asked him to help fund a new, innovative Jewish Community Center in Marin, back in 1987.
“My husband said, ‘Go talk to my wife,’ and that was that,” recalled Barbro Osher.
Now Barbro Osher and Lurie are being honored at a gala event for the Bernard Osher Marin JCC’s 70th birthday on Oct. 18. It’ll be an evening to both celebrate the past and put out a call for support for the center’s future as a home for Jewish and community life in the North Bay.
“It’s a very special event to honor this great milestone of 70 years,” said Judy Wolff-Bolton, the San Rafael-based JCC’s executive director. “And the center is still going very strongly and successfully.”
Wolff-Bolton said both Lurie and Osher were instrumental in helping the JCC become the bustling hub of activity that it is now. Lurie is a Bay Area Jewish community heavyweight, having served as executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation for 17 years and president of the Jewish Museum San Francisco (now the Contemporary Jewish Museum) for five years, among other positions.
The Marin JCC was founded in 1948 and moved to a bigger site in the 1960s. But by the 1980s it was clear that the JCC was outgrowing itself. A campaign began for a multi-year effort to build a new facility that was state-of-the art and big enough to handle what the JCC leadership hoped to build. It also marked the creation of the “campus” model that saw the JCC, Brandeis Marin Day School and Congregation Rodef Sholom sharing land.
With an initial $1 million grant, Osher was key in making this new version of the JCC come to life. “She was encouraging her husband to make this important step of putting his name on this facility,” Wolff-Bolton said.
Meanwhile, Lurie convinced a real estate developer and philanthropist, the late Gerald Hoytt, to give a $2 million gift to create the Lonee Celeste Hoytt Jewish Community Campus.
Barbo Osher was born in Sweden. She was an exchange student in Maine as a teenager, which is where she first met Bernard Osher, who eventually became her second husband. An honorary consul of Sweden, she chairs the board of the Bernard Osher Foundation. The Oshers also give through the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation, which is a supporting foundation of the S.F.-based Federation, and the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation, which promotes Swedish education and arts.
In 2015, the Oshers together signed the Giving Pledge, where billionaires can signal their intention to give half of their wealth away to charitable causes, joining others such as Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Wolff-Bolton said she often thinks about the original founders of the JCC, and wishes she could show them what it is today.
“I think about the group of people after World War II who sat around a living room,” she said, calling them, “courageous in their own way in sleepy Marin to create a center for Jewish life.”
And a center it is. Today, the Marin JCC sees over 15,000 people per week, Wolff-Bolton said.
“I think of it [the JCC] as a little town with more than 2,000 people every day, from all walks of life,” she said.
It has programs for Jewish education, early childhood development, arts, fitness, and senior and family events and classes, all part of the expanded vision of the JCC.
“I felt it really needed to become a hub, and it has,” Osher said.
But without that initial investment in the JCC’s future, those numbers never would have happened, Wolff-Bolton said.
“Barbro was looking at JCC as a very community organization, to welcome all faiths and all backgrounds, but still celebrate Jewish life,” she said.
The Oct. 18 gala will include dinner and recognition of Osher and Lurie, who lives in Ross, and the work they did, but it’s also a fundraiser. The Fund for the Future is a $5 million fundraising effort to both pay off property debts and establish a reserve. The JCC is also encouraging people to share their memories and photos beforehand online.
Osher said JCC officials first asked if her husband, Bernard Osher, would attend — but once again it is Barbro who is stepping up to the plate.
“He is for deeds, not words, so he said, ‘Talk to my wife, because she was the one who closed the deal,’” Osher said.