From 1952 to 1964, the number of babies born in America topped four million every year. Ann Arbor, like most places, spent most of the 1950s and 1960s building new schools for them to go to.
Clinton Elementary, off Stone School just north of I-94, was one of them. According to the Ann Arbor Sesquicentennial Journal, it opened in 1967 and “was named after Anna L. Clinton who taught in elementary schools in Ann Arbor for 47 years from 1892 until her retirement in 1939.” As families poured into nearby subdivisions, “enrollment mushroomed from 139 in 1967 to 660 children for the school year of 1971-72.”
But then “Clinton II”–now Bryant–opened across Stone School. And then came the Baby Bust.
By the mid-1970s, births nationally were down 20 percent. As the last of the Boomers passed through, the school board turned to the unpopular task of closing schools. After a tense process in the mid-1980s that also aimed to redress racial imbalances–most black students were concentrated in a handful of elementary ‘districts–it closed six schools. Three of the smallest–Bader, in Ann Arbor Hills; Newport, on the northwest side; and ‘Clinton–were put up for sale.
Bader is now the Ann Arbor Hills Child Development Center. Newport is the Rudolf Steiner Lower School. And Clinton was bought by the city’s fledgling Jewish Community Center.
As U-M undergrads, Chuck Newman and Sharon Muskovitz were set up on a blind date. “It took,” Sharon says, and they were married in 1965.
Chuck didn’t have a strong Jewish ‘identity–growing up in Wayne, he’d been the only Jewish kid in his high school class. Sharon, though, grew up in Detroit, and says the Jewish Community Center there “was always a part of my life.” Bringing a JCC to Ann Arbor became the Newmans’ joint project.
Sharon taught for a few years and raised their kids, Steve, Rachel, Mike, and Shaina. Chuck’s been an entrepreneur his entire life–his companies included Michigan’s first computer retailer and a pioneer cell phone recycling company.
“So for me doing a startup is as easy as cleaning out a desk,” he says. But perhaps the startup he’s proudest of is the JCC.
It wasn’t easy. The idea of having a JCC in Ann Arbor, he recalls, “was very controversial” within the Jewish community.
JCC operations director Clara Silver explains that the centers were “‘originally created to help Jewish immigrants coming to the U.S. to have a community.” Even established Jewish families “weren’t able to take advantage of things like the YMCA or country clubs.”
“There was a lot of discrimination if one goes back far enough,” Chuck recalled in an oral history of the JCC’s founding. “I was a little surprised to find out even in 1958, when I was a freshman, there was a quota of only two Jewish professors in the law school.”
He said he thought that was why “the Jewish community kept a low profile, and philanthropy went to Israel.”
“One of the major concerns [about having a JCC] was that the giving was very fragile in those years,” recalls Larry Smith, its first president.
“People were afraid that funds would be redirected to the center and away from other organizations,” Chuck says. “We had a bigger vision: We were going to bake a bigger pie.”
The Newmans and Smith were part of a group that got together on Saturday mornings–they didn’t advertise that they were meeting on the Sabbath–and began setting things in motion. What they envisioned was a place for Jewish people of all ages and affiliations to gather.
“Many Jews are not particularly religious and are not eager to join a congregation, and there wasn’t much else for them back then if they wanted to do something Jewish,” Chuck says. “There weren’t a lot of Jewish organizations then.”
There was a Jewish nursery school based at U-M Hillel–but the student center needed its space back. It was run by Sharon’s sister-in-law, Joni Muskovitz.
“She told them, ‘Well, you’ve been talking about starting a JCC; if you’re serious, the nursery school needs a home urgently,'” Chuck recalls. “So we said, ‘OK, we’re doing this.’
“I went to the major donors, to United Jewish Appeal, and asked whether they would support such a venture. I also asked the rabbis of both congregations.”
However, they didn’t askw the Jewish Coordinating Council. That group, Chuck says, had done a survey to see what the community needed, and “in damned near last place was a meeting place.”
To them, “We just said, ‘We’re going to do it,’ because we thought it would be talked to death,” he recalls. “And we were going to do it! It wasn’t something to be decided.”
They started out in a building on E. Stadium owned by developer Irv Smoklerw. Then a teacher told them there might be some surplus school buildings going up for sale. After researching which would be available and who else might be bidding, they picked Clinton. They got it for $576,000.
The first tenants were the JCC’s own programs; the preschool–which would grow into the Hebrew Day School; and the Jewish Cultural Society. In 1994, the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation organized there. Jewish Family Services was there, too, until it needed more space.
Silver joined when she and her family moved from Southfield to Ann Arbor. Her daughter went to Hebrew Day School, “and we took advantage of the after-school-care program. We had to become a member to do that.” She came on staff in 2014.
Silver calls the JCC “both a cultural organization and a community organization that provides what I’d call holistic health and wellness. We provide everything from child care and camps to book fairs and film festivals and cultural arts events, many of which revolve around Jewish culture, but not everything.”
Though the current tenants are all Jewish, that hasn’t always been the case. For several years the Washtenaw County Judson Center rented space there. “They help prepare children on the autism spectrum for school,” says Silver. “And they did so well, they outgrew us.”
The JCC paid off the mortgage for the building a few years ago. They closed down during the pandemic but maintained their programming in other formats, including reconfiguring their popular Apples and Honey celebration of the Jewish fall holidays as a drive-thru.
The Hebrew Day School came back into the building full-time for last winter term, but “we’re just now looking at bringing [JCC] people and programs back into the building,” Silver says.
As for the future, she says, the JCC has developed “what we call our 2030 vision. One question is: do we want to renovate this facility or move to another building? Does it meet our needs, and if not, what do we need to do?”
“Chuck Newman worked through many challenging situations and hurdles as he worked to create a Jewish Community Center,” emails current president David Stone. “The future is bright as we continue to innovate and grow on our way to our 2030 vision.”
Whatever his successors’ decision, “I hope and expect it will be true to its original mission, which was to be a welcoming place for all Jews and to enrich their lives and that of the Ann Arbor community,” says Smith, the center’s first president.
Future JCC leaders and staff and users “won’t remember who we were, but they will know what we did,” Smith says.
“I’m very happy with the result. What we envisioned was built.”