The Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center completed its multiyear, $50 million expansion and renovation project in January.

The new Meyerland campus, a central fixture among Houston’s Jewish community since 1936 and commonly referred to as “the J,” was largely funded by more than 700 individuals, families and foundation donors.

“A project like this really shows the resiliency of Houston,” ERJCC Board Chair-elect Debbie Diamond said at the formal dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony Feb. 26.

The ERJCC flooded three times before its renovation—10 feet of water during Hurricane Harvey and twice prior. ERJCC board members said they had to re-evaluate whether the center would remain or relocate, but they decided to reaffirm their commitment to the area by investing in the center.

“We chose to stay here in this neighborhood to help be part of the revitalization of the Meyerland and west Houston area, and to be here for the entire community—the Jewish community as well as anyone who wants to be here with us,” Diamond said.

Rebuilding the center

During Harvey, the ERJCC was headquarters for hurricane relief efforts in the area, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said during the event.

“Many wondered how the ERJCC would be rebuilt, but the ERJCC quickly rose to the occasion; instead of shutting its doors completely, the center mobilized volunteers and quickly became a mecca of hurricane relief efforts and flood supplies for the entirety of southwest Houston,” he said.

At the ceremony, ERJCC Chair Jeremy Samuels said instead of just renovating the center, they decided to do a complete overhaul and expansion. Development and planning documents with the city of Houston required that the center include a stormwater sewer and detention site.

“This facility is a bold post-Harvey, post-COVID statement that we’re strong and vibrant,” Samuels said.

Construction on the $50 million project ran from January 2021 through January 2023. The project added the 126,000-square-foot Samuels Family Community Pavilion as well as 27,000 square feet to the existing center.

The three-story pavilion boasts a list of new amenities and spaces, including an aquatics complex with recreational pools and slides; lap pools; a fitness center; an outdoor cafe; and family locker rooms equipped with saunas and whirlpools.

A growing population

The project also included a new $3.5 million Jewish Federation of Greater Houston building. The old building on the ERJCC property was demolished to build on the north end of the center.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, a Jewish philanthropic organization, partnered with the center in what it called a way of renewing the area as a hub of Jewish life for the future, according to its 2022-23 financial report.

Houston has a slightly smaller percentage of Jewish population than other major cities, said Taryn Baranowski, the Federation’s chief marketing officer. But she said the community is strong, vibrant and growing.

“Even though it’s a smaller group, it’s very tight-knit, and we get a lot done,” Baranowski said.

The last demographic study of the region’s Jewish population was completed in 2016 by the federation. Based on data going back to 1986, the study found that the number of Houston households with at least one Jewish adult increased from 16,000 to 26,000 in 2016.

Geography affects the community’s ability to participate in events, according to the organization, and those areas in southwest Houston also have Jewish institutions such as a synagogue or school. The ERJCC has its religious background, but its doors remain open to all, Diamond said.

“It’s a very diverse part of the city, and we really welcome people from all communities to be a part of what we do here,” she said.

Community programs

With more facility space and renovations, new programs are available. The new culinary studio installed in the Joe Weingarten Building offers culinary classes and events and welcomes chef appearances, which will incorporate Jewish culture and food traditions into programming, ERJCC officials said.

Although the ERJCC hosts events that are often open to the public, a membership is required to take advantage of most services, including access to the center’s pool and fitness facility. As of March 1, membership reached more than 6,100 individuals, a 17% rise since December, ERJCC Communications Manager Laurie Pickei said.

Longtime member Barbara Kalmans is no stranger to programs for seniors at “the J.” She and her friends, who all donated to the renovations, attended the February ceremony together.

“I used to live six blocks down the street; now I live farther away, but I was here three times last week,” Kalmans said.

ERJCC CEO Joel Dinkins said the center is in it for the long haul.

“The children of our community leaders 60 years ago that built this campus are today’s leaders building a community for tomorrow,” he said.