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'The Klein' Marks 35 Years in the Neighborhood

December 9, 2010 By:
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Performances are held year-round in the Klein's Polonsky Family Theater.
Two days before Thanksgiving, Northeast Philadelphia residents Arthur and Kate Hill got an early start with a lunch of turkey, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. They sat at a table full of friends, some they consider as close as family.
 
"It's wonderful, at our age, to have a place where you know you are going to feel welcome," said Arthur Hill, 90, one of some 400 seniors crowded into multiple rooms at the Raymond and Miriam Klein JCC for the pre-holiday festivities.
 
Though clearly the largest program of the day, the Thanksgiving lunch wasn't the only activity going on inside the 125,000-square-foot building that seems to constantly pulse with energy -- morning, afternoon and night.
 
As the seniors headed into the auditorium for post-lunch entertainment, Russian-speaking preschool students sang, "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel," in Russian, Hebrew and English as they rehearsed for a Chanukah concert.
 
Elsewhere around the sprawling facility, young children in a separate English-language program played outside; an impaired-vision support group met in the cafeteria; a group of mainly Russian-speaking adults studied English; and the gym echoed with squeaks, grunts and thuds as a men's over-50, full-court basketball scrimmage got under way.
 
Long an anchor of Jewish life in Northeast Philadelphia, the Klein JCC officially celebrated its 35th birthday Saturday night with a gala event in its gymnasium.
Andre Krug
 
The gathering came a little more than a year after the institution -- known around town as "the Klein" -- became an independent entity, following the breakup of what had long functioned as a central JCC entity, with different branches.
 
"The way I see it, we are a 35-year-old startup," said Andre Krug, the site's 40-year-old director. Describing its myriad activities and its history are like trying to sum up Tolstoy's War and Peace, Krug quipped, adding that he remembers having to read the classic while growing up in the former Soviet Union.
 
Although there's no equivalent of Napoleon in the Klein JCC saga -- the historical figure is central to Tolstoy's massive novel -- it is a tale of how a community changed over four decades and how, in order to remain relevant, an institution has evolved.
 
Developed as a facility to serve second- and third-generation Jewish Americans, it later shifted gears to meet the needs of a large wave of Russian immigrants, who came in stages beginning in the late 1970s, with the bulk arriving after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Today, while it still runs the programs of a more typical JCC, one of the Klein JCC's central roles these days is to provide services to a population, both Russian and native born, that's grown increasingly poor and elderly.
 
An Aging Population
 
According to the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, the Klein is situated in a pocket of the city with the highest percentage of residents older than 75. Klein is now considered the largest senior center in the city, serving 500 to 600 people a day, 90 percent of whom are Jewish, according to Krug.
 
Fully 45 percent of Jews in the region are over 50, with 26 percent falling between the ages of 50 and 64, and 19 percent over the age of 65, according to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia."
 
As the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community confronts the challenges posed by an increasingly aging population, some community leaders, both Jewish and secular, are looking to the Klein as a model for how to keep seniors active and healthy without having them relocate to institutional living.
 
Krug said that while many JCCs nationwide operate, more or less, on a fee-for-service model, the Klein currently generates only 6 percent of its budget from membership dues.
 
About 50 percent of its $5 million annual budget comes from government funding, as well as grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the PCA. The other half comes from fees from services, such as preschool, after-school programs, camps, sports leagues and facility rentals, along with private donations.
 
Klein's fiscal and administrative independence, along with the need to raise its own funds, came in September 2009 after leaders of the JCCs of Greater Philadelphia, a decades-old organization that oversaw the Klein and Stiffel centers, as well as the Kaiserman JCC and the Gershman Y, decided to split the organization into separate parts. Klein JCC now oversees the Stiffel Center, which also serves a mostly senior population in South Philadelphia.
 
Raymond and Miriam Klein, longtime communal leaders, philanthropists and ongoing supporters, provided the initial $1 million gift that helped establish the site. In October 1975, two years after construction initially began, the center opened on a 20-acre parcel on Jamison Avenue in what's known as the Far Northeast.
Volunteer Ruth Frank works in the kosher kitchen.
 
The Klein's son, Stephen, said that when he initially heard about the breakup of the JCCs, he worried about the viability of the institution that bears his late parents' names, and he felt a responsibility to help ensure its survival.
 
But as the real estate developer began learning more about the number and types of people touched by the programs, the cause of the JCC turned into a passion, he said.
 
He cited the example of 120,000 meals served each year to low-income seniors, including about 45,000 delivered to several hundred homebound individuals.
 
Stephen B. Klein now chairs a reconstituted board of directors. Earlier this year, he hosted a fundraiser at his Center City house that netted $400,000. The Dec. 4 gala event raised $300,000. About 300 donors gathered in the converted gymnasium for a buffet dinner, along with blessings over the Chanukah candles and an evening of dancing.
 
Leonard Barrack, Federation's president, surprised the crowd by presenting Klein with a $100,000 check. The one-time grant, made in conjunction with the Abramson Family Foundation, is designated for a range of services for the Jewish poor.
 
"Over the past 35 years, this center has transformed itself to reflect the needs and the evolving composition of the neighborhood around it," Barrack explained during a short speech. "It truly is the lifeline -- the heart and soul of the community -- serving not only our young, but also the seniors of our community."
 
A Changing Enclave
 
When the property was first purchased in 1972, the Northeast was home to about 100,000 Jews, mostly second- and third-generation Americans.
 
The population grew steadily after World War II, when returning veterans who'd grown up in neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion and South Philadelphia decided to buy new homes.
 
Jacques Lurie, who grew up in the Northeast and who now serves as executive director of the nearby Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, said that he'd always heard about activities at Philadelphia's YMCAs and felt a twinge of jealousy. When the JCC opened while he was still in high school, it was a big deal, he said.
 
"It was a great source of pride," said Lurie, noting that he now considers the Klein JCC a "friendly competitor," given that his own institution hosts a preschool and religious services.
 
In the early years, the JCCs camps and athletic leagues were oversubscribed,with young families far outnumbering senior citizens, according to Kurt Herman, a longtime member who now sits on the the Klein board.
 
"They definitely needed this building in the community. We were overwhelmed with members. You had to reserve handball courts -- you had to reserve everything," said Herman, 81.
 
A sea change came about in the early to mid-1990s as thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union moved to the area. By that time, many American-born, middle-class families had departed for the suburbs.
 
What followed was the birth of a wide array of services for the recent immigrants: job-training, English classes, the Russian-language preschool and religious services that for many served as a virtual introduction to Judaism.
 
For 16 years, Rabbi Robert D. Rymshaw, who commutes from Reading, Pa., has led weekly and High Holiday services at the Klein and taught B'nai Mitzvah students. He has even learned some Russian.
 
According to Rymshaw, as many as 2,000 people attend Yom Kippur services annually at the Klein -- a number that has grown as other area synagogues in the area have closed in recent years.
 
"There is worship involved, of course, but the experience is more of a learning atmosphere," said Rymshaw. "These folks have a much deeper appreciation for the freedoms they have."
 
Nowadays, the intensity of the work with new Americans has lessened somewhat, especially as very few Russian Jewish immigrants are now arriving in the states. In the 1990s, about 25 percent of those served by the Klein were born in the Soviet Union. Today, the number has fallen to about 15 percent, said Krug.
 
But even as the Russian-speaking community has grown more affluent, and many families have left for Bucks and Montgomery counties, he said that programming for the community remains a strong focus. Unlike in the '90s, Krug said, Russian speakers are more likely to be able to afford services without subsidies than are American-born clients these days.
 
He noted that 85 percent of families in the English-language preschool program earn less than $50,000 a year.
 
For Inna Lerner, who immigrated from Russia in 1989 at the age of 15, the Klein's Russian-speaking after-school programs solves the logistical problem of what to do with her two children in the afternoon while she and her husband work. The program also helps ensure that her children will be exposed to Russian language and Jewish culture, and have access to swimming lessons and other extracurricular activities.
 
"They do a lot with the kids, it's not just homework," she said. "To me, personally, it solves a lot of my problems and allows me to bring my kids to a place where I know they are safe."
 
But it's certainly not just the young at stake.
 
A Senior Boost
 
Programs for seniors at the Klein got a significant boost in 2003,when the JCC organization sold the David G. Neuman Senior Center on Bustleton Avenue. (Herman said that the JCC used the proceeds from the sale to help offset a budget shortfall.)
 
Two of the largest senior-related programs today are the In-Home program, which provides case management to the temporarily homebound elderly, and Gateways to Aging Well, which helps seniors maintain independence and quality of life.
 
Klein's lay and professional leaders readily acknowledge that, in terms of raw numbers, the facility serves far more seniors than any other age group.
 
But they point to the daily programs for 350 children -- in addition to the sports leagues, swimming lessons and bustling gym facilities -- as evidence that the building is serving a wide array of people and age groups.
 
Harold and Libby Yaffe have seen it all. Both in their 90s, the Northeast couple have been volunteering there since the facility first opened.
 
For all of their dedication as volunteers, fundraisers and organizers, they were among the honorees at the Dec. 4 gala. (Also honored were Gary Freedman, an attorney from Jenkintown, and Colleen and Norman Millan of Huntington Valley, who met on the basketball court, where she still actively plays in the league there.)
 
Volunteering at the pre-Thanksgiving lunch, Harold Yaffe quipped about the poor pay and lack of tips as he wore an apron and wheeled a food cart around the premises.
 
But both husband and wife said they've received far more from the Klein than they've given, in terms of friends, educational experiences and a sense of purpose.
 
People at the Klein JCC, said Libby Yaffe, "have made us feel good. We are giving back what they gave us."
 
Displaying an artist rendering of the yet-to-be-built Klein JCC are longtime JCC leader Samuel Sorin (left), along with Raymond and Miriam Klein.
 
Sara Lambert takes part in an annual senior luncheon.
 
Roughly 350 children, like the little ones pictured above, are enrolled in preschool and after-school programs at the Red Lion Road and Jamison Avenue site.

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