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Community is at the center

Kaplen JCC celebrates its first 60 years

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The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, as viewed from above.

Charles Klatskin had lived in Bergen County seven years when he got involved with the Jewish Community Center, then located on Tenafly Road in Englewood.

The year was 1968, and what was then known as the Jewish Community Center of Englewood was not quite 18 years old. “They put their arms around me and said, ‘You’re our new building chairman and we have to move,'” Klatskin recalled this week.

Klatskin and his wife, Lynne, will receive the JCC Lifetime Achievement Award Saturday night, as what is now known as the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Klatskin said he was brought into the JCC by Norman Seiden, his partner in the building business.

“He introduced me to the other players and we went on from there. I first said no, then said no again, finally I got tired of saying no,” recalled Klatskin.

There were 50 members when the JCC first opened in 1950, and dues were $35. Already by 1960, nearly 700 families had joined, and the JCC served as a gathering space for cultural programs, dinner dances, and roller skating parties. In the decade that followed, the JCC continued to grow and brought in guest speakers such as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, who was vice president from 1965 to 1969. The JCC’s nursery school was booming and its summer camp served more than 350 campers.

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Charles and Lynne Klatskin

The center needed more space. The parking situation was dismal. Besides, the 30-year-old building was already “falling apart,” said Klatskin.

At first, Klatskin looked to build on property the JCC already owned in Englewood on Summit Street. The town of Englewood was not eager for them to build there, however, he said.
Instead, he found the East Hill property in Tenafly, where the town was resisting efforts to build a 6,000-unit apartment complex.

“The site was all rock,” said Klatskin. One of the biggest challenges he faced was getting a machine to blast it at a reasonable price. “I didn’t know anything about blasting.”

The ground-breaking ceremony was held in December 1977.

In the early 1980s, membership quickly grew to 1,200 families and the JCC entered a new era, with major expansions in programming and service. Programs for children with special needs expanded to include year-round classes and day camp; a thriving program for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia was established; Camp Dream Street was launched for children with cancer and other blood disorders; the music school opened and was teaching more than 300 students by the end of the decade; and more than 350 senior adults were actively participating in JCC programs.

Membership grew to 2,500 families, with an additional 1,000 senior adults and singles. Space once again became an issue and, in 1988, the JCC initiated a major facility expansion that included a new camp facility, two additional pools, tennis courts, a second gym, and a health club expansion. A new wing for early childhood, a new home for the Thurnauer School of Music, a new space for performing and cultural arts, and a professional theater also were added.

By the turn of the 21st century, in its 50th year, the JCC employed more than 100 full-time professionals and an additional 400 part-time staff.

In June 2006, the JCC’s board approved a multimillion-dollar renovation project and the Gift of Community Capital and Endowment Campaign was launched. Maggie and Bill Kaplen made the lead gift, and the institution was renamed in their honor. The Russell Berrie Foundation offered additional support in the form of a challenge grant.

In September 2008, the JCC held the ceremonial ground-breaking for the new facility and named it the Leonard Rubin Building. Construction began in December of that year and, after a three-year renovation, the JCC now boasts new health and recreation facilities, a new early childhood wing with 12 classrooms, library, and teaching kitchen; a youth fitness wing; renovated suites for special services and senior adults; a new main entrance, complete with atrium and lobby; a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen; and a new café.

The JCC now has its largest-ever membership, with more than 3,500 families.

Besides honoring the Klatskins, the JCC’s Saturday night gala will pay tribute to JCC President Pearl Seiden for her work as campaign chair, and Vice President JoJo Rubach, the building chair. Rubach followed Klatskin’s footsteps, overseeing the day-to-day construction during the renovation.

Past presidents Nancy I. Brown, Daniel Rubin, and Robin Miller will be recognized, as well.

The building, the pool, and the facilities are not what people should think of when they think of the JCC, said Klatskin.

“When you think of the JCC, you should think of a community center,” he said. “It’s for the community. That’s the way we built it.”

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