Can the JCCs Be Saved?
About 160 members turned up at Westside Jewish Community Center’s Birch Auditorium last Sunday in an effort to keep their center from closing down. The room buzzed with determined activity. Subcommittee members exchanged information. Two members were busy painting "Save the Centers" signs for the Dec. 13 rally outside The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ 6505 Wilshire headquarters. Members planned to protest and carry signs that read: "Don’t Mortgage Our Children’s Future," "Our Elders Are Not Collateral" and "Stop the Closure!"
"There has been a great uprising on our membership’s part," said Helene Seifer, past president of Westside JCC’s Advisory Board and incoming vice president of Jewish Community Center of Greater Los Angeles’ (JCCGLA) Central Board.
Westside JCC is one of five JCCs scheduled to close by July 2002 in order to pay back a $3 million loan. The center experienced a $300,000 shortfall at the end of its fiscal cycle last September, and membership dropped from 5,400 to 900 at the Westside JCC, echoing the 9,000 to 2,300 member drop of JCCGLA membership citywide.
Federation Chairman Todd Morgan told The Journal that he feels deeply about JCCGLA’s collapse. The Federation has been the JCCLA’s largest benefactor, but has refused to provide funding beyond June 30, 2002.
"It’s frustrating. It’s difficult," Morgan said. "I can see both sides of the situation, but it’s a very complicated business and community problem."
He added that he has been disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm among Los Angeles’ major machers.
"Everybody knows what’s happening by now," Morgan continued. "It’s disturbing that people haven’t stepped up to help. Right now, The Federation is doing everything possible to correct the situation."
Meanwhile, center supporters are taking matters into their own hands. According to Seifer, about $100,000 has already been raised specifically toward saving Westside since the Dec. 3 announcement of its closure. She told The Journal that "some people have expressly indicated that they will make substantial contributions if there is a guarantee that the center can stay open beyond June 30."
"The Federation could forget the debt, but they choose not to waive that debt," said Paula Pearlman, president of Westside’s advisory board. "They could start an emergency crisis campaign to pay off the debt, but they choose not to. Our major creditor is The Federation and they want their money back."
"We’re doing the best we can under limited resources," Morgan said. "We’re having serious discussions with the Jewish Community Foundation about helping us out."
But at all five JCCs, from the Westside to the Valley, outraged members aren’t waiting around for the powers that be to act.
Ad-hoc groups raced into action. Yet, as well intentioned as these members are, nothing will remedy this situation if JCCGLA moves quickly to sell the centers.
"Once we get that commitment from JCCGLA, that will let us go forward with our fundraising," said property attorney Warren Blum, who heads the legal committee.
"We want them to meet us halfway," Pearlman said. "That’s why we need to keep the pressure up."
Over the years, big names — Richard Dreyfuss, Barry Newman, Zev Yaroslavsky — have shared a Westside connection. Swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg used its facilities to help him become a gold-medal Olympic swimmer. At Sunday’s meeting, David Krischer stated that turning to these celebrities might expedite Westside’s salvation, but first, he said, "I need to know that the money raised does not go into the general fund. People need to know that if they don’t use the money, they’ll get it back and it won’t disappear."
For now, all Westsiders can do is move forward. Aside from the scheduled rally on Thursday, members say they are flooding Federation offices with e-mails and letters of support. Entertainment contractor Michael Edelstein is doing his part. He has arranged for proceeds from a Wilshire Theater run of "Fiddler on the Roof" — about $179 of every $300 pair of tickets — to go toward saving his center [see information below].
"I have faith in L.A.’s community to maintain its JCC system," said Alan Mann, senior vice president of the JCC Association of North America, who will visit Los Angeles next week as a consultant. "They’re working hard to provide as many services as they can."
Mann, whose national office does not oversee local JCC affairs, said that it is not unprecedented for JCCs, such as Toronto’s, to be salvaged by their city’s Federations.
"L.A.’s JCCs will probably need to take a deep breath, and then restructure and grow," Mann said. "It’s a sad situation that will need work."
For more information, go to www.savethejcc.org. For information on "Fiddler on the Roof," Jan. 15-27 at the Wilshire Theater, call (323) 933-1693.
Silverlake-Los Feliz JCC
On Dec. 10, core members of Silverlake-Los Feliz JCC held a meeting to form an emergency action committee.
"We decided that before we move into anything demonstrative, we need to collect as much data as possible and explore financial strategies if we want to go independent," said Broderick Miller, action committee president, who added that the meeting had a positive residual "seeing the old group and the new group come together. That was a big step. Now we have an institutional history to bring to the equation."
Silverlake members, who have vowed to meet every Monday, are exploring the prospects of partnering with various city and state entities. Lay leaders will meet with Fishel on Dec. 14 and are contacting Councilman Eric Garcetti.
Of central interest to members: terms of the center’s property deed. Past advisory board presidents David Feinman and Michael Goldberg are seeking to confirm Silverlake lore that claims the founding fathers of the center allowed the venue to be incorporated into JCCGLA’s fold under the condition that it would always remain a Jewish Community Center. Such a proviso could render sale of the property illegal.
"Now that they’ve announced that they want to close our center," Feinman said, "my role here has not become less clear. It’s more clear. We see this upheaval as an opportunity to address the chronic issues that have plagued us for years, and basically grow in a direction we’ve wanted to go in but couldn’t because of JCCGLA."
"In a way, we’re missionaries," Feinman continued. "We’re out here bringing the message and the values of Judaism."
Bay Cities JCC, Santa Monica
Bay Cities JCC parents Dan Grossman and Jim Barner are leading the charge to save their center on behalf of its 40 families. They have obtained the center’s books and, with an accountant’s help, they will devise a plan to run Bay Cities as a cost-effective business.
The reason parents are fighting for the center is clear.
"For a lot of people, it’s their only connection to Judaism," said Pacific Palisades resident Lori Mendez. "It gives some families their only connection to Judaism, which is so important."
Mendez put three children — now ages 12, 10, and 8 — through Bay Cities’ preschool, after realizing that her temple, Kehillat Ma’arav, did not offer preschool. Her children have fond memories of their JCC experience.
"My 12-year-old still uses the menorah he made in preschool," said Mendez, who remembered that the Chins, an Asian family, had three sons in the nursery.
"When you look at how diverse the people are at Bay Cities, you see that what we’re really doing is serving our community," said Amy Kahn, Bay Cities Advisory Board past president and a JCCGLA Board member. Her son, Ethan, was schooled there. "That’s something I will miss. Seeing all of those great people."
Parents spoke highly of the center’s director, Joanne Hulkower, and events — Shabbat dinners, holiday parties, "Kid’s Night Out."
"It was a great way for parents to get to know each other," Kahn said. "I had always wanted to study the Torah. I started a group. To me, that’s the beauty of the JCC."
"The bottom line is, we want to give the branch independence," said Grossman, who wants to enlist more parents to keep Bay Cities alive.
"Santa Monica schools do not have as good after-care," Kahn said. She believes that, with the right support and management, Bay Cities could thrive.
"Having grown up with the JCC — I grew up in San Antonio — the JCC was such a part of my life," she continued. "I really know how great the JCC can be."