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Population shift shutters Jewish center

Stoughton building will be sold to YMCA

By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / December 2, 2008
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Citing the migration of the Jewish population to outlying suburbs, Jewish community officials yesterday said they are selling the building that houses the Striar Jewish Community Center in Stoughton to the Old Colony YMCA.

The unusual transaction will result in a historically Christian organization taking over a facility founded for the Jewish community, but community leaders said they chose the YMCA because of its strength as a human service organization. The Jewish community is planning to continue to offer Jewish educational and cultural programs, including a preschool, at other sites south of Boston.

The move will affect an estimated 9,500 people who belong to the Striar JCC, as well as more than 100 employees, and it will eliminate a large symbolic center for the Jewish community south of Boston. But Jewish leaders said the change was necessitated by demographic shifts, in which a Jewish community once centered in Brockton, Randolph, and Stoughton has increasingly dispersed to fast-growing suburbs from Sharon south.

"There's no need for a lot of resources to go into a building that's not serving the needs of the Jewish population," said Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which owns the Striar JCC building.

Shrage said the move in Stoughton parallels changes throughout the nation, as Jewish Community Centers, many of which have relied on revenues from their fitness facilities to survive, have faced increasing competition from private health clubs. Shrage said the competition has forced the community center to focus on its core purpose, providing educational and cultural activities for the Jewish community.

"Many Jewish Community Centers around the country have run into trouble because a fixed facility couldn't meet the needs of people who were moving further and further from the JCC," Shrage said. "And the competition from independent health and phys-ed facilities makes it impossible to sell those services - there is more competition, not less, and that changes the whole economics of the area."

The Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, which operates the Striar, also operates the Leventhal-Sidman JCC in Newton, which is marking its 25th anniversary this year. The Newton JCC is thriving, with between 13,000 and 14,000 users, because it is located on the western edge of Newton, and the young Jewish families of MetroWest have increasingly moved from Brookline and Newton westward.

The Greater Boston organization also operates a smaller facility in Framingham, camps in Westwood and Maine, and six early-learning centers. There are also independently operated Jewish Community Centers in Marblehead and Worcester.

The Striar JCC, located near Route 24, opened about 20 years ago and has indoor and outdoor pools, a health club, an early-learning center, an after-school program, programs for people with special needs, programs for seniors, and other recreational, educational, and social activities. Although the total number of members has remained relatively stable, the number of young families that belong has been declining, and that is the population targeted by Jewish leaders.

"Our mission is to reach families, and we were reaching less and less of them," said Mark Sokoll, president and chief executive of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. "There has been a very dramatic demographic and geographic shift in the south area, that is really compelling us to rethink our strategy as to how to maximize our service to the community."

Sokoll said the JCC plans to continue many of its programs at congregations and other existing locations and it is about to add a second preschool in Hingham.

Old Colony YMCA chief executive Vincent J. Marturano said that "the intent is to have a continuity of services" and that his organization will interview JCC employees about possible continued employment.

Michael Paulson blogs at www.boston.com/religion about religion. He can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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