Families enjoy a day on the hiking trail, organized by the Contra Costa JCC during the pandemic.
Families enjoy a day on the hiking trail, organized by the Contra Costa JCC during the pandemic.

What’s a ‘JCC without walls’? In Contra Costa, it’s a community.

Ten years ago, the Contra Costa Jewish community got devastating news. Without warning, the local JCC in Walnut Creek announced it would close its doors the next day — for good.

“It sent shockwaves through the entire community,” said Karla Smith, co-founder of Contra Costa Jewish Day School, about that day in December 2011. “No one knew about it. No one expected it.”

Eventually, the land and building were sold.

A decade later, with some fits and starts along the way, the idea of a “JCC without walls” has taken root. Today the Contra Costa JCC is overseen by a dedicated group of people who run a number of small but thriving programs that have been essential to the region’s Jewish families.

“I see ourselves as the center of the Jewish community,” said JCC board president Larry Jacobs. “Not necessarily a center in the physical sense.”

With the well-loved arts and lecture series “Under One Tent,” as well as expanded activities for young families and a grants program quietly providing funding for a host of important programs, the JCC is still making its presence felt.

“Things change, and you have to change with the times,” Jacobs said.

The JCC was founded in 1976 and drew members from throughout Contra Costa County, as well as from Alameda County cities on the east side of the hills, including Pleasanton and Livermore.

The shuttering of the cash-strapped organization was a surprise to most of the community, which was not told that the center was running out of money. At the time, J. reported on the abrupt announcement, which included the sudden closure of the preschool, a move that left the families of 80 children scrambling. More than two dozen people lost their jobs.

“Practically overnight, the Walnut Creek institution went from a bustling hub, with a popular preschool and senior services center, to a locked-up, empty shell,” J. wrote.

But immediately, and behind the scenes, there were efforts to save some of the JCC’s treasures. At first it looked as if the beloved book festival — which for more than two decades had been held every November to coincide with Jewish Book Month — might not survive.

Riva Gambert, who ran the festival, wasn’t about to let that happen. The year after the closure, she reached out to synagogues and organizations and got a lifeline. Instead of being held at the JCC, the event’s popular author talks, lectures, concerts, comedy, food gatherings and film screenings would be hosted at synagogues and organizations around the area in a community partnership.

Things change, and you have to change with the times.

Now rebranded as “Under One Tent,” it’s the signature program of the JCC — you could even call it the tentpole. It remains a community affair, still being held at about a dozen locations. Congregations B’nai Shalom, B’nai Tikvah and Temple Isaiah have all hosted events, as have local schools and theaters.

Riva Gambert
Riva Gambert

“We’ve been able to do this because of our partnerships,” said Gambert, who still heads the event.

Reaching out for help was a necessity at the time. But it had a silver lining, she said, in how it deepened the JCC’s relationships in the community. “I find now organizations will reach out to us because they see us as a convener,” Gambert said.

This past year and a half, of course, “Under One Tent” has been virtual. There have been talks by Middle East experts, demos by Jewish chefs and a series called “Who Are the Jews?” that looks at Jewish life from Uganda to China. It’s well attended, Gambert said. Where sometimes 40 people would show up for an in-person event, now she’s seeing up to 250 for popular speakers.

“During the first 12 to 16 months of the pandemic, we saw a huge jump in the number virtually attending our programming,” she said.

“Under One Tent” isn’t the JCC’s only program, although it is the most robust. A cooperation with the East Bay JCC began in 2019 but stopped during Covid. It’s uncertain if it will resume.

The JCC is having an impact behind the scenes through its grant-making program. After selling its 6-acre property on Tice Valley Boulevard about five years ago, the organization has a sum of money in hand that has allowed it to dispense $470,000 in grants over the past three years. Six congregations, six Chabad centers and organizations including Contra Costa Midrasha, West Coast NCSY, Shalom Bayit and others (including J.), have received grants of up to $10,000 each, with the JCC handing out a total of $200,000 this year.

“Our real intent is to help organizations to do things they wouldn’t be doing [otherwise],” said JCC board member Jerry Yanowitz.

During the pandemic, the JCC also brought together young families who were longing for companionship and connection. It was a case of thinking, “What can we do outdoors, in person, to bring families together?” according to board member Orit Winton.

The answer? Hikes, holiday celebrations, even a pool date at a local water park.

“Our last event was actually really fun and awesome,” Winton said.

Alana Kleinberger is a member of Temple Isaiah, where there is plenty of children’s programming for her kids, ages 6 and 9. But she likes that the JCC’s hikes and water park meet-ups expand the Jewish community — she’s hung out with friends from other synagogues, and friends who don’t belong to a synagogue at all.

A family outing at a water park organized by the Contra Costa JCC during the pandemic.
A family outing at a water park organized by the Contra Costa JCC during the pandemic.

“It was nice, because it drew from a wider net,” she said.

The gatherings have been monthly so far and always include something outdoors. Sometimes there’s an activity tied to a Jewish holiday. And the events have been popular.

“We hope to expand young family programming,” Gambert said. “It’s been very successful.”

Jacobs knows it’s unusual to have a JCC without a physical location. “You can count on one hand how many ‘JCCs without walls’ there are,” he said.

That’s true — there are only five out of the 170 member facilities in the JCC Association of North America, according to chief marketing officer Joanne Harmon.

“JCCs, both those with physical homes and those without, like Contra Costa, are bringing programs to where their constituents are, and using both mobile and alternative meeting spaces to enable them to come together for all kinds of activities,” head of the JCC Association Doron Krakow told J. in an email. “Every JCC is a Jewish community town square — a place to come together — whether or not that place is in the form of a permanent home.”

And there are benefits to not being tied down to a building, Jacobs said — especially during Covid.

“We were probably one of the only JCCs that wasn’t, frankly, hemorrhaging cash for eight months,” he said.

Smith, who serves as a community representative on the grants committee, said it was “wonderful” the way the JCC was still providing Jewish activities for unaffiliated families — maybe not in the traditional JCC way, but in its own way.

“I feel, personally, we don’t need more bricks and mortar,” she said.

It looks like it will stay that way. The JCC is just beginning to work on a new multiyear plan to map out its future, but it will continue grant-making, creating fun memories for kids and introducing the world to new ideas through “Under One Tent.”

“As long as we can imagine and develop,” Gambert said, “I’m very optimistic there will be great interest in the coming years.”

People are still “using” the JCC, even if there’s no physical door to open or real threshold to cross. “We are having an impact on the community,” Yanowitz said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.