$41M purchase puts East Bay Jews on track for a new community hub
By Ryan Torok
For three decades, prominent real estate developer and philanthropist Moses Libitzky has envisioned creating a central address for East Bay’s growing Jewish community.
Then a few years ago, he came across a for-sale notice for what seemed to be an ideal location: an 83,000-square-foot property in Oakland, with private parking and proximity to BART. It was the campus and corporate office of Nestlé-owned Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream.
“When this one showed up, it was love at first sight,” Libitzky said. “We couldn’t not buy this. The idea of a Jewish campus at this site was just too tempting to pass up.”
In December 2019, his commercial real estate company, Libitzky Property Companies, closed escrow on the site for $41 million. Since then, he has undertaken transforming it into a community hub, working in partnership with the JCC of the East Bay, which will be the campus’ anchor organization.
As part of a multi-year leaseback agreement, the prior owner, Nestlé Dreyer’s, will remain onsite in the property’s main 55,000-square-foot building for another three years. It will then take a couple of years more before the campus is fully occupied by Jewish organizations and various nonprofit partners, Libitzky said.
The eight-parcel, approximately three-acre property is situated in Oakland’s desirable Rockridge District, a tree-lined area populated by fine restaurants, coffee shops, specialty markets, wine bars and nice homes. Several retailers are occupying one of the current buildings, and Libitzky has expressed an interest in maintaining that mix.
But the main motivator was finding a more desirable home for the JCC. Founded in 1978 as the Berkeley-Richmond JCC, the JCC East Bay serves more than 9,000 people every year with adult programming, a preschool, summer camp and afterschool programs. Its main branch is a 107-year-old landmark building in North Berkeley, which has shown signs of age for years and, which Libitzky said, is not an ideal gathering spot for much of today’s Jewish community.
The Rockridge site, by contrast, “is an ideal location,” he said. “It’s a place people like to come to.”
The JCC already has moved its administrative employees to one of the office buildings at the new site. But while it plans to open a second preschool at the site, it is continuing to operate its existing preschool and other programs out of the Berkeley building.
“We are not abandoning Berkeley,” said the center’s CEO Melissa Chapman. “We are maintaining our services in Berkeley.”
Chapman said philanthropic investment of this magnitude in the East Bay Jewish community is long overdue.
“It means it is finally the time that donors are recognizing the size of the community here,” she said of the purchase. “The Bay Area has the fourth-largest Jewish community in North America. Yet we [East Bay] are the only Bay Area Jewish community without a hub. What we’re looking to do in Rockridge, this new site, is to create a place that speaks to the East Bay Jewish community.”
Another two or three anchor organizations will join the JCC at the new campus, which eventually will house more than 40 organizations, she said.
Moishe House Oakland-Rockridge has already made the move, operating out of one of the four residential homes on the property since 2020.
Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay is having discussions about moving to the site. If it did, it would have the second-largest footprint after the JCC.
“We’re in an exploration process and we are interested in the idea and the potential,” said Robin Mencher, CEO of Berkeley-based JFCS East Bay. “We were founded by members of the Jewish community in Oakland, so having our offices return to Oakland feels like an opportunity to honor our roots and serve the community’s needs now and in the future.”
Keshet, which provides services to the LGBTQ community, is also considering moving to the site. So is S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks, the central agency for Jewish education in the Bay Area. Additional groups currently without physical homes also may be in the mix, including the Jewish Studio Project, the Aquarian Minyan congregation and the Jewish Healing Network.
“We will be working, especially with those that don’t have brick-and-mortar [locations], to see how the space can be accommodating for them, as well,” Chapman said.
These organizations, Libitzky said, will be paying virtually zero rent, and the plan is to eventually transfer ownership of the property to a separate nonprofit entity.
“It’s one of the worst business operations we’ve ever had,” he joked.
Libitzky’s investment in East Bay Jewry is the latest in his long history of philanthropic investments in the area’s Jewish community. Raised on a chicken farm in Connecticut and the son of Holocaust survivors from Poland, Libitzky said, ”The idea of preserving my Jewish heritage is important to me.”
Libitzky described himself as a believer in “entrepreneurial philanthropy,” an idea that donors are partners, not just funders. Reflective of shifting fundraising models in his area was the 2019 absorption of the Jewish Federation of East Bay into the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, a process in which he was deeply involved.
Libitzky’s brother-in-law, colleague and best friend, Nathan Petrowsky, is vice president of Libitzky Property Companies and serves on the board of the JCC East Bay. According to Libitzky, he brought the property to Libitzky’s attention. And Chapman said Petrowsky has played an instrumental role throughout the process.
“Nathan’s fingerprints are all over this, in addition to Moses,” she said.
Chapman and Libitzky said there are all kinds of ideas for how to use the new campus. Some proposals include transforming an events space into a venue for weddings, b’nai mitzvahs and theater performances. There are also plans for creating co-working offices, after-school care for K-5 students, summer and year-round camp, and outdoor spaces for people to gather.
Community input is being sought, and the JCC is working with Rosov Consulting, a Berkeley-based professional services firm for Jewish nonprofits, to conduct a survey of potential partners and stakeholders on how best to utilize this new Jewish community asset.
Some may question the wisdom of investing in a brick-and-mortar site at a time when Covid-19 has transformed how people access Jewish life. Many organizations are opting to keep some form of their virtual programming even as the pandemic recedes.
The pandemic did cause the project to have stops and starts, Libitzky said. “Before we could even take a breath, Covid hit, so our progress kind of slowed down on the project,” he admitted.
But Libitzky is undeterred, and focused on the larger picture. “People need places to gather,” he said. “Synagogues aren’t doing that well, and JCCs have become the secular synagogue.”
originally published in The Jewish News of Northern California