Left without a JCC, Valley Jews look to start anew

For Amanda Prosin, Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Sherman Oaks was her Jewish home when she was growing up. She went there for summer camp, learned about Jewish holidays and made lasting relationships. For her, it made Judaism, well, fun.

That sense of community is what she wants for her 3-year-old son, Zach. But after the Valley Cities JCC closed in 2009 and the JCC at Milken in West Hills followed suit last June, she and her husband Aaron were basically out of options, especially since they aren’t members of a synagogue.

The closing of the JCC at Milken was just the latest in a string of closures in greater Los Angeles that has left Valley Jews who want a center with only one option — the North Valley Jewish Community Center (NVJCC).

Where is the NVJCC? Everywhere and nowhere. Sold, reincorporated and rebranded as “The J,” it’s known in the JCC world as a center “without walls.” That means that the NVJCC doesn’t have a building, auditorium, gym or any of the other amenities that most Jewish community centers have, even in areas with a smaller Jewish population, like San Francisco, San Jose or San Diego.

The NVJCC lost use of its Granada Hills campus after a developer purchased the property in the early 2000s. Since then, it has held programming — primarily for seniors — at different locations across the North Valley.

It certainly costs less than having a building, and programming “without walls” has been done in the past across America, including cities like Boston and Pittsburgh (although the JCCs in those cities also have brick-and-mortar homes). Still, NVJCC Director Jerry Wayne feels that a building would make it easier to increase community involvement.

“A building is needed because people have a hard time joining air,” Wayne wrote in an e-mail. “A location will give us the opportunity; not only for programs, but give people a sense of home.”

On the evening of Feb. 6, about 50 community members from across the San Fernando Valley officially began the process of finding — and funding — up to two properties for what is (for now) termed the “Valley J.”

Because the project is still in its infancy, key details, such as estimated cost, are few and far between. But according to Wayne, the group wants to have up to two “storefronts” open later this year in different parts of the Valley.

“We need to have the visibility,” Wayne said. “A place where people can “come in [and] have a cup of coffee.”

Wayne envisions a center that is about far more than coffee, though. He wants vibrant youth and senior programming, cooking classes, book clubs and a medley of activities offered at many centers across the country.

Wayne hopes to have a JCC in a central location in the Valley accompanied by up to four satellite offices. The idea is that Jews in places like Calabasas and North Hollywood won’t have to drive 30 miles round trip for a JCC program that attracts them.

“The impetus to create a Valley JCC was created because [the JCC at Milken] closed,” Wayne said. “We’ve stepped back and said, ‘Look, we are now the only [center] in the San Fernando Valley. Let’s pull everybody together.’ ”

The JCC at Milken, which had struggled to stay out of the red, closed last June after The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which owned the property, sold the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus to New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS).

The JCC had been home to a preschool, senior programming, arts and fitness programs, after-school programs, sports and summer camps and Team Los Angeles, an award-winning JCC Maccabi Games team.

Its closure was the latest in a string of closures of regional JCCs. Disclosures of financial troubles and fiscal mismanagement within the former Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) in 2001 led to the closure of centers, including Santa Monica’s Bay Cities JCC in 2002 and the Conejo Valley JCC in 2004. 
Valley Cities JCC shut down less than a year after moving from its longtime Sherman Oaks site, which had been sold by JCCGLA, re-formed as the JCC Development Corp. 

All that remain in the greater Los Angeles area are the Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard, Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center off Sunset Boulevard, Long Beach’s Alpert Jewish Community Center and NVJCC, which seceded from parent organization JCCGLA in 2002.

Asked why this new effort will succeed amid the closure of so many JCCs in the area, Wayne said that the “grass-roots” nature of this campaign and the numerous meetings with residents across the Valley have identified a particular group of people who are underserved — young and unaffiliated Jews.

NVJCC President Bill Bender, who is also leading the Valley J effort, echoed Wayne’s sentiment that a strong center in the San Fernando Valley would help unaffiliated Jews become part of the Jewish community.

“JCCs are usually the entry organization for unaffiliated people,” Bender said.

For Jews who “can’t afford temples” or “just want to participate in Jewish programming” but can’t afford the hefty membership fees that many organizations charge, Bender wants to provide programming, and hopefully a building or storefront, in their communities.

As Wayne put it, “There are many more people unaffiliated and unconnected to the Jewish community than there are [connected]. We fill that gap.”

He emphasized, though, that hopefully the Valley J will be a place where all Jews can feel comfortable, not only ones who don’t belong to a synagogue.

There remains, however, the nagging question of why it is that the Valley — home to an estimated 250,000 Jews — doesn’t have one JCC building, much less one with a pool, gym, auditorium and other amenities that JCCs in much smaller Jewish communities have. According to Bender, insufficient support from the Jewish establishment is key.

“Certainly [in] Orange County and down in San Diego and up in San Francisco there are incredibly successful JCCs that are funded by parent organizations,” with significant subsidies coming from federations, Bender said.

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, pointed out that The Federation has “invested millions and millions of dollars into the JCC, specifically into the Valley JCCs.”

He said that a major reason that JCCs in Los Angeles have struggled is that they are “not being utilized by the community” like they once were. Sanderson said that he hopes the Valley J effort succeeds and said Federation would consider partnering with the organizers if they reach out.

Although Wayne and Bender have yet to publicize financing details, Bender said that “some major funding is in the works,” and that the group will hold its next general meeting at 7:15 p.m. March 13 at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge. Wayne wrote in an e-mail that “we want to involve” anyone “interested in helping develop the Valley JCC.”

Bender, who moved to the San Fernando Valley from New Jersey in 1976, remembers JCCs across the Valley having active membership, regular programming and impressive daycare enrollments through the 1990s.

One couple who also remember when the Valley sported multiple JCCs is Daniel and Andrea Weiss. They live in Porter Ranch with their 7-month-old daughter and recently joined the effort to establish a Valley J. They want their child to have the same positive JCC experience that they both had growing up.

“We can’t leave it to the future generation to create the JCCs for our children,” Andrea Weiss said. “It’s really up to us.”

If the San Fernando Valley were its own city — and there have been “secession” attempts in the past — it would boast either the fifth or sixth largest Jewish population in America, according to recent studies. Yet cities with significantly smaller Jewish populations, such as Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans and Harrisburg, Pa., each have “full-service” JCCs.

To Andrea Weiss, the fact that the Valley doesn’t have something comparable “is absolutely shocking.”

Daniel Weiss, chair of the Valley J’s fundraising committee, and Andrea Weiss hope that young Jews in particular are drawn to this effort. They see the possible establishment of a new JCC as a great benefit for today’s youth and future generations.

“It’s really scary,” Andrea Weiss said, referring to the non-existence of a JCC building in the Valley. “Where is the future of Jewish kids in the Valley going to be if there isn’t that center for them to go to?”