The new Alexander Grass Campus for Jewish Life provides a space for the community and people of all faiths, beliefs and ideals to join forces for change, said speakers and supporters attending the flag raising to dedicate the new home of the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg.
The federation and affiliated organizations move to the former Dixon University Center at 2986 N. 2n/a St., in the Riverside neighborhood of Harrisburg. The federation purchased the site in April for $4.56 million from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
A donation from the Alexander Grass Foundation provided the federation with the means to move out of the overcrowded Jewish community center a few blocks north. The decision “sort of comes full circle,” said Elizabeth Grass Weese, who agreed with her brother, Roger Grass, to give the gift.
“My brother, Roger, and I are honored to be here today to dedicate this beautiful space,” said Grass Weese, president of the foundation. “My dad would have been proud to see the community come together to support this incredible project, and I’m thrilled to see how his legacy will live on through all of the activities and programs on the Grass Campus.”
Growing up, Grass family life revolved around the JCC, said Roger Grass, who came from Israel for the occasion. In 1957, his father donated approximately $150 to the original 1957 JCC campaign and pledged to do more if he could afford it.
“We were very lucky, very blessed,” said Roger Grass. “We learned from my mother (civic leader Lois Lehrman Grass) and my father, as they say in this new generation, pay it forward. You must return it.
On the six-acre campus, established circa 1908 as the home of Harrisburg Academy, the administration building will now house meetings, conference staff and a 15,000-square-foot fitness center with river views.
Other federation uses now crammed into the old JCC will have dedicated buildings, including the Brenner Family Early Learning Center and a senior wellness center. Duncan Hall, through 2n/a Main campus street will house a gymnasium, lap pool and Silver Academy, Harrisburg’s Jewish school. Jewish Family Services, affiliated with the federation, will occupy the former Chancellor’s House.
“My mom was born and raised here,” Grass Weese said after the ceremony ended with her and her brother waving the campus flag. “My dad loved it here. We are delighted that it is for the whole community. It was important to us. As long as Harrisburg is here, our hearts will always be here.
The Grass siblings’ decision to support the project is a tribute to their “incredibly generous” father, said Ron Muroff, rabbi of nearby Chisuk Emuna congregation. The new space should allow joint programming between his synagogue and the JCC to grow, and the campus could be a platform for promoting Jewish values, he said.
“I hope that together, Jews and non-Jews, we can truly draw on the traditions, stories, values of Jewish history and Jewish life to promote justice, promote joy, promote support for the Jewish community and far beyond,” he said ahead of the ceremony.
In the audience, Carol and Joel Ressler felt a sense of unity in the presence of rabbis representing several congregations in the area.
“That’s what community is,” said Carol Ressler. “So many of us, between our family, our friends and our shul, we don’t have this endless opportunity to come together in the excitement of community, and this allows for that.”
The campus “promises to be a blessing to the entire community,” Dauphin County Commissioner Mike Pries said as he read a proclamation from the commissioners. The range of counselling, food, adoption and other services “will be available to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation”, he said.
“The Grass family has given and given and given to the community for several decades,” Pries said. “They touched thousands and thousands of lives in the community.”
Matt Maisel, communications director for the city of Harrisburg, said he grew up at JCC. Presenting on behalf of Mayor Wanda Williams, who is out of town, he noted that the “diverse melting pot” that comes together around the JCC is inclusive. The federation’s move from the Harrisburg-Susquehanna Township line and squarely into the city synchronizes with one of the most diverse cities in the United States, he said.
This is bashertYiddish for fate or “meant to be,” Maisel said.
“It’s so representative of the town of Harrisburg,” he told TheBurg after the ceremony. “Being a community center for the city, we will both be able to do great things together.
The diversity, strength and shared values represented by the public are “what unites us as a community,” said Sen. John DiSanto. “It’s going to be an anchor, and it’s going to be growth for a strong community that’s doing great work not just here in Harrisburg but around the world.”
The campus will be “a great neighbor,” said state Rep. Patty Kim, noting the federation’s history of welcoming community, political forums to its children who attend JCC day camps. . She changed a biblical saying: “He who is faithful in small things will be faithful in great things.”
“He who is faithful in small buildings will be faithful in large ones,” she said. “I know that by opening your doors to all members of the community, you will carry on this legacy.”
The campus is “everyone’s campus” and a community hub grounded in Jewish values that are also universal, said federation board chair Abby Smith.
“It’s not about a group of organizations moving south along the river,” she said. “This is truly a moment to take what is one of the most beautiful properties I have ever seen and really make it shine, and to take this moment to dedicate this campus, standing on those who have given us preceded on their shoulders, but knowing full well that the best is yet to come.
For more information on the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg, visit their website.
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