In 1930, the Jewish Community Center of St. Paul (JCC)—originally called the Jewish Education Center (JEC)—began the work it continues in the twenty-first century: providing for the educational, social, cultural, and recreational lives of local Jewish youth and their families.
Before the JCC, settlement houses met the needs of poor Eastern European immigrants and their children. The Lowertown Community Center (later renamed Central Community House), established in 1921, and Neighborhood House are examples. Early on, these organizations deemphasized their Jewish focus. Instead, they promoted Americanization and service to a broader community.
In 1916, the Minnesota lodge of B'nai B'rith passed a resolution stating the need for a Jewish community center in St. Paul. A committee headed by Jessie Calmenson, a member of a pioneering St. Paul Jewish family, proposed construction of a $100,000 building. In 1926 Calmenson's family made the first pledge: $10,000. A women's group raised the remaining $90,000.
In 1930, the Jewish Education Center (JEC) opened at 741 Holly Avenue (at Grotto Street) in the Summit Hill neighborhood. The two-story brick building with Kasota stone entrances was designed in the Moderne style by the architectural firm of Liebenberg and Kaplan. It housed eight religious school classrooms, a library, and a gym.
The building hosted a variety of classes and activities, including Scout troops, orchestras for youth and adults, and a theater group, the Grotto Players. After Hebrew School classes, youths played table tennis and other games. By 1939 over one hundred groups used the building. To house them, the JEC rented space at nearby Mount Zion Temple and Temple of Aaron.
The JEC met an obvious need. But it faced financial problems from the start. One year after the center's opening, half of the pledges to its building fund remained unpaid. In 1932, as the Depression deepened, the JEC had four hundred members. Few, however, could pay their dues in full. As a result, recreation programs were separated from the Hebrew School. Their mission broadened to serve the entire community. This qualified the JEC to receive funding from the Community Chest (the forerunner of the United Way) and St. Paul's Park and Playgrounds Department.
The St. Paul Jewish community had begun moving out of the Summit Hill area before World War II. The trend continued when returning servicemen started families and bought houses in the Highland Park neighborhood. In 1948, the Hebrew School that operated in the building moved out. The JEC was renamed the Jewish Community Center of St. Paul (JCC).
In the mid-1950s the JCC sold the building at Holly and Grotto. Two St. Paul chapters of the Jewish War Veterans of America raised funds so the JCC could buy a house and lots on Juno Avenue at Cretin Avenue. The new site extended youth programs into the Highland Park area. Almost as soon as "Highland House" opened in 1956, efforts began to build a new and better home for the JCC.
In 1958 the St. Paul JCC became a beneficiary of the United Jewish Fund and Council, clearing the way to plan a new facility. The Jewish War Veterans alone raised $100,000. The St. Paul Avenue site chosen was in a semi-developed part of the Highland Park neighborhood, though that would soon change. Minneapolis architect Leonard Parker designed the modern facility, which opened in 1964. The physical education department, meeting rooms (including one for the war veterans), library, and auditorium were designed for 1,100 member families. Membership had surpassed this figure by the mid-1970s.
In the 1970s and 1980s, JCC programming branched out. There were programs for disabled children and annual visits by a community emissary from Israel. Activities and services were developed for a new wave of Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in the Twin Cities after the Soviet Union lifted immigration restrictions.
The JCC is home to the St. Paul JCC Symphony, one of the oldest classical music community ensembles in the country. In 2013, the St. Paul and Minneapolis JCCs began to offer joint memberships. They also cosponsored various cultural and sporting events. In 2013, over 5,500 individual members made sixteen thousand annual visits to the St. Paul JCC.
Chiat, Marilyn, and Chester Proshan. We Rolled Up Our Sleeves: A History of the United Jewish Fund and Council and Its Beneficiary Agencies. St. Paul: United Jewish Fund and Council of Saint Paul, 1985.
Jewish Community Center of St. Paul.
Oral History Project; Jewish Community Center of St. Paul; History of our JCC, 2000
Oral History Collection, Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota
Description: Transcript of an interview with David Krawetz conducted by Dianne Siegel and Judy Hawkinson in September.
St. Paul Jewish Community Center Records, 1919–2000
Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota
Description: Letters, documents, newspaper clippings.
Plaut, Gunther. The Jews in Minnesota: The First Seventy-five Years. New York: American Jewish Historical Society, 1959.
The third home of the Jewish Community Center of St. Paul opens in 1964 in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood.
The Jewish Education Center (JEC) opens at the intersection of Holly Avenue and Grotto Street North. It includes a religious school, classrooms, and recreational facilities.
When the religious school moves to a new building, the JEC is renamed the Jewish Community Center of St. Paul (JCC).
JCC sells the building at Holly and Grotto and establishes Highland House in an old house on Cretin and Juno avenues in the Highland neighborhood.
JCC opens a modern new building on St. Paul Avenue in Highland Park.