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New Plan Brings Financial Fitness to San Francisco Community Center

Nate Levine may have cracked the JCC code.

About a quarter-century ago, when Levine was a recent college graduate handing out gym towels at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, he overheard people talking about the JCC’s need for a new, modern facility. Private fitness clubs, with their seemingly inexhaustible budgets for equipment and renovations, were sapping the patronage of JCCs.

Then, eight years ago, the San Francisco JCC found itself on the brink of economic failure: It had almost no membership and a $1.6 million budget deficit, so the fitness center was closed as a cost-saving measure. But according to Levine, the move backfired, cutting off one of the institution’s last viable revenue streams. Eventually the JCC’s board and staff came to the realization that “either we would succeed in building a new center or we would have to go out of business,” he said.

So Levine — who had worked at other Bay Area Jewish institutions, as well as Stanford Law School, before returning to the San Francisco JCC as its executive director — helped the JCC make what appears to have been a sharp turn: A crucial step came as the JCC contracted with a for-profit company to lease, renovate and reopen the fitness center — a success that laid groundwork for the new building’s partnerships, and produced rent revenue that let the JCC start rebuilding its adult education programs.

“Once we showed people that we could sustain ourselves, that’s when the generosity came pouring in,” Levine said, adding that the use of tax-exempt bond financing in combination with the capital campaign means the JCC has a reserve fund it can invest and grow in coming decades, ensuring the institution will more easily weather future economic downturns.

Now, Levine — who worked at other Bay Area Jewish institutions as well as Stanford Law School’s, before returning to the San Francisco JCC about six years ago as its executive director — is about to preside over the grand opening of the 126-year-old institution’s new $60 million building, a facility so comprehensive, state-of-the-art and versatile that about 3,000 memberships have been sold sight unseen, before anyone has stepped through the door into its soaring, sky-lit atrium.

Community membership in the JCC starts at $100 per year per household, and includes discounts on most programs, priority registration in camp, some fitness center day passes and access to members-only discounts and events. Center membership — about $68 per month, or $128 per month for a family — includes full access to all the fitness and aquatic facilities, priority use of drop-in child care, priority registration for classes and sports, parking discounts and so on. Levine said they sold about 3,000 center memberships within about three and a half months, “a little bit more than half our ultimate goal.”

With 135,000 square feet of program space on four levels, the facility sits on just one acre at a busy corner, hemmed in by other buildings. It also sits, conceptually, on three pillars.

The first pillar is the idea that form follows function. After years of working with an old, cramped facility, the JCC essentially reverse-engineered its new home. It intensively planned the programs and services it needed to sustain itself and to attract not only the Jewish community but the city at large. Then it designed a building with versatile classrooms, multipurpose spaces, athletic facilities and arts studios to house all those offerings.

The second pillar is partnerships. A restaurant and a Judaica bookstore and gift shop, as well as a 183-space parking lot, will be leased out to private vendors. The JCC is developing educational, recreational and arts offerings in cooperation with just about every Bay Area Jewish institution there is, from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival to the city’s Jewish Museum.

The building’s third pillar, as with any capital campaign, is philanthropic generosity.

“We are blessed in San Francisco — this was true five years ago and it’s still true today — with a number of Jewish philanthropists who in their hearts knew that a Jewish community like San Francisco’s could not really achieve its potential without a successful Jewish Community Center,” Levine said, and those donors made gifts “unprecedented in our community” to seed the capital campaign.

Foremost was $10 million from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, established in 1951 by the insurance magnate and his wife to better the San Francisco Bay Area’s quality of life in areas from arts to violence prevention to Jewish affairs.

Philanthropists Gerson Bakar, Bernard Osher, Claude Rosenberg and Peter Haas also made crucial, large, early donations. “And since then, we’ve received 28 gifts of $1 million or more,” Levine said. “But some of the most generous gifts we’ve gotten in this campaign have come from people who come once a week to my office with change and spare dollars they’ve collected… they’re some of the greatest inspiration for the generosity of our community.”

Levine and the JCC’s chief operating officer, Sandee Blechman, are confident the final fund-raising will be successful despite the Bay Area’s current economic doldrums.

“The JCC has played a significant role in this community for a long time,” Blechman said, adding that community members have responded to the JCC in its time of need. “The fact that it’s a kind of nonreligious Jewish institution is very important to them, to have a place that can be a focal point for Jewish life but is open to everybody, that fits into their life on a daily basis.”

Many have fond memories of the old facility — perhaps learning to play basketball, or meeting a future spouse at a dance, or sending the kids to preschool there.

“I think that’s the biggest reason that people are excited about it, that people have supported the fund-raising efforts,” Blechman said, adding the old building’s sentimental value didn’t cloud the community from knowing it needed replacement. “They wanted a place they could feel proud of… and the old building just had tremendous limitations.”

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