Going strong since 1906

A black and white photo from the 1930s showing 10 adult male basketball players and two coaches
A Young Men’s Hebrew Association basketball team from the 1930s

At the turn of the last century, Birmingham’s Jewish community needed a boost. Even though it was growing — much like their adopted city’s overall population — there was an increasing sense that more cohesion was needed. So a group of young men from Knesseth Israel Synagogue met in 1906 to form an association that would provide a social outlet (initially for young Jewish men only). Dr. Henry Swedlow was elected president. Assisting him were S.J. Levine, Mosley Sugarman, Jake Allen, Isadore Shapiro, Moses Cohen, Jake Goldstein, Sol Adelson, J.M. Levine, and Louis Walowitz.

The group rented the upstairs of a house, charged themselves dues, wrote bylaws and a constitution, and set out to find members. By 1910, the young organization had 50 members, and President I.R. Rubenstein reported $144.66 in the bank. After convincing Louis Pizitz and

J. Goldstein to help furnish the club, the group then arranged to purchase a lot in downtown Birmingham at 6th Avenue and 17th Street for $4,500. They planned for their new building to become part of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, or YMHA, a national organization that was founded in New York City in 1874.

In 1919, “The Y” carried out some serious fundraising that resulted in the purchase of a new piece of property on 7th Avenue and 18th Street for $20,000. Congregation Beth-El purchased the original facility.

A cultural center

The 1920s saw The Y become a social, cultural, and educational center for the community. Classes in “Americanization” were offered to the city’s many immigrants. Various social clubs were formed, including The Grand Order of Aleph Zakik Aleph for Jewish teens. Dances were held and a drama group performed. Under the sponsorship of Temple Sisterhood and the Council of Jewish Women, the first kindergarten was established. The athletic program became a point of pride in the community as its basketball team racked up an enviable record.

Eventually The Y became affiliated with a growing number of other Jewish associations in Birmingham under the banner of the National Jewish Welfare Board.

The Y hired Eve Bandman as its first female employee in 1929. Under her direction, women were offered craft, art, fitness, and storytelling classes, plus a glee club and a social group that planned dances. Women petitioned for and got a separate shower facility.

The Great Depression

Even though the Great Depression hit The Y hard, the board voted to extend all membership privileges to the unemployed and to everyone who was unable to pay. Its job posting board helped The Y become a second home for people seeking work, and food was offered to all who were hungry. Meanwhile, the successes of The Y’s basketball and baseball teams were a source of Jewish pride. In addition, Samuel Ullman’s gift of books in 1930 launched a library that became a statewide resource as it grew to more than 500 volumes of Hebrew and English titles. Pleas for financial support kept The Y alive.

The Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, sponsored by The Y, rehearsed and performed regularly. By 1937, nearly all Jewish organizations in the city met regularly at The Y, as did organizations like the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America.


In 1938, with the approaching war in Europe, The Y offered free memberships to German refugee families. By 1940, the Jewish Welfare Board requested that The Y coordinate social, religious, and recreational activities for Jewish soldiers stationed at Fort McClellan in nearby Anniston, which led to The Y hosting Birmingham’s first United Service Organization club. At its peak, some 1,200 Jewish and non-Jewish servicemen visited the facility monthly.

Community members gather at The Y in downtown Birmingham in 1939.

Although declining membership due to World War II created financial problems, people and organizations rallied to help pay off various debts. By war’s end, The Y stood as the meeting place for cultural, educational, and recreational activities — so much so that the esteemed

Rabbi Stephen Wise was the honored guest at an annual meeting.

In 1949, the organization changed its name to the Jewish Community Center of Birmingham and elected women to the board — the first organization in the city to do so. But it became apparent that the downtown facility was no longer adequate for the needs of the community, and a search was on for a new location. Although plans were put on hold when the Korean War caused a dramatic increase in construction costs, in 1955 the JCC secured 70-acres from Republic Steel Corporation along Montclair Road. Construction began the following year.

Over the past half century, what is now the Levite Jewish Community Center — affectionately known as “The J” — has grown to include outdoor and indoor pools, the Sokol Fitness Center, Pizitz Auditorium, the Cohn Early Childhood Learning Center (CECLC), tennis courts, a kosher kitchen, and five miles of hiking and biking trails. The J’s campus also hosts the Birmingham Jewish Federation and N.E. Miles Jewish Day School.

The J was honored to host the JCC Maccabi Games in Birmingham in 2017. Also known as the “Jewish Olympics,” the event saw The J take center stage for the international event that involved nearly 1,000 teenage athletes from around the world.

Pandemic shutdown

The Covid-19 pandemic forced the facility to close its doors for nearly three months starting in March 2020. As the pandemic raged during the next two years, the staff did its best to embrace pandemic-related restrictions by holding group fitness classes outside and online, and hosting various programs online. The restrictions, along with widespread economic issues, led to a 30 percent drop in memberships. Fundraising efforts also suffered a major blow in 2020 when the annual Jewish Food and Culture Fest was canceled and the 44th annual Sam Lapidus Montclair Run was run virtually.

Meanwhile in the CECLC, Herculean efforts to meet strict new government standards not only allowed the CECLC to reopen after just one week, but it generously offered free slots to the children of first-responders and essential workers who were battling the pandemic daily.

Serving the city

As the nation emerged from the pandemic, 2022 will be remembered for strong rebuilding efforts at The J, including accelerated fundraising along with internal reorganization and efforts to address the aging facility.

Today The J prides itself on serving as a bridge between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities by welcoming people and families of all faiths, ages, genders, sexual identities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In 2021 alone, we gave out more than $128,000 in need-based scholarships across our programs.

We are grateful for the support we receive from our local partners, including United Way of Central Alabama, The Birmingham Jewish Federation, and The Birmingham Jewish Foundation. Their assistance — along with that of our members and donors — helps us reach thousands of neighbors through our camps and programs, and events like our annual Jewish Food and Culture Fest, J’la Gala, and Sam Lapidus Montclair Run.