By Lee Chottiner
In a sign of just how big a deal the first Jewish Community Center to be built here in 70 years is, Thursday’s ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the Trager Family JCC was highlighted by an appearance by Gov. Andy Beshear.
Buoyed by reports of dropping COVID rates across Kentucky, Beshear lauded the completion of the center, which he said will use “love and compassion” to help move the state forward.
“We deserve good news,” the governor said to waves of applause, “and this ribbon cutting is terrific news for this community, this city and this state.”
Though still weeks away from opening, JCC officials formally dedicated the new Trager Family JCC on Thursday, March 10. Four generations of the Trager family, the leading patrons of the three-year-old, $43- million project, were on hand as dignitaries and community leaders alike spoke about what it took to get the community to this moment and what the new center will mean to Jewish Louisville and the greater community going forward.
Afterwards, Rabbi Ben Freed of Keneseth Israel, the newest pulpit rabbi in the city, affixed a mezuzah to the main entrance of the building, and dignitaries cut a ribbon on the walkway as a group of children – the future – sat in front of them.
Speaking for his family, Steve Trager, CEO of Republic Bank, described how his parents instilled in him (and ultimately his children) the importance of philanthropy.
“They taught us very clearly: To those who much is given, much is expected,” Trager said. “That message very clearly has been sent through multiple generations and we all feel that way.”
Overall, The Tragers, a leading Louisville banking family, gave $3.5 million to the project.
And they still aren’t done, Speaking for five younger Tragers, Michael Trager-Kusman announced a gift of $150,000 to fund JCC camping tuition and family memberships for refugees over the next two years.
“It’s important for that the JCC stand for inclusion and openness,” Trager-Kusman later told Community, “and I think we achieved that with this gift.”
The Trager Family JCC, which has been under construction for approximately 18 months, represents a quantum leap forward from the current center which was built in the 1950s and will be razed soon to make way for a new entrance to the Dutchmans Lane campus.
With 107,000 square feet of space, the Trager Family JCC includes a year-round indoor aquatics facility, a modern 37,000-square-foot fitness space with more than 50 cardio machines, a new performance room, an early learning center for preschool children and a multipurpose auditorium space – the new home of CenterStage.
The Trager Family JCC was designed and built based on ideas put forward by the community members in a series of “charrettes” – stakeholder meetings – that were held early in the process.
“Our architects from GBBN heard every word you said when you told us what you wanted in your next JCC, said President & CEO Sara Klein Wagner. “They built within the building a heart, a mind, a soul and a body.”
JCL Chair Dr. Ralph Green said the new building is a continuation of the mission of the first JCCs, known then as settlement houses, which opened in cities across America some 150 years ago.
“Today … generations later, we are all so proud to be able to create this beautiful and special space to welcome all who wish to join with the Jewish community of Louisville, to gather, to learn to create, to be healthy and to enrich our entire community together.”
He noted that more than 500 donors – individuals, corporations and foundations – contributed to the project.
Jon Fleischaker, who chaired the JCL for three years, during much of the design and construction process, said the Trager wasn’t built just for the Jews.
“We made a concerted effort to involve the entire community in this,” he said, noting that people and entities from across Louisville “really responded to the idea … that while we are the Jewish Community Center, we are also a center for the entire community.”
One of those contributors – the largest, in fact – was the Jewish Heritage Fund, which gave $25 million to the project – the largest gift in its history.
“I truly believe it will be transformational for the Jewish community, just as the JCC has been for decades,” said JHF Chair Glenn Levine.
Some 100 people gathered at the JCC Thursday for the event while more than 150 watched on Zoom. All of them were integral to the project, Wagner said.
“Everyone who is here and everyone who is watching online had something to do with making today possible,” she said.
Though Jewish Louisville celebrated Thursday, more than one speaker reminded the crowd that a brutal war was raging half a world away in Ukraine, and the fighting is scarring, among the entire population, some 200,000 Jews who still live there.
In fact, JCCs and synagogues in Ukraine, previously homes of communal and spiritual programing, are now becoming places of refuge as Russian shelling pulverizes cities and towns.
Wagner mentioned one JCC in the southern port city of Mykolaiv, founded by a married couple who used the proceeds from selling their deceased parents’ apartments to finance the ambitious project.
“Now, under fire, the Mykolaiv JCC has turned into a refuge,” Wagner said, “providing food and medicine to the elderly, taking care of people with special needs, helping those who can’t evacuate, and even getting ready for the upcoming holiday of Purim.”
Then she called for a moment of silence.