Seniors angry over plans to close JCC

There was no question how Zita Kass felt when she learned that The JCC at Milken in West Hills will shut its doors permanently this summer. Her reaction was swift and powerful:

“Anger, fury, frustration,” the 76-year-old Woodland Hills resident said.

Kass frequents the community center to take part in groups related to books, current events, history and more. Now, she worries about the impact of the closure on Jewish life for seniors in the San Fernando Valley.

“We’re frantically looking for places for our various programs,” Kass said.

She’s not alone in her concern, now that it’s official that the JCC as a whole will shut down June 30, with its Early Childhood Center ceasing operations June 15. The news was delivered in a Feb. 1 e-mail by the organization’s chairman of the board, Steven V. Rheuban, and was preceded by a decision by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to sell its land to New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS).

Frequent JCC user Sheila Silverman, 77, said she was particularly upset by what she said were reassurances even after it was announced that the property would be sold for an undisclosed amount. At the time, officials said they did not anticipate a major impact upon the JCC’s members.

“We’re sort of in disbelief,” Silverman said. “They gave everybody that false hope.”

The JCC at Milken is only the latest of its peers to shut down. 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 in 2009, 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. 

Milken JCC’s closure will leave the North Valley Jewish Community Center (NVJCC), which seceded from parent organization JCCGLA in 2002, as the only JCC in the San Fernando Valley. Although it lost use of its Granada Hills campus after a developer purchased the property in 2004, NVJCC continues to offer programming at various locations.

For a while, it seemed that the JCC at Milken might escape closure, in part because its home, Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, was owned by Federation, not JCC Development Corp. But it struggled to stay out of the red and won’t be able to meet its rent obligations this year, Rheuban told The Jewish Journal.

When the deal was made to sell the campus to NCJHS as its permanent home, the West Hills center had hoped to permanently move its Early Childhood Center of more than 80 students to a new location. Senior services would be transferred temporarily to a different site while NCJHS undertook a yearlong reconstruction project at the Milken campus, after which the programs would return.

Ultimately, though, there was too much certainty about the school’s plans and no appropriate, affordable venue for the JCC to use in the interim, Rheuban said.

“We looked at every possible location that we could think of, some beyond the boundaries that we really wanted,” he said. “The simple fact is we couldn’t come up with a piece of property that we didn’t have to do a lot of construction on ourselves.”

Representatives for both Federation and NCJHS said they were surprised to hear the news about the JCC, which has more than 1,000 members.

Federation President Jay Sanderson said that his organization had no role in the decision to close and that the Jewish community center has its own board. And while Federation has funded the JCC at Milken with millions in recent years, he said the plan always was for it to become fiscally self-sufficient.

“It came down to the fact that they needed to be able to be more independent financially, and they were incapable of doing that,” he said. “We still thought that they were going to continue to provide services to their constituencies going forward.”

In addition to its preschool and senior programming, the JCC at Milken is home to arts and fitness programs, after-school programs, sports and summer camps, and Team Los Angeles, an award-winning team that competes in the JCC Maccabi Games.

Sanderson said Federation is committed to making sure that the people who use the organization’s services continue to have places to go.

“There are many synagogues and other organizations in the Valley doing great work,” he said. “I think that there will be minimal negative impact.”

(In his e-mail, Rheuban also promised that the center’s board and staff will compile a list to help members find similar programs within the Jewish community.)

New Community Jewish High School, which started on the Milken campus in 2002, has plenty of work ahead before it can relocate its 400 students to the property next year from its current home on the property of Shomrei Torah Synagogue. Once that is settled, though, one top school official has a message to JCC members:

“We’re saddened by [this news], but we also want to let the community know that once we finish our remodel of the campus and we move back in, which will take place between the end of June and hopefully July of 2013, we are very, very motivated to do something with the community, particularly with the seniors,” said Michael Greenfeld, president of the school’s board of trustees.

The end of the JCC at Milken will leave the Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard, Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center off Sunset Boulevard, North Valley JCC and Long Beach’s Alpert Jewish Community Center as the only Jewish community centers in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Westside JCC Executive Director Brian Greene said he is heartbroken over the development. “For decades, so many thousands of people have looked to Milken JCC as their Jewish home base,” he said.

He stressed that Westside, also an independent center, remains strong with its rebuilt Aquatic Center, expanded teen programming, new health and wellness offerings, and more.

Looking at the situation from a national perspective, it’s natural — but unfortunate — that some community centers struggle during difficult economic times, according to Gary Lipman, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the JCC Association of North America. Los Angeles faces additional challenges due to its diverse, dispersed Jewish community.

Still, he said, there remains hope. In the short term, he sees local Jewish leaders coming together to serve preschoolers and seniors. And in the long term? A chance to re-envision how a revitalized JCC may serve the community.

For now, though, Rheuban worries about the losses that come with the Jewish community center’s closure that go beyond everyday programming.

“I believe that the loss of centers is the loss of the home for unaffiliated Jews,” he said.