Jeffrey Karatz never planned on staying in Fairfax County much past the time when the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia opened the doors to its new building in 1990.
Now, nearly 15 years later, Karatz is still in charge, having made a home in Springfield since he moved to the area in 1986.
"I thought I'd build it, spend a year or two, then move on," said Karatz, 65, who is retiring at the end of April after nearly 19 years as executive director of the community center. He plans to move back to his hometown of Minneapolis, Minn., to spend more time with his wife, Raleigh, his children, and three grandchildren.
"We just sort of became part of this community and we asked ourselves, 'Where would we go?'" said Karatz. "I felt we were home, sort of."
Karatz was recently honored by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who recognized him "for nearly two decades as the notable director of the Jewish Community Center of
Northern Virginia, overseeing the building of the new center, affiliation with the Gesher Day School and services to thousands of Jewish families in Northern Virginia and Fairfax County" at its meeting on March 21.
BORN AND raised in Minneapolis, Karatz has been involved with Jewish Community Centers (JCC), by his count, since he was 8 years old, when his father gave him a dollar and told him to go join the local JCC. He graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in sociology and earned a master's degree in social work, before taking a position working at his hometown JCC. Karatz also held positions at centers in Philadelphia, Connecticut and Staten Island, N.Y.
What drew Karatz to Northern Virginia in 1986 was the prospect of being involved in a large-scale building project. An assistant executive director at the Jewish Community Center in Minneapolis prior to arriving in Virginia, Karatz said his first question was about the weather, but his second was about the building project, whereby the JCC would expand from a small building to a their current facility, which includes classrooms, a fitness center, Olympic-size swimming pool and basketball court.
"If they weren't going to build anything, I probably wouldn't have been interested. I was in the mode at the time where I wanted to do that," he said.
Four years after Karatz came on board, the new, $6 million building on Little River Turnpike in Fairfax opened its doors on Dec. 1, 1990. Before the building was even finished, Karatz and his small staff went into full-scale planning mode, trying to anticipate how they would meet the needs of the greater numbers of visitors the new facility would attract.
"We had to be ready to operate immediately. We took the building from the contractor on Nov. 15 and were fully operational on Dec. 1. We had planned that."
Four more years down the road, the community center moved into its next chapter: as host for the Gesher Day School, a Northern Virginia Jewish K-8 school that was looking for more room than it had at its location at Agudas Achim Synagogue in Alexandria.
"It seemed like a natural fit," said Zvi Schoenberg, principal of the school. "We were growing out of our previous home, and the idea of us being housed in the community center which people were very excited to have come into being was very natural."
Gesher has been in existence since 1982, and Schoenberg said the 10 years the school has spent at JCC.
"Gesher and the Jewish Community Center are really the two focal community institutions for the Jewish community in Northern Virginia," he said. "And as such we've always had a very intimate working relationship. We've benefited greatly by having a home in the JCC building, and our families enjoy the opportunity to take part in all the activities the JCC has to offer."
The opening of the new building and the arrival of Gesher are Karatz's most public accomplishments. But he said he believes that having the JCC grow and thrive has been necessary to meet the growing Jewish community in Northern Virginia.
"He's a community-minded person. He understands the importance of Jewish education, and he likes kids," said Schoenberg.
Eric Koehler, a 35-year-old assistant executive director of the Weinstein Jewish Community Center in Richmond, will take over for Karatz beginning April 26. Koehler is a native of Massachusetts, and has held positions at the JCC on the North Shore and as head of Camp Simchah for six years.