Michelle Brunelle Grosz knew nothing about the St. Paul Jewish Community Center’s $15 million renovation when she recently brought her partner in to try it out. She had heard the center had a NuStep trainer that would allow 92-year-old Charles, who is blind and suffering from Parkinson’s, to exercise.
“Since then, I decided to join too,” said Grosz, 72, who attends regular book club meetings in addition to her workout regimen. “It feels very much like a community. They’re gracious.”
Officials at the JCC said that was their intention when they decided to expand the Highland Park site they’ve called home since 1964. It was always supposed to be a place that welcomes the broader community, whether it be to music classes, discussions on Jewish history or swimming lessons, said Michael Waldman, CEO of the St. Paul JCC since 2010.
More than 700 families have joined since the renovation started, raising the center’s total to more than 1,800 families with about 5,000 total members.
“It think it means another 50 years or more in Highland Park, a place where the community can come together and have fun and exercise,” said Waldman, who learned to swim and fell in love with theater here. “This project is so important for this organization to survive.”
The 50-year-old facility had begun showing its age, watching membership numbers fall as the plumbing and wiring increasingly faltered, Waldman said. In 2011, the center launched a study of whether to move to the suburbs or improve in place at 1375 St. Paul Av.
It decided to stay, he said. Buying land and building new in Eagan or Woodbury was too expensive.
“Highland Park is a great place to be,” Waldman said. “It’s central to the Jewish community and it’s central to the larger St. Paul community.”
Early priorities were building a new swimming pool, creating a new performing arts space and improving the building’s ventilation and plumbing systems. Architects found a way to redo the locker rooms and make a new fitness center as well, Waldman said.
The family of Martin and Esther Capp, whose names were already on the building, gave a $1 million gift to kick off fundraising in 2013. The board’s goal was to raise everything needed to do the job, and after hitting the $10 million mark, construction began in June 2017. Then another donor stepped forward, Waldman said, pledging an additional $2.5 million for an arts wing if the center could raise $12.5 million. That was accomplished in December 2017.
Now at $15 million, the project features a new fitness center and pool, a new theater and a new cultural arts center.
More than 2,500 people attended a community open house Sept. 30. City Council Member Chris Tolbert, who represents Highland Park and is a self-described Catholic kid, learned to swim at the JCC.
“I really appreciate that they made the decision to stay in St. Paul long term,” Tolbert said. “They have a great history here and it really fulfills a need in a neighborhood that doesn’t really have a city community center. The remake is absolutely beautiful.”
Founded in 1930 in the Summit Hill neighborhood, the St. Paul Jewish Community Center was where Karen Hyman went to meet people when she moved to St. Paul in 1966. It was where her three sons went to camp in the summer and learned to swim. And, after her husband died three years ago, “this was my salvation,” she said.
Hyman attends talks in the library, teaches others how to play mahjong, takes yoga classes and works out three times a week.
“It does so much for me — it gets me out of the house and in here,” said the retired real estate broker. “This has been very good for me.”
A community symphony orchestra, in its 90th season, gives free concerts at the JCC, and a youth theater is preparing for its next production. As a young man, Waldman acted in several plays and played bass in a couple of bands that performed here. He would go on to get a summer job at the JCC, playing guitar, before the executive director at the time encouraged him to go to college.
“Coming here, it really did carry me all through high school,” he said, adding that the center also hosts a Jewish film festival, a humor festival and author events. “We are continuing to change with the times.”