Ben Gurvitz
Ben Gurvitz being honored at Temple Israel on the occasion of his 99th birthday (10-11-09). (YouTube)

The JCC Fitness Center is the very definition of our Community. Its closing marks the end of an era.

“I was so tired the other day, I slept right through my nap.” — Benny Gurvitz

I met Benny Gurvtiz in the locker room of the JCC Fitness Center in 2000. I, a then 52 -year old clinical psychologist, and my brother Mike, a then 47-year-old furrier. Benny, a 90-year-old retired pharmacist. Our lockers were next to each other.

Benny was older than my dad was when he passed at the too-young age of 67. Maybe that’s what drew me to Benny. Or maybe it was our similar approach to fitness: “When I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down and wait until the urge passes,” he’d say.

For 10 years thereafter, I’d return home from the “J” and tell my wife and kids all the “Benny jokes” I had heard that day. His humor was remarkable. My brother, Mike, and I would accompany Benny to his pharmacist continuing education seminars mostly so we could listen, learn and laugh. Remember, he was well into his retirement, didn’t need any more CE credits, but we’d drive him to these events, and he would pick the programs with the best food.

I knew instantly Benny was a rare breed. By the time we’d met, he’d already lost so much in his life. He’d outlived his wife and many of his friends. Benny said, “I don’t have any peer pressure because I don’t have any peers.” Yet, he kept coming back to the Jewish Community Fitness Center. He was a “regular.”

The “regulars” have come back to the Center for the fitness, the laughter, the socialization, the culture, the commonalities and the differences. We’ve mingled with people we know only in the context of the schvitz at the “J”. We then laugh to ourselves when we run into a “regular” in public, thinking to ourselves: “Boy, it’s hard to recognize these people with their clothes on.”

We’d talk about sex, love, death, childhood, jealousy, hate, envy, conscience, desire, loss, character, sports, politics and more. All of what makes us human. All of what makes us part of this incredibly tight-knit, rich Jewish Community.

We lost Benny 10 years ago, two months shy of his 100th birthday. Benny believed he was going to live to be 100 — “because when I turned 50,” he said, “I felt half-dead.” He lived a long, meaningful life — and continued to laugh and make others laugh until the end. At his 99th birthday, Benny did a stand-up routine to nonstop laughter to an overflowing crowd squeezed into a room at Temple Israel, his shul.

Just a year later at his funeral, I chuckled thinking of what he’d once told me: “as you get older, it’s a good day when you wake up in the morning, stretch out your arms and don’t hit wood.”

The closing of the JCC Fitness Center this month hit me hard. Not because I, myself, am a big fitness buff. Over the years, I have certainly spent more time in the locker room than on the treadmill. But, because the Center is the place that has fostered one of the most important and valuable parts of our Jewish culture — the Community, the bridging of generational gaps, the l’dor v’dor. Those values which were embodied so fully in my 10-year friendship with Benny.

All these years, I’ve referred to the JCC Fitness Center as “the Jewish Center” or “the Center” or “the J” and I’ve unknowingly left out the most important word — Community. The JCC Fitness Center is the very definition of our Community. Its closing marks the end of an era.

Steve Ceresnie lives in Commerce. 

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