Adelman makes mark on Jewish Memorial Center, community
Takes responsibility as a ‘personal commitment’
Jewish tradition calls for its people to look both inward and outward as they go through life, to become not just the best people they can be, but also to help the community they live in to thrive, too.
“Jews are taught to be responsible not just as a person, but to be responsible to the community they live in, too,” said Bill Wallen, executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation.
If anyone fits that description, it’s Clark Adelman, who is probably as much a fixture of the local Jewish community as is Wallen. Both have been involved with area Jewish life for decades, fulfilling that concept of working on the inner man while helping to better the local community.
One constant in both of their lives, a place where they both spend much time, is the Jewish Memorial Center, opened in 1949 to honor the 200 Jewish men and women from Altoona who served in World War II.
When Adelman became executive director in the mid-1990s, the center was in the midst of severe financial troubles. Slowly, through careful planning and wise financial decisions, Adelman has steered the center into the black.
Adelman grew up near the center, playing in the Biddy Youth Basketball League in the 1960s. There’s still a black-and-white photo of him with his teammates on the wall at the center. He continued to play in leagues and participate in all kinds of other activities at the center during his teenage years.
Helping out the center as an adult when he returned to the area later in life just seemed like a natural fit.
“Clark kind of takes that sense of responsibility almost as a personal commitment, a labor of love,” Wallen said. “There’s a part of Judaism that talks about a philosophy of handing a mission from one to another, from generation to generation and never having broken the chain. He’s adopted that philosophy by growing up in the center and now becoming an active part in its operation.”
Adelman has wonderful memories of the JMC from his early years, describing a bustling place that on any given weekend would be humming with activity.
“I was here my entire childhood,” he said of the center located at 1308 17th Street, just behind the Agudath Achim Congregation. “The Jewish community did a lot of things here then.”
In addition to the basketball leagues, Adelman recalled playing hockey on the gym floor and bowling in the lower level using one of the six regulation lanes that were once part of the center. Adelman also remembered raising money as part of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization’s fundraisers by checking coats for the center’s stage shows.
Those theatrical productions were directed by such now well-known community arts leaders as Neil Port and the late Barbara Titleman Spessard.
But in the early days of the JMC, the audience consisted of mostly the Jewish community because “they really weren’t integrated into the community,” Adelman said.
Those were times when Jewish people “weren’t welcomed in the community, but neither were the Catholics or some other groups,” said Wallen.
“The Jews weren’t unique in this type of reaction,” he said.
Another factor was the strong sense of ethnicity that each nationality in the city wanted to maintain, as they sought to preserve the customs and traditions that they’d brought from their native lands.
Even though they proudly considered themselves Americans, the various groups of Italians, Germans, Polish and Irish established their own identities in certain neighborhoods and also opened social halls where they celebrated their uniqueness, Wallen said.
But as the years passed and society progressed, more opportunities opened up that made the area diversify. The Altoona YMCA and Hollidaysburg YMCA opened, along with other health clubs, plus people moved away, which took a toll on the JMC.
Adelman said when he became the center’s director, the building needed some upgrades, but money was tight. One mainstay that had helped some for years, a regular bingo game, wasn’t making money. The host of activities that had once filled the halls had dwindled as members had either died or relocated.
“When I took over, it was very tough,” he said. “We needed to raise more money. Over time, the older folks had passed away. And I knew the bingo was going downhill.”
But slowly things started to turn around, some by perhaps divine intervention and a lot by Adelman’s skillful financial guidance. The help that perhaps came from above arrived in the form of a bequest that paid for a much-needed new boiler, a new gym floor, plus air conditioning for the gym.
“It all happened at the right time, so it just worked out great,” Adelman said.
Although bingo never did become a big moneymaker again, he did salvage it.
What did take off was a series of basketball leagues, a full schedule for youth, boys and girls, junior varsity and varsity to hone their skills.
“Almost every great player (from the Altoona area) has played in our leagues,” he said. “You name them — Doug West, Mike Iuzzolino, they’ve all played here.”
From player to referee
Adelman doesn’t play basketball anymore, but he has launched into refereeing games for the Central Blair Recreation Commission’s Lakemont Park Summer Basketball League. He has worked a PIAA semifinal, and his goal is to referee a state final someday.
He first got involved with refereeing basketball in 2001 when the summer league was held at Mansion Park. League Director Skip Dry asked him first if he’d help with scheduling the games, then if he’d like to referee.
“It’s not easy to referee adults,” Adelman said. “You have to have the right disposition. You can’t take it personally. There’s a line you do not go past.”
He recalled one game in which a fan in the stands kept causing problems despite repeated warnings. The fan kept heckling Adelman about his calls, so Adelman was forced to eject him.
When he did, another man a few bleacher seats above him wanted to know what the ejected fan had said. Adelman ignored him and continued on with the game. The man kept asking, and Adelman warned him if he didn’t quiet down, he’d be ejected, too.
A few minutes later, all eyes were on the court as a player scored his 1,000th point. The man in the stands cheered and so did another man peering through the doors — the fan whom Adelman had ejected.
Turns out it was his brother who had just made the milestone shot and his father who had peppered Adelman with questions in the stands after he was ejected.
“The guy I’d ejected had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan, too,” Adelman said. “I felt badly about that, but you’d think he would be able to control himself better. Instead, I almost had the whole family thrown out.”
Adelman said such behavior is responsible for the significant drop in fresh recruits among referees.
“That’s why we’re not getting a lot of new officials among the younger guys,” he said. “They just don’t want the hassle.”
Dry agreed and said Adelman had made the right calls in the incident with the father and son in the stands. He said he thinks basketball referees have the toughest job of all sports’ referees because they’re the closest to the fans and, “They can reach out and touch you.”
But if anyone is up to the task, it’s Adelman, he said. He knows the rules, handles the players well and manages the crowds properly, even when they get boisterous.
“He’s dedicated, he keeps up with the players, and if you can’t do that, you’re not going to be picked for (a state championship game),” Dry said. “Everything they want him to do he’s done.”
Giving back in faith
There are countless other ways Adelman gives back to the community. It might surprise some people to know that one of those ways is at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament with his wife, Kim, as a marriage counselor.
From the time he and Kim, who is Catholic, started dating, they would take turns going to each other’s houses of worship, sometimes to the synagogue and other times to the cathedral.
Forty years later, the arrangement still works for them.
When the cathedral was looking for couples to counsel people who were planning to get married, the Adelmans thought they were good candidates. So did the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
They counseled couples for years until the Catholic Church decided counselors had to be certified.
That meant the Adelmans had to take a course produced out-of-state, and at first, the people who produced the course had a problem with a non-Catholic becoming certified, Adelman said.
But with the intervention of the local diocese, gradually the production people grew more at ease and eventually warmed up to the idea.
Both Adelmans are now certified and continue to counsel couples, who have no problem with “mixed marriage counselors,” Adelman said.
“As far as I know,” he said, “I’m the only Jewish person certified to teach the marriage prep course.”