New JCC Site Reflects Staten Island Growth


With great fanfare, the Jewish Community Center of Staten Island officially opened its new, $42 million center in Sea View this week, a bustling complex that showcases the borough’s rapid Jewish growth.

The 115,000-square-foot facility is now the third site on the island operated by the JCC, which has 2,800 member households. But the new building’s amenities dwarf those of the other locations, as well as those at many JCCs in North America.

The Joan and Allen Bernikow JCC houses a catering ballroom, nursery school, kosher restaurant, indoor and outdoor Olympic-size pools, a music institute, two gyms and a fitness center that rivals many health clubs. The exterior is constructed of imported Jerusalem stone.

“I love it; it feels like you’re in Israel,” said Donna Hiss, an Israeli now living in New Springfield, as she entered the building for the opening ceremonies Sunday.

Her husband, Yuval, added: “Everything is top of the line — it’s brought everything to a different level in every area.”

Visitors were greeted by “Abraham” and “Sara” in a desert-style tent in the lobby. Upstairs was a “shuk” marketplace featuring 40 vendors of American and Israeli wares. On Saturday night, the festivities kicked off with a Havdalah ceremony and live concert featuring Israeli rock star Shay Gabso.

Opening festivities were planned in conjunction with a center in Pisgat Zeev, Israel, which in 2003 was “twinned” with Staten Island as a sister community under a UJA-Federation program that builds ties between Americans and Israelis by matching similar areas. Both are middle-class, suburban-style communities with a growing Russian-speaking population.

The Jewish Community Survey released in 2002 by UJA-Federation found that Staten Island’s Jewish population grew 27 percent in the previous 10 years, fueled largely by Russian emigres, who now number more than one in four Jews in the borough, or some 11,000 people. That number has likely grown in the five years since. Brooklyn was the only other New York City borough to see an increase in Jewish population.

To accommodate the Orthodox population, another major presence on the island, the JCC has separate swimming hours at the pool, during which a large screen automatically descends to cover the windows of the observation area.

The glatt kosher Fusion Café, which has separate meat and dairy kitchens, is also a big draw in a community where kosher eateries are in short supply.

From blueprints to ribbon-cutting, the Bernikow JCC took about five years to build. But the planning goes back nearly 25 years.

“This has been a dream of the executive director, Lewis Stolzenberg, and members of the board, such as [former president] Alan Weissglass and Randy Lee [chair of the capital campaign] for decades,” said JCC spokeswoman Ruth Lasser.

Construction was delayed by as much as a year because of a legal battle with preservationists who objected to the construction close to the Greenbelt area, which is reserved for parks and other undeveloped areas. The JCC hired environmental consultants to prove the construction would not harm surrounding wetlands.

JCC membership has increased by nearly 1,000 units since the new facility was completed.

“The response has been amazing and gratifying,” said the JCC’s new executive director, David Sorkin, who took over from longtime director Stolzenberg on his retirement in January. “As soon as the membership center opened at the site, people began coming in and asking about what the facilities would be. The other day, some people told me that when they come to the JCC, they see everyone from their synagogue here.”

The new JCC offers Platinum membership, which includes unlimited access to the health and wellness facilities.

“We have 1,900 new Platinum membership units and the majority of them are families, which is wonderful,” said Sorkin. “What is particularly wonderful is that our new members represent the entire community — Israelis, Russians, all the varied denominations of Judaism — so we’re truly becoming the center of the Jewish community in Staten Island.

“The new JCC will be open on Shabbat, a difficult decision faced by the administrators, who concluded that they could not afford to operate the building without a seven-day schedule. A survey last year by the JCC Association of North America found that 23 percent of centers are now open on Shabbat morning, more than double the 10 percent open four years ago on Shabbat, while two-thirds are open at some point on Shabbat.

“Our hours allow our members to utilize the Bernikow JCC in whatever way works best for them,” said Sorkin. “For some, it’s swimming and exercising in the fitness center at 5:30 a.m., for others it’s arriving late in the evening after work. Because it’s our JCC’s mission to serve the entire Jewish community, our Saturday hours allow those who wish to swim and exercise that day to be able to do that, too. Those are the only facilities we have open on Saturday — there is no scheduled programming."

Louis Guttman, a longtime JCC member whose daughter went to the JCC day camp in its South Shore building and who belonged to the former JCC Swim Club, said the new building is “a lot greater than one can imagine. Staten Island needed something like this for a long time. It’s bringing people of our faith together. The most important is that a lot of observant people are here — it’s so nice to see everyone all together under a Jewish auspice.”