When Marvin Friedman arrived in Maitland in June 1973 to start his new job as the program director of the Jewish Community Center, there was no Center; just a big hole in the ground that would become a pool, and a little white house in the middle of an old orange grove to serve as classroom space.
Fresh from New York City, Friedman recalled, “It looked like they were building a subway tunnel where the pool should be. Nothing was finished yet, and we only had a few weeks to go until campers were due to arrive.”
Shortly after the JCC welcomed its first campers, the Yom Kippur War broke out in Israel and all the money raised to build the new facility was sent overseas to help out the cause.
The fledgling JCC would have to make due with its tiny white farmhouse for another few years, but that didn’t keep the families from coming – then and now, 40 years later.
The second summer, camp attendance more than doubled over the first year and by 1975, the JCC’s membership had reached 400.
Soon the basketball hoops nailed to trees and the farmhouse were replaced with more permanent structures that would accommodate the growing nursery school and community programs.
To learn more about the JCC and its ongoing programs and events, visit orlandojcc.org
From a class of seven preschoolers back in 1973, the JCC has grown to include an award-winning preschool and after school program that now care for more than 800 children.
The hole in the ground Friedman encountered upon arrival 40 years ago is now a junior Olympic-sized swimming pool, and the JCC has expanded to encompass a fitness center with free babysitting, personal trainers and much more.
For school-aged kids the JCC offers after school care and its popular J-Camp summer camps along with a variety of sports, arts and cultural programs. And adults can find friendship, networking, educational and recreational opportunities.
“The Jewish faith is small and it’s good to be around people of your own faith and understanding,” said former two-term JCC President Dick Appelbaum.
“From the beginning,” Friedman said, “we wanted to provide a place for families to gather.”
Over the years, they have done that while also creating a place for the community to come together and learn from each other.
“It’s a phenomenal place,” Friedman said. “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the J. There is just so much going on there.”
The JCC hosts many communitywide events from theater productions to outdoor festivals such as their Israel Independence Day celebration held every spring at Crane’s Roost Park in Altamonte Springs, which attracts more than 7,000 people.
The Roth JCC Campus in Maitland is also home to the separately run Jewish Academy, a private K-8 school and the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida.
In addition to all the resources for families, seniors at the JCC play a vital role with the group known as the 39ers, named for Jewish comedian Jack Benny, who claimed never to be older than age 39. Active as volunteers and mentors from the very beginning, the 39ers are held in great esteem at the center and many consider it their second home.
Between its services and sense of community, ever since the JCC put down roots here 40 years ago, Executive Director David Wayne said, the J has served an important role in the Central Florida community.
“There is something in the fabric of the experience here,” Wayne said.
“It’s not the physical structure, but the personal relationships that create the memories we share of this place. It plays a vital role in Jewish life and in the greater-Central Florida community.”