Above: The day camp, renamed Camp Isidore Alterman in 1996, has moved from its original Camp AJECOMCE location on the campus.
The Marcus Jewish Community Center’s 53-acre, tree-covered property in the middle of Dunwoody serves 55,000 people a year and is rooted deep in the history of Jewish Atlanta.
For transplants and suburbanites, Zaban Park and Dunwoody are a natural draw. Go where the Jews live, where the Jews play, where the Jews learn.
For city dwellers, Zaban Park is a divisive entity; the sprawling property offers inclusive, top-notch fine arts, sports, education and events. But it is fraught with frustration for intown Jews who want agency-led programming inside the Perimeter.
The history of the Marcus JCC’s Zaban Park does not begin with the property’s purchase in 1961; it stretches back to before the JCC was housed on Peachtree Street. To celebrate today’s home of Atlanta’s JCC is to recognize the organizations from which Zaban Park bloomed.
Atlanta Jews founded the Young Men’s Hebrew Association YMHA in 1906, but the space was too small to serve as a community center.
The YMHA joined the Free Kindergarten Association to create the Jewish Educational Alliance in 1909. JEA thrived downtown on Capitol Avenue near the area of today’s Turner Field.
Natives recall JEA’s rickety basketball court and showers with no hot water. Boys were taught boxing in an upstairs room to defend themselves against anti-Semitic bullies. JEA served as a home to Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, educational classes, meeting rooms and a library.
Immigrants and underprivileged citizens had a soft place to land at JEA. It was a lively, albeit spartan, hub.
In 1914, JEA reported that 14,000 people attended events or programs there in one month.
JEA changed its name to the Atlanta Jewish Community Center in 1946. By 1956, after years of fundraising, the JCC erected a building at 1745 Peachtree St. Today this is the border of Buckhead and Midtown.
At the Peachtree property, children played on athletic fields, held BBYO events and attended preschool.
During the late 1950s Max Kuniansky was a real estate mogul in Morningside and Moores Mill; he built, sold and financed property.
Dunwoody was the opposite of Atlanta. It was rural farmland. When Kuniansky purchased a little cabin on a pond on Roberts Road in Dunwoody, his family referred to it as The Farmhouse.
Kuniansky became interested in buying more pastureland in Dunwoody. He envisioned city kids escaping the summer heat to swim and fish and play on open land.
According to his son Doug, Kuniansky knew Jewish camping was important to Jewish continuity. He believed education, community and growth could combat anti-Semitism in the South.
Kuniansky, who was the president of the JCC, needed financial backing from his friend Erwin Zaban to acquire what became Zaban Park.
Zaban Park Today
- In 2015 the Marcus JCC distributed $600,000 in scholarships, offered 10,000 opportunities to engage and encouraged 600 volunteers to support the center’s mission.
- The annual Book Festival of the Marcus JCC attracts 12,000 people.
- The day camp serves 2,000 children each summer.
- More than 100 adults with special needs participate regularly in cooking, arts, music, dance, sports, drama, travel and other cultural programs.
- A renovation of the ball fields, which began in November, was recently completed with new shade, irrigation and bathrooms. An open house will show off the newly named Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation Sports Complex on Sunday, Aug. 28, from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m.
With the purchase of 40 acres in 1961, the pair kick-started Jewish day camp and the development of Dunwoody. It could be argued that without the foresight of Kuniansky and Zaban, there would be no prosperous Dunwoody Jewish community.
Harry Maziar, one of the Marcus JCC’s trustees, said the Dunwoody purchase was “not strategic and not done with projections and formulas and spreadsheets. It was affordable, reachable farmland. Sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re wrong. Max and Erwin were right.”
Day camp was the first thing to open at Zaban Park, located on Tilly Mill Road. Children as young as 5 boarded a school bus at the JCC in Midtown early in the morning, then returned again in the late afternoon.
Zaban Park had no buildings other than open-air shelters with cubbies for campers’ towels and sack lunches. Day camp activities included tether ball, kickball and pony rides.
Children often used the day camp at Zaban Park as a steppingstone for Camp Barney Medintz, which the JCC established in 1963 in the north Georgia mountains.
The swimming pool at Zaban Park, an amenity for the day camp, also was available to the general JCC membership by the mid-1960s.
During Zaban Park’s developmental stage Kuniansky served as the JCC president for three terms, which was unusual.
According to census records, during the 1960s and 1970s the black population in Atlanta increased from 38 percent to 51 percent. The city experienced a drop of 60,000 white residents.
Across the nation, cities were experiencing white flight — a massive migration of whites to suburbia. Residential development went into high gear in Dunwoody in the 1960s in the form of housing and strip malls.
As the Jewish community of Atlanta migrated to the northern suburbs, the Midtown location of the JCC became less and less convenient.
In 1979, the JCC broke ground on a building at Zaban Park with past Presidents Sidney Feldman, Bernard Howard and Morris Benveniste and current President Perry (Pete) Morris. At the ceremony, Zaban was handed a comical award, a rooster in a cage, while everyone else received alarm clocks. Zaban was known for calling very early morning meetings.
Dozens of men made contributions to help make the Marcus JCC “the viable organization it is today,” Maziar said. “The center always had great community support and sponsorship. Erwin was a guy you didn’t say no to. He was key to leadership and programming.”
Zaban Park grew by 13 acres in the 1980s, and programming continued to increase. By the late 1990s the JCC closed the Peachtree location, staged a capital campaign and solidified Bernie Marcus’ support, all under Executive Director Harry Stern, who arrived in 1991.
The renovated and expanded Zaban-Blank main building opened in April 2000, and the Atlanta JCC was officially renamed the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.
“At the time, closing Peachtree was a wonderful idea. There had been flight to the suburbs. Supporting two institutions was a financial burden. It wasn’t an improper decision,” Maziar said.
The Marcus JCC fell into financial difficulties in 2006-07, around the time Stern left, and Maziar was drafted by Marcus to create a new structure and “get it out of the ditch” with board Chair Jack Halpern. The board had grown to more than 40 members; Maziar cut it to 10 to get through the crisis.
“A small, dedicated, tuned-in, turned-on board is beneficial,” he said. After serving for eight years, he joked that he’s now been turned out to pasture.
Zaban Park continues to boom. In 2015-16 a $7 million fundraising campaign helped open the Kuniansky Family Center with art studios, kitchens for cooking classes, a dance studio, classrooms and after-school facilities.
Along the way, the Marcus JCC opened, closed and sold an East Cobb facility, Shirley Blumenthal Park.
But the struggle to meet a widespread Jewish community continues.
“Today it is obvious that so many Jews live intown, whether in Fourth Ward or Candler Park or just inside the Perimeter. Do we need a presence downtown? Yes. Do we need a presence up north? Absolutely,” Maziar said. “It is hard to address an entire community” from one location.
“We look for four outcomes from our members: to make a connection; to build community; to feel enhanced identification with Jewish ideas; and to learn something. We want participants to feel their quality of life has been enhanced,” said Janel Margaretta, the center’s chief development and communications officer. “If people feel like they connect to others, create a lifelong connection while learning new skills in a Jewish context, and their lives are better, we reached our goal.”
Doug Kuniansky, who completed his term as chairman of the board this spring after also serving as the interim CEO, said that leading the center was one of the best things he ever did. ““What would my dad say? Serve the communities. He was always looking to expand the services of the JCC to where the Jews were living.”
Zaban Park has been a part of Marcus JCC CEO Jared Powers’ life for 37 years. He participated in day camp, sports, BBYO and young adult programming. He worked as a counselor at Camp Barney Medintz. Along with his wife, he is now raising his family at Zaban Park.
“One thing about Zaban Park is there’s limited amount of growth without reimagining, redesigning, reconfiguring the space. There are constraints,” he said. “We are looking at ways to grow the agency that are not confined within Zaban Park. How do we serve people who cannot get here? How do we serve Jews outside of Dunwoody? It’s our greatest challenge and greatest opportunity.”
The rich history of the property hits home with Howard Hyman, the Marcus JCC’s board secretary. “I have fine memories of playing sports on Peachtree Street. It was one of the highlights of life at the JCC,” he said. “And I love helping to create that for the next generation. I want to see kids growing up here, making best friends here at this facility. I can’t wait until they look back and reminisce the way I do.”
A Brief History of Zaban Park
1946 — The Atlanta Jewish Community Center is incorporated.
1961 — The 40-acre Dunwoody site is purchased for use as a family park and day camp.
1979 — Zaban Park is expanded to serve as a full JCC site for the northern suburbs.
1982-1985 — Zaban Park grows with the purchase of 13 acres.
1996 — The day camp program at Zaban Park is relocated and named Camp Isidore Alterman.
2000 — The Zaban-Blank Building is completed and opened in April, and the agency is renamed the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.
2009 — The Barbara and Eddie Mendel Splash Park opens.
2010 — The Besser Holocaust Memorial opens. The outdoor basketball court is converted into a gymnastics building.
2014 — The Framework for Our Future capital campaign is launched, and $7 million is raised for infrastructure and expansion needs at Zaban Park and Camp Barney Medintz. The gymnastics building is named the Besser Gymnastics Pavilion. The Orkin Teen House is renovated and opened.
2015 — The Kuniansky Family Center opens with two art studios, a culinary art studio, a multipurpose room and the Rich Foundation Dance Studio.
2016 — The newly renovated fields are named the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation Sports Complex. Zaban Park’s lake is named Lake RB.