Wilkes-Barre Community Digs Deep for New Center for Jewish Life

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Chuck Cohen remembers spending most of his time at the Jewish Community Center of Wyoming Valley back when he was a kid in the 1970s.
He attended Jewish youth conventions and played basketball with his friends, though he is quick to say he was never very good.
But even 30 years later, Cohen said not much has changed at the JCC.
The building looks just as it did back then. The aging infrastructure is no longer up to code. And with the decrease in the size of the Wilkes-Barre Jewish community, the center is now twice the size of what the community needs today.
“Some of my best and worst times were spent in the JCC,” he said. “I walk into the building and I feel like I felt in high school, and that feels very nice emotionally, but from a building perspective, that’s not healthy.”
Cohen’s family goes back three generations in Wilkes-Barre. He’s seen the Jewish community dwindle from a thriving 10,000 to about 3,000 over the past 30 years, with the JCC unaffiliated with a congregation for half that time, according to Jewish Community Alliance president Mitch Kornfeld.
But Cohen hopes that will change soon.
Cohen is the building committee co-chair for the new Center for Jewish Life building, which was named the Sidney and Pauline Friedman Center for Jewish Life at its groundbreaking ceremony on Oct. 4, in front of more than 150 people in attendance.
Three families — the Cohens, Friedmans and Lantzes — donated the land to the community for this project.
Cohen was one of the first handful of people involved with starting this project almost eight years ago, and also plans to be on hand in 2017, when the building is expected to be completed.
The new 13-acre facility will be about three miles from the original, now located at 613 Third Ave., paralleling the 613 commandments in the Torah.
It may have been a favorite place for Cohen back in the day, but he said the way the building is now does not meet the needs of today’s teens, and it should be designed and focused on next generation.
The new building will include a pool, fitness center, basketball courts, exercise studios, classrooms and meeting spaces, library and resource rooms, kosher kitchens, office space for the local synagogues, a home for Chabad and an early childhood program.
Kornfeld announced at the ceremony that they have raised about $6.8 million so far, hoping to reach a total of $11 million by reaching out to the community and receiving contributions and grants.
He said the old JCC facility was built in the early 1950s and has become outdated. The new building will decrease overhead and efficiency costs, saving an estimated $200,000 a year.
“It’s a brand-new, fresh start to re-energize the community,” he said. “We feel there’s more people that can get engaged if there was a reason to.”
Siblings Rob Friedman and Anne Glauber, one of the three families who donated the land, contributed a gift in their parents’ honor, naming the facility after their father Sidney Friedman and their late mother Pauline.
“This is the first time my dad is seeing his name, along with my mom’s name, on the side of this building,” Friedman said at the event. “This will be a beautiful new building for the Jewish community and the community-at-large.”
Cohen concurred, adding, “I think it’s one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved in because I think it not only ensures the community’s ability to survive, but it actually creates an environment where I truly believe the community will grow and thrive.”
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