Just over a month after a fire on the lower level of the Jewish Community Center closed the facility for several months, the organization has managed to find temporary locations for most of its regular activities. “It truly was a gargantuan effort,” said Chief Executive Officer Judy Diamondstein looking back. She had nothing but praise for staff and volunteers, for the public officials and many organizations that jumped in to help them get on their feet.
Finding temporary homes — As of the beginning of January, most of the ongoing activities offered at the JCC — daycare, gym, pool, basketball, racquetball — have been shifted to area facilities to ensure ongoing service. A fitness studio opened in what was once laboratory space on 4 Research Drive, now fully outfitted with weights and machines, aerobics room, TRX frame, spinning, group classes and more. The building on Research Drive has no showers, but there are private changing areas and there will be lockers in the near future.
- For swimming, the Recreation departments in Orange and Woodbridge made room on their busy pool schedules to accommodate swim lessons and lap swimmers; the Blue Marlins swim team meets at Albertus Magnus College. Albertus Magnus also opened its racquet ball courts.
- Open Gym groups, including basketball, meet at Hopkins School; Biddys Basketball and basketball for 2nd-6th grade girls will be held at Beecher Road School.
- Children enrolled in Yeladim Early Learning Center found a temporary home at Congregation B’nai Jacob.
- The Jewish Federation offices have been moved into an office suite on Litchfield Turnpike. For weeks staff had to work using personal cell phones. The phone system was scheduled to be operational by the end of last week.
Looking toward the future — “We’re back!” Diamondstein announced with enthusiasm. She said when the temporary gym opened last week members were hugging each other as they came in to check out the newly outfitted facility. Seeing how people truly embraced each other, it made her realize that “the JCC truly was the center of life for so many people,” she said. It was palpable how much they had missed the JCC and each other. Officials expect to be in the temporary locations for several months, maybe up to a year. Now that most of the immediate needs have been met, the JCC leadership is turning its attention toward the future of the Amity Road facility. They anticipate rebuilding of the “Mother Ship” to start in March.
The building, which opened in 1995, is 22 years old. The hope is to renovate it in a way that will meet not just the needs of the current community, but people ten, 20 years from now, Diamondstein said. Committees have been formed to work on issues such as a needs assessment; the facility design; considering future technology needs, including security issues; looking at demographics and the need for services; also marketing, legal and financial issues.
Remembering the fire — Judy Diamondstein was in a meeting back on that Monday afternoon, December 5, when the fire alarm went off at 3:45 p.m. She knew immediately that this was not a training situation, but “the real deal”.
As luck would have it, JCC officials had been assessing their security and safety protocols, including evacuation plans, in prior months, and people were prepared. There were more than 300 people in the building at the time, including babies in cribs and swimmers in the pool. All were ushered out – in various stages of dress – into the parking lot on one of the coldest December days. JCC neighbor Brookdale, a senior living facility several hundred feet away, took them in, including the children and babies. They got PJs out for the swimmers. “Everybody pulled together,” Diamondstein said.
She was a designated “sweeper,” making sure people left the building without delay. One barefooted man who came up the staircase wouldn’t leave, much to her frustration, but it turned out that he was a member of the local volunteer fire department. He had seen the flames downstairs and called the fire department.
Diamondstein had nothing but praise for the local emergency personnel. “The first responders were unreal,” she said. Thanks to their help, there was no loss of life or injury among those in the building at the time. However, two fire fighters ended up in the hospital for non-life threatening injuries. Woodbridge Fire Marshal Joseph Cappucci said he was not sure what the nature of their injuries was.
The event turned out to be a four-alarm fire. Orange and Bethany firefighters assisted in the operation, while Seymour and Prospect covered for Woodbridge. Late that night, Diamondstein, as well as JCC Executive Director Scott Cohen and President Scott Hurwitz, after hours of running back and forth between the JCC and Brookdale, stopped at Brookdale to warm up. The chefs were just getting ready to go home, she said, when they recognized them. They went back to the kitchen and prepared them dinner, and she remembers it fondly. “We were feeling the love — and it hasn’t stopped since then,” she said.
Woodbridge Fire Marshal Joseph Cappucci said the cause of the fire has not been determined as of January 5. Fire officials did rule out that it was intentionally set, he said. “We believe it started in the sauna in the men’s locker room. We are still working on the investigation.”
Cleanup — The fire itself only affected a small area on the lower level of the building, however, the smoke gets into every porous surface, including the HVAC pipes. Black soot penetrated through the tiniest holes and settled in different parts of the structure. “It’s just a nightmare,” Diamondstein said. The building was equipped with a sprinkler system, which was set off and left a lot of the floors damaged. “At this point, the whole downstairs is down to studs,” she said, except for the pool and the racquetball courts. A video on the JCCGNH Facebook page illustrates the extent of the cleanup vividly.
As for Diamondstein, she celebrated the first anniversary on the job in early January. “It’s been a heck of a year,” she said, with a smile. And, “walking through the corridors and rooms is heartbreaking,” she wrote on one of the updates to the community. But, “as painful as this process is, the promise of what may come soothes the soul.”
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent