Monday, September 16, 2019 -
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Coming to Boulder, a $20 million facility

Jonathan LevJONATHAN Lev, hired as executive director of the Boulder JCC in 2010, is turning laid-back, free-fall stereotypes of Boulder Jewry on their head one dollar at a time — or, to be exact, $16.4 million at a time.

The $20 million cornerstone capital campaign for the city’s spanking new JCC took flight in 2009, the second year of the Great Recession. That’s when ambitious projects dropped like cement flies in major centers of Jewish life throughout the US.

Boulderites could have dispensed with grandiose dreams and opted to stay put at the 11,000 sq. ft. location on Kalmia — a cramped but functional building that has served the community for the last decade.

But as of this moment, they are only $3.6 million shy of erecting a 30,000-40,000 sq. ft. structure occupying six acres on the Boulder Jewish Commons at the corner of Cherryvale and Arapahoe Roads.

“When you have the right combination of people, ideas and energy, our community believes anything is possible,” says Lev, a dynamic 33-year-old. “The project is galvanizing Boulder; there’s a magic to it in some ways.

“It’s the desire to build our community with our own hands and leave a legacy for generations to come. We’re making something we can be extraordinarily proud of; a place that you can enter and say, ‘I made this happen,’ ‘This stone is here because of me.’”

Over the last 10 years, the JCC’s leadership conducted surveys regarding the feasibility and desirability of pursuing a larger building to accommodate the steady increase in membership.

For example, it’s estimated that hundreds of people attended the JCC in 1999. Now that number exceeds 8,500.

Although the campaign itself predated Lev’s arrival, he has sunk his entrepreneurial teeth and Jewishly driven passion into the project with astonishing temerity.

To him, the JCC is not merely a building that houses a myriad of activities and programming for newborns through seniors. It’s the foundation of significant community relationships that endure through good times and bad.

“I think one of the fascinating aspects of the JCC and our community is that friends become family,” he says. “Many Jews move here from other locales. They don’t have close family members in the area. When someone passes away, friends take over that supporting role for the survivor.

“The preschool experience offers a great example of how we connect because it’s one of the first places Jewish people find other Jewish people in our community,” he continues. “I have spoken to individuals who tell me that their best friends today are the kids they met in preschool 25 years ago.”

How did Boulderites manage to generate $16.4 million during a recession that virtually paralyzed the rest of the country?

“This project allows people to feel like they’re part of something greater than themselves,” he explains.

“It’s an ongoing commitment, not just to building a building but to the future of what Colorado life can be — and that transcends economics.”

ON this snow-packed day, many people are hibernating comfortably at home. This is not the case for Jonathan Lev, who rarely luxuriates in idleness. Rushing back from a breakfast meeting, he answers his office phone on the first ring.

Professionally, Lev graciously obliges the spotlight. But whenever the public glare tries to elevate his contributions above others, he immediately steps aside.

“I am one of the spokespeople for the Boulder Jewish community,” he reacts to a question about the centrality of his role. “Part of the way Boulder operates is that there isn’t one place or person you seek out for all the answers.

“It’s a diffuse network. We’re not person-focused, we’re idea-focused.”

He credits the members of Boulder’s diverse Jewish institutions for striking a collaborative chord and establishing the necessary cohesiveness that results in communal action.

The JCC hosts monthly meetings with representatives from every Jewish organization in Boulder County. Whether operating on a shoestring budget or blessed with  sufficient resources, they cast unbiased eyes on important needs in the community.

Three other groups also convene at the JCC on a regular basis: Chaver, Boulder’s rabbinical body; Jewish Together-Boulder, a joint effort between the JCC and local synagogues to increase the number of households involved in Jewish life; and the Boulder Educator Team, which focuses on trends and programming needs.

“These people are incredible, and every organization is engaged in every other organization,” Lev says.

“I think we’ve intentionally designed a powerful community that is willing to work together to make things happen,” he says.

“People get involved. They recognize the needs. In our community, people actually see how their work makes a difference.

“They feel it. Their voices are heard. It’s a big thing.”

Lev attributes his obvious enthusiasm for all of the above to what he calls “a real Boulder mentality” — the firm belief that Boulder Jews can forge a heaven on earth with their own hands.

“I am passionate about making a great home for Jewish life in Colorado,” he says.

Rendering of the new Boulder JCC FROM childhood to the present, Lev has dedicated himself to education, community building, Jewish identity and the outdoors. Although these guiding principles did not always inhabit the same space or place, they coalesced at the Boulder JCC.

He hails from Northbrook, Ill., about 18 miles north of Chicago. His family, which has several teachers in its ranks, placed enormous stock in education. “It’s ingrained in everything I do,” Lev says.

Chicago is better known for its architecture, culture and hustle-bustle than its proximity to nature, so Lev’s parents took him on frequent excursions to national parks. They also imbued a concern for the environment in him.

Camp extended his deep appreciation of nature while simultaneously emphasizing the intimacy and importance of human connection at the Jewish level.

Lev, who attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison for a year, visited Boulder on spring break and transferred to CU “on a dime because I realized Boulder and Colorado offered an incredible quality of life.”

He earned his high school teaching degree summa cum laude.

Graduating mid-semester, Lev looked around, contemplated his future and decided to work at a friend’s renewable energy company.

In 2001, Lev founded Boulder-based Renewable Choice Energy, which provides energy solutions and consulting services to businesses, residences and nonprofits.

He did that for about two years until he again found himself wondering about his proper place along the professional spectrum. “I did some soul searching,” he says, adding that his four pillars of education, community building, Jewish identity and the outdoors propelled the search.

“I realized that if I could find a career based on these four things, I would be happy,” he says. “And I clearly saw that camp was the right place for me.”

Lev relocated to the East Coast and worked at an overnight summer camp in Brooklyn. He transitioned to the staff at URJ Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2004 and subsequently to URJ’s Eisner Camp in Massachusetts.

Despite his relatively young years, he quickly acquired a reputation as a leader in Jewish camping.

In 2007, Lev was selected as a Taub Fellow at New York University in the dual-master’s degree program in public administration in nonprofit management and Hebrew and Judaic studies (“a perfect fit,” he says).

Despite his intensive studies, he continued working part time at Eisner. When he completed his dual degree, Eisner promoted him to associate director.

Lev met Lyndsay, his future wife, at Camp Harlam in 2004. “I think we ended up talking two times that summer, maybe for about 10 minutes each time,” he recalls.

“When I moved up to Eisner, Lyndsay was finishing her last semester in school. I was scheduled to visit Harlam because I was doing some promotion for camp. About two weeks before I went there, I sent her an email: ‘Hey, do you want to meet up while I’m there?’

“She said, ‘That would be great. You know, next week is my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. Would you like to come?’ So our first date was her brother’s Bar Mitzvah. I met the whole family right off the bat.”

They’ve been married for two years and two months.

Yet another opportunity knocked on Lev’s door when the Boulder JCC contacted him about the position of executive director in the summer of 2010.

This past High Holiday season, Jonathan and Lyndsay attended three different Boulder congregations. “There are pieces of each different religious community here that match our interests and connection to Jewish life,” he says.

LEV is familiar with Boulder’s reputation as an amalgam for independent counter-culture types who seek their own paths. While the city’s pioneer attitude works to its advantage, Lev feels that convenient stereotypes obscure the steadfast, serious heart of the Jewish community.

The physical plans for Boulder’s JCC and the strong communal commitment to its realization, slated for 2013, demonstrate that while still unique and independent, Boulder Jewry has come of age.

“The biggest difference in terms of our JCC is that there will be no gym or fitness area like you see in other current facilities,” Lev says.

“Of course, we will integrate some of these elements into the new building,” he says. “There will be a cardio area, a soccer field, a basketball court.

“But in Boulder County, people have their boutique fitness centers. They hike, they go climbing. They don’t come to the JCC to work out.

“What we’re doing is providing a place where people can gather,” he says.

“People who have just arrived in Boulder will find it very homey, as will those who are just beginning to investigate Jewish life.”

Being different, he adds, is beneficial in many ways.

“No one here is saying, ‘It’s always been this way, you can’t do this, you can’t do that,’” he says. “The entrepreneurial and innovative spirit fosters the creative process and creative change.”

The coming-of-age aspect is evident in the “me” generation’s unwavering support for the successive generations that will outlive them.

“They will say, ‘Our families helped make all this possible. They established roots in the Jewish community and were integral to its development. This is their legacy to us.’”

Lev laughs ever so mildly.

“I think building the JCC is dispelling a lot of the myths you hear about Boulder — hopefully for good.”

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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