Valley Cities JCC opens doors at new site — a church

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On July 8, when Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC) began operating at its new site a former church in the heart of a heavily Latino area of Van Nuys it did so with little fanfare. Instead, the focus was on making the reception comfortable and warm.

Executive Director Marla Minden and the center’s staff greeted parents with bagels and baked goods as they arrived at the new building with their children for summer camp.

“It wouldn’t ever be the building,” Minden said. “It’s what’s inside the building. They came; they looked. We made it so welcoming.”

The recent relocation to Van Nuys capped a four-year struggle filled with uncertainty for Valley Cities Jewish Community Center, which sought to remain in its mural-adorned building in Sherman Oaks after becoming independent in 2004. Board members from Friends of Valley Cities spent several years negotiating to purchase the property, which the center had called home since 1959, only to have it sold last year to a neighboring school, The Help Group.

With the move to 14701 Friar St. complete, Valley Cities JCC is beginning a new chapter in its nearly 50-year history.

“I’m happy it’s there,” said Stephanie Steinhaus, a preschool parent. “We have a home.”

The 20,000-square-foot property until recently housed a Latino Presbyterian congregation, Centro Cristiano Para La Familia, as well as the Korean People’s Community Church and the International Institute of Los Angeles, which for 29 years helped new immigrants in the Van Nuys area.

The relocation to a non-Jewish neighborhood hasn’t dissuaded its member families or the organizations that rent space from using the center, according to its organizers.

Before the move, Friends of Valley Cities JCC estimated that about 1,000 people used its Sherman Oaks building each week, and the nursery school’s various classes were either wait-listed or at capacity. Minden said the families and the groups followed and that nothing has changed in terms of programming.

“We didn’t lose any families,” she said. “We opened with 60 children in preschool and 60 children in the day camp.”

While parents say driving the additional three miles to the new center just off Victory and Van Nuys boulevards isn’t a problem, the largely Latino area has been an adjustment for some.

“Is it my most favorite neighborhood? No,” parent Kathy Weiss Squires said. “But a neighborhood is what you make it.”

Minden said the center is leasing the property, with an option to buy in five years, but organizers anticipate they will purchase within the first two years. Fundraising by Friends of Valley Cities has provided the center with enough money to cover the first two years, and a capital campaign will begin in September to purchase the property, she said.

Michael Brezner, Friends of Valley Cities president, said the new location was an accidental find. After negotiations for the Burbank Boulevard property fell apart in 2007, board member Ariel Goldstein’s nanny-housekeeper mentioned the church, which was looking for a buyer.

With assistance from Jewish Community Centers Development Corp., which had sold the Burbank Boulevard property, Friends of Valley Cities signed documents for the new property on May 22, Brezner said.

Although the configuration of the center is different from the Sherman Oaks property, the square footage in Van Nuys is the same. The brick buildings a sanctuary on the west side, offices and classrooms to the north and multipurpose rooms on the east side form a courtyard filled with shady trees.

“The whole flow of the building feels better,” Minden said, adding that the courtyard in the front will lend itself well to a Sukkot celebration.

The first round of property improvements included new landscaping, painting, air-conditioning and security gates in the front and surrounding the playground. A second phase will remove the numerous stained glass images of Jesus from the chapel, which seats 500.

While the center isn’t currently using the chapel, Minden said HBO is considering it as a possible shooting location.

Parking at the new center is comparable to the Sherman Oaks location, which had its spaces impacted by the construction of the Orange Line busway. Three lots surrounding the center provide 90 spaces, and a playground behind the property can be converted to provide additional spaces.

Minden, who started with Valley Cities as a parent, said that the Sherman Oaks property, which saw several additions over its nearly 50 years, had a different feel from the new one.

“There’s something that’s very unique about that building, and there’s something incredibly unique about this building,” Minden said. “It’s very warm, very intimate It feels like home already.”

For more information about the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center, call (818) 786-6310.