Bad Feelings, Big Questions

As Jewish Community Center (JCC) supporters seek answers to troubling questions regarding the current crisis and the future of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), Jewish Federation officials say they are working “day and night” to address the current crisis.

Actor Barry Newman (“Bowfinger”), who has used Westside JCC’s gym facilities for years, is among the deeply angered JCC members.

“If there was mismanagement,” an emotional Newman told The Journal, “how did they just find out? Where was the auditing? This is complete incompetence. In August, I got a letter about this building fund and they had a architectural rendering, and now it’s December and it’s gone. This, to me, is a land grab. They’re going to sell this place and make money and build a place on the Westside.”

Like Newman, many members suspect a larger agenda at work behind the JCCGLA’s sudden decision to close five of seven JCCs in order to repay The Federation’s loan. After all, Newman said, what’s a $3 million debt to The Federation, an organization that successfully raised more than $20 million for its headquarters renovation last year. At advisory meetings last week, Federation President John Fishel dispelled the notion that a plan to create a $40 million Brentwood JCC facility has moved forward.

But what now has boggled the minds of JCC members citywide is how The Federation, an organization dedicated to Jewish values, could jeopardize Jewish continuity by forcing JCCGLA to place the centers on a foreclosure block. Some blame The Federation for failing to fund an emergency allocation; for not tapping into the resources of The Federation’s philanthropic endowment arm, Jewish Community Foundation; for not giving JCCGLA time to pay its $3 million loan; for not waiving JCCGLA’s debt altogether.

“It’s going to be bigger than most people think,” Federation Chairman Todd Morgan told The Journal regarding the debt. “Basically, we’re borrowing the money. We don’t have the excess funds to make this loan. We’re not a bank.”

He added that anger toward The Federation has been misplaced. “We’re being painted with a broad brush,” Morgan said, crediting Fishel’s role in the still-fluid situation. “This is the toughest moment of his career. He is bending over backwards to do the right thing for the community, working day and night, seven days a week.”

“I disagree with The Federation that we have to mortgage our centers to pay our debt,” said Paula Pearlman, Westside JCC advisory board president, who personally committed $10,000 to a Westside JCC building renovation fund.

Of course, the renovation never happened. According to JCCGLA Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman-Giladi, $1 million was raised toward that long-delayed project, with $4 million in pledges. All of this money must now be redirected and returned once the present JCCGLA mismanagement fallout is sorted out. That includes a substantial Mark Taper Foundation gift earmarked for a new performing arts auditorium.

Many involved in JCC life pin the bulk of their blame on the JCCGLA’s style of operation. Historically, all funds raised by individual centers went to JCCGLA’s central treasury, where monies raised by a center might be spent on that center; but might also be directed to other centers. As Lieberman-Giladi alluded to at last week’s advisory meetings, some funds were ultimately unaccounted for. Former Chief Financial Officer Gayle Floyd, who served 22 years at JCCGLA, left in the wake of the budget crisis. One source, employed for many years in the financial department of one of the five doomed JCCs, said that the center had a long history of “creative accounting.”

Michael Goldberg and David Feinman of Silverlake-Los Feliz JCC have much in common — members in their 40s, each fathers of 2 kids and past presidents of its advisory board.

And both are not surprised by the current situation.

Goldberg and Feinman said they saw the writing on the wall regarding the closures as far back as a year-and-a-half ago, when JCCGLA dissolved local center boards in favor of a centralized system. For years, they felt a lack of support from the central office, which shrugged off ideas for programs, fundraising and building renovations. For a decade, Silver Lake vied to expand its facility by acquiring a vacant lot next door. For a decade, JCCGLA dissuaded them.

“It’s always been us versus them, local versus central. Typical bureaucracy,” Feinman said.

When local governing boards were dismantled in January 2001, members felt that the individual center participation in decisions affecting its future went with it, and paved the way for the closures. Goldberg blamed the JCCGLA system and not its executives, such as former President Jeff Rouss or Lieberman-Giladi.

“One of the really sad consequences of the dissolution of the board,” said Silvelake-Los Feliz action commitee president Broderick Miller, “was that it created a schism between the old group and the new group. We lost our core volunteers.”

Bay Cities JCC just emerged from a conflict with JCCGLA after the Santa Monica facility’s after-school child care was eliminated over the summer while parents were readying for a new school year. A Westside JCC busing solution drove some parents to abandon Bay Cities for public school care.

“People feel really burned by that situation,” said Audrey Eisner, whose son is finishing preschool. Because of that skirmish, some Bay Cities parents now feel too drained to fight to save their center.

“There’s this feeling that a decision has already been made by the central office, and that it’s futile to try and save Bay Cities,” Eisner said.

One source familiar with both Federation and JCC politics suggested that the real dynamic underneath this crisis is a gulf between the interests of the more moneyed board members of Jewish nonprofits such as Federation, and the middle- and working-class people who make up the bulk of JCC membership. A common perception among center supporters is that most high level Federation campaign donors belong to private country clubs and do not patronize the JCCs.

“I think it’s an unfair statement,” Morgan said. “There are many people who contribute to these centers even though they don’t go. Not all the members on the Federation Board belong to a country club. I think the Federation Board is terrific. They commit not only their money but their time and energy to this community.”

Si Frumkin, chair of Southern California Council for Soviet Jews, said that the poor Russian immigrant community is one of the corners of the Jewish community that will feel the sting of Westside’s closure. A thriving segment of its membership, Russian Jews are the very demographic that produced Olympic athlete Lenny Krayzelburg. According to Frumkin, the Russian media — Panorama newspaper notwithstanding — had not picked up on the JCC crisis story, so many Russians are still not aware of the situation at Westside.

“They’re taking away this little bit of help for the Russian Jewish community,” Frumkin said. “It’s outrageous.”

Silverlake-Los Feliz members have long felt that their demographics made them a low priority with JCCGLA. If the Westside is the big thriving metropolis of Jewish Los Angeles, Silverlake might just be the sticks. Located off Sunset Boulevard, just beyond Vermont Avenue, Silverlake-Los Feliz JCC might as well be in the state of Vermont in terms of the dearth of Jewish culture in the vicinity. All the more reason why the community needs a JCC, say its members.

“Isn’t Jewish L.A. more than just north and west?” asked Goldberg.

Feinman believed Silverlake-Los Feliz’s low status stemmed from the fact that only half of the center’s membership is Jewish, and the center has long been friendly to interfaith families.

“This was a place of Jewish reawakening” Feinman said.

As the fight to save the JCCs moves ahead, community members are unsure what will happen if the centers close.

“What the Russians are going to do is totally beyond me,” Frumkin said. “They can’t afford memberships at other health facilities. It’s going to be a tragedy. They’re going to complain to each other and to the Russian media. This is something that the machers who give to The Federation will not hear. Most of the Russians haven’t been to the new Jewish Federation complex.”

Seniors, such as Ken Saltzman and Mansour Salih, a Persian Jew who speaks little English, depend on Westside’s gym for physical therapy.

“I would certainly have to find another athletic facility that’s comparable and that would be hard,” said Saltzman, 72, who would miss Westside’s Jewish component.

Samantha Loshin, a young nursery school teacher there, knows a frail 92-year-old volunteer who takes the bus each day to volunteer at Westside.

“She cuts up fruit the children,” Loshin said. “This will devastate her.”

Marilyn Kessler and her husband have been using Westside’s facilities since before its current campus opened in 1954. She said, “If they close the Center, they’ll cut the central artery off to our bubbes and our zaydes.”

For six years, Yancy Carter has worked for Elias Sports, which rents out Westside’s facilities. The site’s closure will impact 250 Jewish kids looking forward to playing in February’s basketball playoffs.

“Half of them don’t even know yet,” said Carter of the closure.

North Carolina native Jill Warren rejoiced when she arrived in Los Angeles and found affordable preschool at Westside.

“I really knew no one and this JCC brought me home,” Warren said. “It’s the central place where my family comes together with my community. We don’t belong to a temple. This is my kids only chance to meet other Jewish kids.”

“Had anyone told our neighborhood council, we would have done something,” Gail Albert Halaban said. “I honestly haven’t used the JCC’s facilities because the conditions are so dilapidated, but I know so many seniors who utilize these facilities. I can not believe in a city with so many Jews that we can’t save the JCCs and erase the debt.”

“The biggest misconception some people have about this situation is that we don’t care,” Morgan said. “Everyone cares a great deal. Everyone wants to help the best they can.”

“I don’t think this is about placing blame,” Morgan continued. “It’s about finding solutions. We are searching for solutions to an enormous problem. If money were the only problem here, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We would’ve already solved it.”