A new day for the J


When patrons stop for refreshments at the Jewish Community Center, they’ll always be reminded of the name Harold Sher — well, in a way.

“My nickname was Herky,” said Sher who joined the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, the forerunner to the JCC, in the 1940s. “All through grade school and high school, all the students I went to school with called me Herky. They didn’t know me any other way.”

“So, help me, I never knew his real name,” laughs longtime friend Lou Osheroff.

Sher has seen a lot of history at the JCC since he joined. Now he’s a part of that history — a fact passersby can reflect on when eating at Herky’s J Café — the Staenberg Family Complex’s new food service venue, which was named in Sher’s honor. Sher and Osheroff were among the hundreds who watched as Herky’s — along with the rest of the new 95,000-square-foot facility — opened its doors during Sunday’s gala opening event. The opening featured everything from music, tours and activities for the kids to a visit and an official proclamation from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.


For Osheroff, 81, the day was just as emotional as it was for Sher. The Chesterfield resident is beginning his eighth decade as a member of the JCC. Osheroff joined at age 11 and attended Camp Hawthorn when the YMHA was still located at Union and Enright avenues Later, he remembers heading up to the YMHA after classes at Soldan High School. Today, he still swims and walks at the JCC while his wife enjoys aerobics and workouts at the fitness center. He also has children and grandchildren at the J.

“I cried,” he said during the festivities. “I’m in tears because so many people I’ve seen here, I was together with 70 years ago when we were all 10, 11, 13 years old.”

Osheroff said he feels the new building is attracting attention both locally and on the national level.

“People who manufacture fitness equipment are talking about how state-of-the-art this complex is going to be and what an innovation it’s been not only for the Jewish community but for the entire fitness community,” he said.

Sher agreed about the modernity of the complex noting that the new facility wasn’t just for the Jewish community but was designed to attract members from the larger community as well.

Like Osheroff, he remembers after-school dances at the YMHA. He also attended Camp Hawthorn on a scholarship. For him, the help he received to go to camp made the caf é naming so much more meaningful.

“Without the community I would never have been able to go, ” he said. “I was so pleased today to be able to dedicate the caf é. Only in America and only in the Jewish community could something like this happen. “

According to Lynn Wittels, CEO of the JCC, touching moments were the order of the day. She said she has witnessed many tears from longtime patrons who are thrilled to see the institution they grew up with being so thoroughly modernized for the next generation.

“A lot of the older members have said, ‘you are not building this for me’,” Wittels said. “‘You are building this for my children and grandchildren,’ and that’s exactly what it’s about.”

Michael Staenberg, the JCC board chair whose $20 million in gifts helped make the building a reality, concurred noting that the opening of the complex marks a turning point for the organization, which aims for a mission that encompasses not just fitness, but cultural arts, early childhood education, camping, and adult day services, much of which will be unveiled with the opening of phase two of the project, probably in January.

“It’s more than the culmination of a dream,” Staenberg said. “It’s the new way that the J is going to do business and the new way that we are going to present ourselves to the community.”

Brett Fox, 35, a Central West End resident, said he has been a member of the JCC “as long as I can remember.” While awaiting the mezuzah dedication with his son David, 5, in his arms, he said the building’s design reflected a clear attempt to cater to all ages and noted that the complex seemed to have a special focus on younger J members with more family-friendly amenities than what had been offered in the Wohl Building.

“It’s a renewed commitment that they’ve made to the community to say that it’s not just what it was,” he said. “They are really willing to make an investment and not let it die off with the older generation that made the J what it was.”

Joy Gardner, 52, said she was eager to tour the facility. A member for only a year and a half, she said she felt the new building would do much to bring a fresh look to the JCC as well as boost the surrounding community.

“I’m excited,” she said. “I can’t wait to see this place and start working out here five days a week.”

But Sunday’s festivities also showed the JCC is still home to longtime members as well as newcomers. Marty Oberman, 63, joined shortly after moving to the area from Springfield, Ill. in 1965. Both he and his future wife worked part-time at the JCC while they were dating so they could spend more time together. Later, Oberman would serve as the organization’s board president.

Still, it’s those early connections that keep him coming back. Oberman says he still treasures the friendships he made his very first day playing basketball more than four decades ago. Now, the JCC is a family tradition.

“My kids have worked at camps, attended camps and now their kids are going to camp and they are involved,” he said. “For me as a grandparent, that’s what makes this so wonderful.”

His cousin Harvey Brown, also a former board president, agrees. Brown received his membership at age 7. Now 81, he said the torch is clearly being passed.

“I started at the YMHA that was built in 1927 and then we moved out to this location in ’63 and now we’re here,” Brown said. “We’ve moved from building to building and from generation to generation.”

I.E. Millstone was on hand as well. Interviewed before his speech to the assembled guests, he underscored the importance of seizing a moment to plan for the future. The 102-year-old philanthropist noted that when he originally purchased the land for the campus that would bear his name, many Judaic institutions were reluctant to move to Creve Coeur because they failed to gauge the impact that the rise of the automobile would have in fostering suburban migration and the westward movement of the Jewish community.

“We were building roads and I knew where they would be going and I knew where the population probably would be moving in a very short time and that is what has happened,” he said.

Millstone said that while no one can predict the future of the Jewish community, he believes this is another such transitional moment in JCC history.

“I think this is a turning point not only in terms of facilities but in a new generation of leaders that we have,” he said. “I think there is a great future here.”