Returning Home

There’s no place like home, but getting people to agree where home should be has not been easy for the Los Angeles Jewish Federation.

Last week, the organization’s board voted unanimously to return in two years to the 12-story building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., which has been the Federation’s home for 22 of the last 23 years.

The board’s recommendation calls for extensive renovation of the 115,000 square foot building, which sustained substantial damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Federation President Lionel Bell appointed building consultant Rodney Freeman to chair a committee that will develop a plan for the project. Freeman estimated the cost of overhauling the building would be in the $15 million range, most of which will be paid for by insurance, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) money and some federation reserve funds, Bell said.

“We’re very close to having the money in the bank that we need,” Bell said.

Although a committee appointed by Bell’s predecessor, Herb Gelfand, had recommended that the Federation move west to cater to the westward migration of the Jewish population and to provide a more convenient meeting place for donors and volunteers, the return to 6505 was considered inevitable by many top Federation leaders after a two-year search failed to secure a suitable property or land on which to build.

“We all recognize where the population is heading and has been for some period of time,” Bell said. “The caveat is that we can’t move there if we can’t find a place to move to.”

Only a year ago the Federation, its departments, agencies and close to 400 personnel moved to temporary quarters on the vast second floor of a modern pink-granite building in the Museum Square area, about a half-mile east of 6505. The move was always intended to last no more than three years, while a decision was made on whether to renovate or entirely rebuild 6505, or to move elsewhere. Remaining at the Museum Square building was out of the question since the rent was expected to skyrocket at the end of the three years.

Also complicating the decision was about $6 million in FEMA money that was hanging in the balance. Possibly as much as half of this money might be forfeited if the Federation decided not to move back to 6505 or to demolish the building and rebuild on the site.

“I don’t believe the Jewish community at this point in time needs to encumber itself with the kind of expense it would take to move the whole [organization] to the Westside,” said former Federation President Irwin Field. He pointed out that the Federation already owns 6505 Wilshire, including 300 free parking spaces, an essential ingredient of Southern California’s car-dependent culture.

One factor that makes the move back to 6505 more feasible is that the Federation has just leased about 17,000 square feet of space in West Los Angeles on Sawtelle Boulevard, near the 405 Freeway, to house its Western, Metro and Access young leadership divisions. The building, owned by Jewish philanthropist and businessman Richard Ziman, will also provide room for board meetings and some administrative functions. “It solves an immediate problem of having meeting space on the Westside,” Bell said.

Not everyone is happy. “My feeling is if we were acting with real vision for the future of the community, we’d be moving the whole thing out west,” said Facilities Committee Chair Earl Greinetz. “But we can’t afford to throw away millions of dollars, so it’s the wise thing to go back.”

“I’m not a very happy camper,” said Federation board member and lay leader Evy Lutin. “They made the decision because it’s economically more feasible. But the future is in the west. And that’s where I think the Federation should be.”

“The heart of the Jewish community is no longer in the neighborhood where the federation building is,” said Scott Svonkin, JCRC chair for the Federation/Valley Alliance. “The heart of the Jewish community has moved west.

“With almost half of the Los Angeles Jewish population located north of Mulholland Drive, the organization representing that community ought to move to what is now the demographic center based on their own study,” Svonkin said.

Others, however, were relieved to be moving back to 6505. “Selfishly, I’m thrilled,” said Vivian Siegel, executive director of Jewish Vocational Service (JVS). Although JVS already has a presence on the Westside, many of its clients are located in the vicinity of 6505. Even if it had moved its administrative offices west, it would have had to establish a separate office in the Fairfax area, Siegel said. “This allows us to be housed with the other agencies, which is great. And, for our clients, [6505] is an easy location to get to via public transportation.”