Before retiring, Dan Bernstein, founding President/CEO of the Merage JCC, sat down with two of his board members, Doris Chasin, and Irv Chase, to discuss the JCC’s past and future.
In their own ways, the three community leaders marveled at what the JCC has become. Irv jumped in with his memories predating the Merage JCC...“In the 90’s my wife and I traveled with our teens to Michigan for the Maccabi Games. I was amazed by the heart of the community and by the building itself. I asked my wife, ‘Do you believe this? Is this something we could ever have in Orange County?’”
Doris added that she and her late husband supported the new building. “But the JCC became more than an impressive building, it became our second home. It is a place for sports and speakers, to explore broader views on Israel and Judaism. And most importantly, it builds a place of belonging.”
“On the first day we opened our doors, no one knew if it was going to be empty or packed. We closed our eyes and crossed our fingers. On that day and every day since, thousands of people have come through our doors,” Dan continues, “whether they are watching a movie or exercising together they come as a community. When Jewish kids are playing basketball together that is a Jewish activity.”
Prior to 2004, the Jewish community of OC was spread thinly. Like other growing metropolises, it needed a place, a “center”, where Jewish individuals and families could come together. Its leaders reimagined what a Jewish community could be…
Irv suggested, “We needed a strong leader who understood the Jewish journey and had both operational and programmatic expertise. We found that leadership in Dan.”
Dan had spent more than 20 years building community and Jewish Peoplehood within the JCC field. He started in Phoenix and then moved to the JCCs in Florida.
December 2003 he moved to OC with the monumental task of opening the Merage JCC. Over 15 years later, Dan credits the JCC’s many supporters and visionary pillars of the OC Jewish community who raised the funds to make the dream a reality. He explains, “Our JCC has evolved with the community, becoming a destination, enriching our Jewish identities while creating a vibrant community that welcomes one and all.” He explains, “We’re a destination for Jewish engagement, a hub of learning, a place for celebration, a connector to Israel and Jewish life, and a place where individuals and families encounter Jewish traditions and values.” Doris asserts, “We are a place where we strengthen, engage, learn, and laugh.”
Where does the JCC go from here? According to Scott Braswell, the newly appointed Merage JCC Executive Director, “Our culture and emphasis on relationships help make this large JCC feel smaller, and a place you can call home. As a JCC, we will never change our approach in helping everyone feel at home because that is who we are.”
As Chair of the JCC since its inception, Irv concludes the interview, “Reality certainly exceeded my expectations. The center is nothing short of miraculous for the Jewish community. Our vision is to ensure Jewish continuity in Orange County. Our future is more of the same. We will connect more people to our JCC and the Jewish community. Continuity is simply connecting Jews to one another. That is our hope for our Jewish world.”
When Dan retires this July, he will have spent more than 35 years building community and Jewish Peoplehood within the JCC field, 16 here at the Merage JCC in Orange County.
Nationally, Dan was named both as a Mandel Scholar and Israel Scholar. In 2018, the national JCC organization (JCCA) awarded Dan the top executive honor, the Florence G. Heller Award for distinguished professional service. Prior to his JCC career, Dan coached basketball at multiple universities and the U.S. Pan American Maccabi Team winning the gold in Mexico City.
A native New Yorker, Dan and his wife, Lynn, have a daughter, Beth, a son and daughter-in-law, Scott and Laura, and a gorgeous granddaughter, Sutton Miriam.
Irv has chaired the Merage JCC Board since 2004. He is unwavering in his commitment to the Jewish people and a passionate advocate for Holocaust education and Jewish legacy. Additionally, he supports Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education of Chapman University, Santa Ana College High School, Inc. and Kidworks.
Doris has served on the Merage JCC Board for 13 years. She helped build the aquatics center, founded the Great Jewish Americans 101 “edutainment” series, and developed and furthered arts at the Merage JCC with the Doris H. and Milton J. Chasin Cultural Arts Endowment Fund. More recently, Doris has supported JCC Global Teen Fellows from inception. With a doctorate in Anthropology and African Studies, Doris taught at UC Santa Barbara, Loyola University and Marymount College.
As seen in JLife June 2019.