Around the Town: History of Fort Worth's JCC

Editor’s note: The Fort Worth Jewish Archives recently indexed documents, minutes, correspondence, photos, and articles from the Texas Jewish Post that tell the story of the Dan Danciger Jewish Community Center, from its genesis as an idea in the 1950s, to its construction in the 1960s, its flowering, and its dissolution in the 1990s.
Lax financial management and changing demographic trends led to its closing. Proceeds from its sale were placed in a foundation that allots around $65,000 annually toward continuation of the JCC’s core programs and related activities. The following narrative is drawn from documents in the DDJCC Collection, housed in the archives room at Congregation Ahavath Sholom.
* denotes that the person is deceased.

By Naomi Rosenfield and Hollace Weiner

Fort Worth Jewish Archives
Part 1: The vision . . .

There are dreamers. There are doers. And then there are visionaries. You may not recognize their names, but these folks dreamed and realized their vision in the 1950s, planning and creating Fort Worth’s Dan Danciger Jewish Community Center. It opened with optimism in 1965, flowered for 30 years, and dissolved in 1995, plagued with financial deficits.
Back in the 1950s, I.E. Horwitz,* Lou Barnett, Leon Brachman,* Arthur Ginsburg,* Dr. Frank Cohen,* Dave Eisenman,* Jerry Wolens,* Sidney Raimey* and many, many others who have passed away believed there was a great need in Tarrant County for a community center that would “stimulate in all age groups a love and appreciation of Jewish values.” There were already several popular, innovative programs — such as a summer camp, a preschool and educational lectures — operating under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth & Tarrant County. These could be brought under the roof of a Jewish Community Center and lead to a more united Jewish community. Since the Federation was then recognized as the central planning agency for the local Jewish populace, every step toward founding a JCC was designed and implemented with its leadership.

File photo (From left) Sara Horwitz, Mike Weinberg and Bess Wetheim pose at the 1964 groundbreaking of the Fort Worth Jewish Community Center.
File photo
(From left) Sara Horwitz, Mike Weinberg and Bess Wetheim pose at the 1964 groundbreaking of the Fort Worth Jewish Community Center.

In 1954, the Jewish community had opened a day camp at a 20-acre site near Handley. It cost $5,500 to run the camp that summer. The income generated was $3,600, and the Federation subsidized the balance. A total of 140 children attended three summer sessions. Lou Barnett urged that the camp continue for another summer and recommended acquiring a permanent site for the future. Also in the early 1950s, innovative educator Lil Goldman* was running a successful preschool at Congregation Ahavath Sholom’s Eighth Avenue synagogue. Among those preschoolers in early attendance were Laurie Barnett (Werner) and Elliott Garsek, youngsters who would grow into leaders of Fort Worth Jewish institutions.
The summer camp and preschool were community programs without permanent locations. Longtime Federation officer Maurice Rabinowitz* suggested the possibility of a Jewish community center, a permanent physical facility on acreage with a swimming pool and ball fields. It was 1955!
In 1957 the Federation appointed Brachman and Barnett to look into requesting a grant from the Dan Danciger estate. The Dancigers, a family of oil entrepreneurs who came to Fort Worth from Kansas City, Missouri, in the 1940s, had created two trust funds that benefited the community for decades. (Ultimately, in 1960, the trustees of the Dan Danciger estate “cheerfully” approved a $300,000 grant.)
The Fort Worth Federation also appointed a larger committee to “check on a Center project.” Rabinowitz was chairman. Working with Horwitz, Barnett, Brachman, Rabbi Isadore Garsek,* Arthur Ginsburg,* Jack Greenman,* Rabbi Robert Schur,* Texas Jewish Post Publisher Jimmy Wisch* and architect Larry Gernsbacher*, the committee drew up a plan for a 5,000-square-foot building at a cost of $700,000, including land and furnishings. The ball was rolling!
Brachman stressed that the local community must be prepared to properly maintain and operate the center. Rabbi Schur expressed optimism that “proper programming would strengthen the general congregational life of the community” and that a JCC would “develop new areas of interest culturally and socially. It would be a contribution to the community at large.” With support from the entire Federation committee, the work moved forward. Professionals from the Jewish Welfare Board (now part of Jewish Community Centers of America) visited Fort Worth for consultation.
The visionaries were dotting their “i’s” and crossing their “t’s” to do the research necessary to move forward. There was great excitement about the possibilities of creating community space for all ages.

If you build it, they will come

By 1959, a population survey revealed that Fort Worth had 900 Jewish households with 3.1 persons each. This computed to about 2,790 Jews living in the city. Following the population study, a needs assessment determined that a Jewish community center would require parking, a playground, athletic facilities, a gymnasium, swimming and wading pools, an assembly hall, ballroom, office space, lounge areas, rooms for study and play, and preschool classrooms.
And so, 1959 continued as a very busy year toward the creation of a Fort Worth JCC. Letters were mailed to 867 Jewish-family units to find out if there was community interest in constructing a center. The total response was 40 percent, with 342 replies—among them 258 from households in favor. (The letter had no questions about a financial commitment.) Based upon the 258 favorable responses, I.E. Horwitz, an energetic oil-and-gas attorney and a past president of the Temple, was appointed chair of the Federation’s JCC Committee.
Three caveats surfaced, and Horwitz addressed them: that the Fort Worth Jewish community was too small to support a JCC, that funds were more urgently needed for the city’s synagogues, and that money should be spent for philanthropic rather than recreational needs. To these objections, Horwitz said, “Rubbish!” Communities smaller than Fort Worth had built and supported centers. He pointed to strong growth at the city’s two congregations and reminded detractors that “no center has ever retarded the growth of religious life. They are a help, not a hindrance.” He added that “Israel and other charities will always need our help,” but this should not “stifle our own community progress.”
By 1960, pediatrician Frank Cohen was quoted in the Federation minutes stating, “It was generally agreed that the Center was a completely autonomous group which had been charged by the Federation to organize and build a JCC program and building.” Horwitz, the fundraising chairman, reported in October 1961 that 155 Jews had pledged $114,605 toward building the JCC, and six non-Jews had pledged $26,260. By December, he reported that the committee was only $3,000 short of its $150,000 goal. (When the JCC officially opened its doors in 1965, “private gifts” totaled $175,000, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
A Young People’s Group, chaired by Sherwin Rubin, pledged its support for a JCC. That group represented 40 couples. In 1960, Rubin along with Marcia Kornbleet (Kurtz) volunteered to co-chair a membership drive for the future JCC. Their goal was 450 families.
While enthusiasm was growing, Rabinowitz, the building chairman, was busy with the plans for the facility. During 1963 many unanswered questions arose:

  • 1. Will there be non-Jewish members and, if so, on what basis?
  • 2. What percentage of the city’s Jewish population could be expected to join?
  • 3. What policies would govern Shabbat activities and kashrut?
  • 4. What would be the cost of membership?
  • 5. What sources of revenue could be generated to cover the cost of operations?
  • 6. How would transportation needs be met?

In May 1963, a decision was reached to spend only money on hand plus promised pledges for grounds, building and furnishings, minus 10 percent shrinkage for possible unpaid pledges. The decision to move forward was based upon two assumptions: that Fort Worth’s Jewish community would grow, and that a building would attract Jewish membership. Initially, non-Jews were not part of the financial equation as planners evaluated the center’s long-term viability. However, membership was to be open to all, regardless of faith and race.
Several hundred excited people attended the groundbreaking May 3, 1964, at 6801 Granbury Road on the 20.5 acres of undeveloped land in southwest Fort Worth. Horwitz was appointed founding president of the Dan Danciger Jewish Community Center (DDJCC). On Nov. 25, 1964, the first board of directors meeting was held in the new building — a 41,500-square-foot complex with outdoor tennis courts and an Olympic-size pool. The community held a festive dedication ceremony in the DDJCC gym Jan. 17, 1965. By then, “private gifts” toward building the center totaled $175,000, and, according to the Star-Telegram, the Dan Danciger Trust had upped its contribution to $410,000 (from an initial promise of $300,000). By the end of the year, membership totaled 475 families (who paid annual dues of $72), plus dozens of single adults who joined for $36. Optimism was in the air.

The Center: up and running

Events included:

  • Young Adult Organization (Dotty Echt*, chair)
  • Senior Citizens Club, renamed Adult Discussion Group (Dora Ginsburg*, president, 1965)
  • Ongoing artist exhibits
  • Bridge classes
  • Center Players perform From the World of Sholom Aleichem
  • Cooking classes (gourmet and Jewish)
  • Homemaking classes: “Let’s Play House,” with serving tea part of each session
  • Daily lunches for seniors, as well as annual Passover seders and Thanksgiving dinners
  • New Year’s Eve Fiesta Ball, chaired by Harriette Gachman, transformed the center into a South of the Border Night Club in 1966
  • Youth basketball league, with more than 100 boys
  • Tweens visit from Dallas and Houston, connecting Fort Worth adolescents with other Jewish tweens, making new friends, renewing old friendships
  • Camp Shalom is named by Teren Kreisler, 10 and Kathy Sherman (Suder), 6.

Dream comes to fruition

“A community without a home is a community without a heart. The united home of our Jewish Community Center (is) representative in spirit and structures of all the people. Here the hands of an entire community will clasp as easily as the hands of two. Here no one is alone. . . . ever. Here, groups are never divided. It will be our new spirit, dedicated, united and secure … designed to serve forever.”
This beautifully written, optimistic message was printed in the dedication book distributed Jan. 17, 1965, by the Jewish Community Center Campaign organization, comprising 34 division chairs and a solicitation committee of 103 people; the JCC was on its way to fulfilling the dream. The Dedication Ceremony, in the gymnasium of the new complex, turned into a huge celebration for the visionaries, the campaign workers and rank-and-file volunteers eager to create a plethora of activities to meet the social, cultural, educational, and athletic needs of the community.
In 1965, the breakdown of membership statistics was impressive: 491 men, 504 women, 474 boys and 431 girls. Also, the Center was accepted into the Tarrant County United Fund (now the United Way) and received an allocation of $4,941 in 1966. That same year Dan Rosenthal was hired as executive director of the Federation, the JCC, and the Jewish Social Service Agency (now Jewish Family Services). All three agencies had administrative offices in the new building.
One of the Center’s most successful activities was its Senior Citizens Club. Created in 1965, it had 100 members and was volunteer driven. With its own officers, monthly meetings were held at the Center. In subsequent years, the group was renamed the Adult Discussion Group.
Everything was running smoothly — the preschool, the summer camp, arts and crafts classes, the athletic department and adult education activities. The complex, with its meeting rooms, classrooms, gymnasium, Olympic-size swimming pool and tennis courts, was in full use. In addition, Young Judea, BBYO, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and other groups utilized the center as the place to meet. Because the DDJCC was affiliated with the national Jewish Community Center Association, it hosted and housed groups of out-of-town teenagers visiting Fort Worth, giving our teens the opportunity to meet contemporaries from other cities.
In 1977, under the direction of JCC President Jerry Wolens, a bar mitzvah celebration was held to mark the Center’s thirteenth anniversary. Guest speaker was Dore (Isadore) Schary, the Hollywood motion-picture director, writer, producer and playwright.
He later became head of production and president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Again, the community came together to celebrate the success of the Center.

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