December 16, 2018

Innovative Jewish center moves forward on the Venice boardwalk

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles plans to create an innovative Jewish space just steps from the beach in Venice after winning approval Feb. 8 from the California Coastal Commission.

The commission’s approval was the final hurdle toward redeveloping an underused senior facility on the Venice boardwalk, transforming it into what Federation expects to be a one-of-a-kind space for intergenerational encounters.

Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson said the organization plans to break ground before the end of the year on a project that will transform the aging Israel Levin Center into a modern, three-story complex that will include a kosher kitchen, rooftop deck and Moishe House youth living space.

“This is going to be an architectural masterpiece on the boardwalk unlike anything that’s there,” he said.

Sanderson told the Journal that the project reimagines the center as a place not only for senior programming, such as the regular Shabbat dinners held there, but also to bring young Jews into the orbit of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The renovation seeks to capitalize on the increasing number of young Jews working in Venice’s burgeoning tech scene, he said.

Sanderson called the planned space, “a brand new model of Jewish engagement for Jews of all ages. Think of it as a Jewish community center for the 21st century.”

The task of developing that model falls to NuRoots, a grass-roots engagement program within Federation that seeks to create innovative spiritual and communal experiences for young Jews. As part of her role as assistant director of the NuRoots Community Fellowship, Jenn Green has shared coffee with hundreds of Venice-area young adults “on the outskirts of Jewish life.”

“A lot of them are telling me they feel untethered or they’re feeling lonely, they’re new to L.A., they’re working really long hours,” she told the Journal. “A lot of them want to do something meaningful and want to give back.”

Meanwhile, just blocks away from where these coffee dates are taking place, the seniors who frequent the Israel Levin Center are bursting with life advice to share and an eagerness to engage with the next Jewish generation.

“I would hear all the time from the seniors, ‘There’s no way young people want to come and hang out with us,’ ” Green said. “And that is absolutely not the case at all.”

Jason Leivenberg, vice president of NuRoots, said the organization is looking into unique gathering spaces in Los Angeles like the co-working space WeWork and the exclusive Soho House social club to learn how young people come together. He emphasized that NuRoots is just one of the stakeholders that would put on programming at the renovated Venice location.

Federation is looking to raise between $7 million and $8 million for the renovation and programmatic endowments, and already has raised about half of that, Sanderson said. He estimated the renovations will be completed before the end of 2018.

Though the building will be closed during renovations, Federation plans to offer an alternate site in the area for seniors to access services.

The planned renovation would add more than 1,000 square feet and more than double the height of the current single-story building.

A community room would occupy the bulk of the first floor, while the second floor would contain administrative offices and a sun deck, with a 1,300-square-foot residential space on the top floor.

The top-floor apartment will be administered by Moishe House, a Jewish co-living organization that offers reduced rents to young Jews, who host engagement programs in exchange. The two to three residents will host some programs, while the rest will be put on by Federation staff, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and members of the Venice Jewish community, according to Federation.

“[The building is] a brand new model of jewish engagement for Jews of all ages. Think of it as a Jewish community center for the 21st Century.”

— Jay Sanderson, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President and CEO

Sanderson said the space would be unique because it would be modular, with movable walls and furniture able to accommodate diverse needs.

“Most Jewish buildings and institutions, whether they’re [Jewish community centers] or synagogues, they’re built for specific purposes, but they’re not open model,” he said. “This is being designed as an open model.”

The center was built in 1927 as a cafe and then served as a dance hall and later an apartment house. It was deeded to a predecessor organization to Federation in 1964.

But by the time Federation filed for permits to renovate in 2015, a planning firm it hired wrote that “Jewish institutions in the area are minimally attended and the facilities available for Jewish community gatherings are out of date.” 

Federation estimates some 45 to 50 seniors visit the center each week.

Sanderson said he’s drawing on a previous experience renovating a residential drug rehab facility on the boardwalk five blocks south of the senior center, now called Phoenix House.

He imagines the Venice redevelopment as a starting point rather than the finish line.

“Our dream is to create places like this throughout the city,” he said.