Andrea Alcabes: Leading a beloved community center

Andrea Alcabes JCCShe calls herself a “recovering lawyer,” but to hundreds of families in and around the Salt Lake Valley, she’s more like a lifeline and trusted friend. Alcabes is executive director of the I.J. & Jeanne Wagner Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City, a gathering place for families, fitness buffs and those who wish to be more engaged in their community.

“I was an attorney for 20 years after finishing law school at the University of Utah,” she says. “I didn’t love it. Fortunately, my husband was also a lawyer, which allowed me to find a job that I felt passionate about.”

That job was at the JCC, where their children were raised to a large extent. She calls it “the place where we learned to be parents, a great experience for our family.” Though her husband wasn’t Jewish and she was not a practitioner of the religion, “We found that here, everyone is Jewish. By that, I mean we are all a great community of friends and family.”

She knows that religiosity “has a fairly large role in Utah. Everyone wants to be part of something larger than themselves. That’s what the center offers—a community based on universal values of respect, kindness and responsibility.”

She began working at the center after leaving a law practice, and once the previous director left, applied to be interim director. The title stuck, and she’s been directing the center from its home at the old Ft. Douglas Country Club for over 12 years.

“Our mission is to enrich the lives of not only those in the Jewish community but the community at large,” she says. The vast majority of members aren’t Jewish, and in fact a large percentage of them are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“By offering certain opportunities in educational, cultural and recreational pursuits, we are a place where people of all backgrounds and beliefs gather in peace and understanding. There’s great evidence of diversity here. Lots of members are transplants. I’m sure our location near the university is a key to that. But the message you get here is that no one really knows or cares what religion you are. And we’re almost always open—we only close five days a year.”

The JCC has a large preschool and kindergarten program, programs for youth and teenagers, fitness and aquatics programming, and a slate of community events. Alcabes and her staff host a summer concert and a Jewish Arts Festival in November, and coordinate efforts to afford scholarships for lower-income families.

“We also have a refugee scholarship program,” she says. “Why shouldn’t we give back to the 65,000 refugees that have been settled here? They get two weeks of camp for each child, and they are not required to join the JCC. We also give out memberships to out-of-town patients’ families who are at Primary Children’s Hospital or the Huntsman Cancer Institute. And we reach out to older people by doing programs at senior centers for those who might have limited access to the JCC.”

Alcabes is preparing to spearhead a capital campaign for upgrades to the building that has housed the JCC for 16 years.

“With our traffic … let’s just say our facility is well loved,” she says. “We need to be sure we stay relevant for families coming into the community. So we’ll work to build our endowment to refurbish and expand.”