Wanting What the West Has

When people talk about the San Fernando Valley, non-residents may envision a vast sea of shiny new homes and retail areas, schools and parks, joined seamlessly by a pathway of soccer moms driving sports utility vehicles.

In reality, there are two Valleys — the one where the vehicles aren’t new and the one with the million-dollar tract homes and gated “communities.”

Nothing in the Jewish community reflects this dichotomy as much as the Valley Cities JCC. Unlike the West Valley JCC — otherwise known as the Bernard Milken Campus — there is no indoor swimming pool, no million-dollar gym project. Heck, there isn’t even a treadmill. The most the VCJCC can boast in the way of athletics is a basketball court with four backboards, a children’s playground (split into two areas, one for the littlest ones and one for the older tykes) and a tiny, mirrored room where ballet classes are sometimes held. There is no Finegood Gallery for great works of art, no library, no award-winning architecture; the auditorium looks like the one in every local middle-school, not a place to hold huge fundraising banquets for $10,000-a-year Federation donors.

Yet despite the aging facility, over the years the board of directors has managed to put together an impressive early childhood education program, along with after-school daycare and pre-teen programs and activities aimed at area seniors. They have maintained Valley Cities’ history of secular social activism while reaching out to the area’s growing Orthodox population, becoming more sensitive to issues like kashrut. And they have continued to expand upon the center’s cultural presence with the Malkin-Becker Concert Series, featuring diverse music from klezmer to string quartets.

Still, Valley Cities officials would like to provide the experiences typical of other Jewish community centers, like swimming lessons or camp held on their own grounds.

“We want to expand and we’re looking at fundraising,” said Tom Herman, exiting president of the VCJCC’s board and a member for 20 years. “We are the perfect place for a fitness facility, a place where all the area temples can come together, but we need to raise the money and it is not easy.

“We’re not the Westside. I guess we need a few Milkens,” he joked.

New Director Michelle Labgold, who was promoted to her current position in January, said expanding Valley Cities will take not only dollars but creative planning. The three-acre property on which the facility sits is boxed in by a local fire station on one side and a rehabilitation center on the other. One possible idea for expansion would involve a partnership between the Center and the city of Los Angeles to build a swimming pool on the vacant lot behind the station; another idea would be to revamp the current sprawl of parking spaces behind the center to make room for a fitness area.

Either way, modernizing the current facility is going to take a major fundraising push. The Center currently operates on a budget of $1.75 million per year, with about a quarter of a million dollars of that coming from the Jewish Federation. This is significantly lower than what the West Valley JCC receives: $2.9 million for their operating budget, of which $1.2 million is allocated by the Federation. Jeff Rouss, executive vice president for the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, points out that $800,000 of the money going to the West Valley from Federation is part of the WVJCC’s rental agreement. Still, that leaves a discrepancy between the two centers of about $350,000.

However, Rouss said it is not really fair to compare the two.

“At West Valley, we’re running a facility that is one and a half times bigger than either Valley Cities or the North Valley JCC,” he said. “Running a facility of this size, with its athletic equipment and a swimming pool, can be expensive.

“It is appropriate that [Valley Cities] wants a health and fitness facility, although the property doesn’t lend itself easily to that type of construction. The choice of any JCC should reflect the priority of the community. Back in 1988, they went through a renovation process and chose to develop their child care component. That was their priority then; if now what the community wants is a fitness facility then we will support them.”