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Debby Hirshman: The Woman Behind America’s Biggest JCC

The striking new glass, steel and Jerusalem-stone building at 76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side houses state-of-the-art sports facilities as well as a beit midrash (traditional house of study). Also a kosher dairy cafe, computerized listings of Jewish resources throughout the city, and a Judaica shop run in cooperation with the Jewish Museum. And for those who incorporate Zen into their Judaism, there is a meditation area.

This remarkable new Jewish Community Center in Manhattan—”Doors Wide Open in January 2002″ as its big outdoor sign reads— has come to life under the direction of Debby Hirshman, 48, with a $70-million capital campaign that makes it the most expensive JCC ever built. Hired as executive director of the then-nascent JCC of the Upper West Side in 1990, which deliberately operated without a building, using borrowed facilities, Hirshman has shaped this JCC, now the biggest in America, with the determination she showed back in her student days at Barnard College as captain of the basketball team.

Hirshman grew up playing football with the boys, but when her mother died when Hirshman was 10, she also took on traditional female responsibilities, calling the butcher before going to school in the morning, and then waiting up at night for her older brothers to come home.

At the JCC, Hirshman early on accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of involving all 17 Upper West Side synagogues, ranging from Orthodox to Reform, in her plans. She has brought in more than 80 members to the board, which includes people of all ages, income levels, religious involvement and non-involvement, gay and straight, with a near-even division of men and women. Together, Hirshman and the board hammered out compromises on difficult issues, like offering gay and lesbian programming, and opening the JCC for some programs on Saturday afternoons.

There have, however, been rough spots. When the board changed the name “JCC on the Upper West Side” to the “JCC in Manhattan,” last spring, all hell broke loose. Dr. Ruth Westheinier, the no-nonsense sex therapist who is president of the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights & In wood on New York’s uppermost Upper West Side, along with Martin Englisher, executive vice president of the Y, asked the JCC to cease and desist immediately from using the name “JCC in Manhattan.” Hirshman’s reaction: “We mishandled it in not communicating in advance.” She also makes the point: “Our competition is not each other. Our competition comes from all the secular institutions competing for the time, the philanthropic resources of our Jewish community.”

But for all Hirshman”s fierce commitment to her job, she makes it clear that her daughter Elisheva, now a college student, whom she’s raised on her own since she was 18 months old, comes first. Hirshman once interrupted a fundraising meeting to speak to her daughter on the phone. And, yes, she raised the million dollars that she was seeking.