Workers are still painting walls and putting finishing touches on a soaring, three-story-high atrium, but the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has moved into the building it purchased last year on Executive Boulevard in Rockville.
The low-slung glass and brown-pebbled concrete building will accommodate the Federation’s 73-person staff and include a 200-seat conference center for agency and community meetings.
The building was purchased for $15.75 million through gifts from five donor families, Federation CEO Steve Rakitt said. The building’s large meeting space, a crucial new asset for a local Jewish community that had lacked a rally point, will be called The Jewish Federation’s Abraham S. and Minnie Kay Conference Center.
Federation is also renting out space in the new building, located at 6101 Executive Blvd. Among the dozen tenants joining Federation there: Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project; Jewish Community Relations Council; DC Aliyah; Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation; Habonim Dror Camp Moshava; and Cafe Sunflower, the retail outlet for the Sunflower Bakery in Gaithersburg, which provides training for people with developmental or other cognitive disabilities.
The café, which is scheduled to open in January, will serve as a training ground for clients to learn how to wait tables and operate a cash register, Rakitt said. It will also be a gathering place for employees in the building and elsewhere to stop in for a cup of coffee and a Danish.
Rakitt said the new building, with its café, conference center and staff break room on the third floor, is conceived as a place where “important community conversations can take place. The largest space in our old building could hold 40 people.”
Like Google Tel Aviv
There wasn’t enough space at the old building for the Federation board to hold meetings, said Federation President Liza Levy. Instead, the board met at synagogues and JCCs.
The new building’s open floor plan “lends itself to working together on ideas,” she said. “When I walk in, there are people scribbling ideas on white boards. A lot of thought went into what it would look like as a modern work space. A few weeks ago I visited Google’s Tel Aviv office. I thought, ‘This is like the Federation office.’ ”
The difference between the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s old office on Montrose Road and its new one on Executive Boulevard is like night and day, said Ron Halber, the JCRC’s executive director.
“We love our new digs. It exudes professionalism and class. Our old digs looked like a bomb shelter. We didn’t even want to take people there.”
Halber said one staffer’s initial reaction was, “ ‘Ooh, I have to dress nicer now.’ The morale enhancement is going to bring tremendous dividends to the Jewish community.”
The third-floor offices of Habonim Dror Camp Moshava is bright with lots of windows and a ceiling-to-floor glass wall, said Executive Director Jen Silber. There’s a kitchenette down the hall and one more thing their offices in the old Federation building lacked: doors for privacy.
“Sometimes we have confidential conversations with parents,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to close the door.”
65 sites considered
Discussions over what to do with the building at 6101 Montrose Rd. that the Federation moved into in 1988 had been going on for several years. Federation leaders discussed “how could the old building be renovated or, if not, what could we do to find a new location?” Rakitt said.
After one potential donor promised to help move the project along “in a significant manner,” the Federation began searching for a building to purchase.
The agency considered 65 sites in metro Washington, said Joshua Bernstein, who chaired the real estate search committee. Criteria included accessibility and affordability.
“We looked at properties in D.C. that were Metro accessible but prohibitively expensive,” he said. “Other sites were affordable but not accessible.”
Bernstein said that it was a coincidence that they ultimately chose a property only a five-minute drive from Federation’s former Montrose Road location.
“Our goal was not to be less than a mile from the old building. It was to be in the best place possible.”
Federation closed on the property in March 2013 and began renovations.
The question must be asked, of course, with the economy still in recovery, is Jewish money best spent on brick and mortar?
Rakitt was quick to respond: “The donors are all significant donors to Federation and other Jewish agencies. This gift did not impact their regular giving. We believe this is a functional, attractive space, by no means flashy. We don’t think we’ve compromised on our ability to take care of our community’s needs. Just the opposite.”
The old Federation building was purchased by the Charles E. Smith Life Communities for $2 million.
Bernstein said the new building is large enough for the Federation to grow in. “Twenty years from now, I hope the space will be a hub of entrepreneurial thought for the Jewish community,” he said. “That it will be an incubator of ideas that may turn into organizations or programs that need a physical space.”