The People vs. The Executive Committee

This story should be called The People vs. TheExecutive Committee. The People in this instance are the families andindividuals who make up the approximately 5,000-strong membership ofthe Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard nearFairfax Avenue. The Executive Committee comprises the 12 men andwomen who oversee the six-center system for the Jewish CommunityCenters of Los Angeles.

There are no black hats and white hats in thisconflict — and a bitter conflict it is turning out to be — thoughmost of us (CEOs excepted) have a tendency to align ourselves withthe People and to view the Executive Committee with suspicion. Guiltyuntil proven innocent.

The cause of the struggle is straightforwardenough: The JCC/LA Executive Committee has been negotiating withShalhevet High School. The object? Sale of the Westside JCC to theacademically excellent Modern Orthodox high school that Dr. JerryFriedman founded six years ago. In a 6-5 vote, the Committee hasapproved the proposed sale, which goes before the 50-plus JCC/LA fullboard of directors next Tuesday. (Though a final vote may be delayeduntil March 24.)

The story’s origins date back to May 1997, whennegotiations between the two parties began in a casual feeling-outsort of way. Shalhevet, which was already leasing some space from theWestside JCC, approached the JCC/LA Executive Committee. It madesense, assuming the money could be found, to purchase the buildingfor the school’s 140 students and lease back space to the WestsideJCC.

Since the talks were only exploratory, thedecision was made to keep them relatively quiet. “Relatively quiet”as in secret.

Then, last November, matters became serious.Shalhevet’s founder had managed to raise the $4 million-plusnecessary for purchase as well as the additional $4 million neededfor renovations.

The “deal” was still relatively quiet, but now notquite so secret. Bits began to leak out, although not in anywidespread manner. The Jewish Journal published a story last month.Finally, two-and-a-half weeks ago, the JCC/LA Executive Committeemailed a letter to the 2,400 Westside JCC families who would beaffected by the sale if, indeed, it went through.

Last week, the letters began to flow into ouroffice.

“I and my family have been using the WestsideJewish Community Center for 40 of the 44 years that it has been inexistence. It has meant a lot to us and still does.”

“My husband and I have gone to seders, culturaland political events at the Westside JCC.”

“My daughter, Miranda, is in her second year ofnursery school at WJCC. Before last year, she and I attended Mommyand Me classes there…. I wanted to be in a warm, shelteringenvironment where I could introduce Miranda to our faith. Not only tothe religious aspects but the cultural ones as well. The feeling youget at the WJCC.”

“One aspect that is so appealing is that going tothe center is an intergenerational experience.”

All from People who felt they were under attack,betrayed by bureaucrats plotting in secret for six long months totake away their community center. And for what? Money.

It is not difficult to make the case for theExecutive Committee. Early discussions were simply an airing ofpossibilities. Conversation at first, then some bargaining. A freehand is always desirable.

Then there were the realities. The Westside JCC,which receives $700,000 annually from the Jewish Federation ofGreater Los Angeles, had only modest programming and not much moneyfor anything else. Plus there was a building in need of renovation, alow membership fee of $10, and a high turnover of preschool parents.More to the point, the lease-back plan would guarantee — for about$250,000 — that the preschool and the gym facilities would continueto be available, while expanded programs would be made availablethroughout the city at different locations, thereby appealing to abroader membership base.

Who could argue with the logic here? On paper, itseemed irrefutable. “On paper,” of course, makes perfect sense toAdministrators and Bureaucrats and Executive Committees. But it runsaground when it bumps into people’s feelings and experiences.

The 5,000 members of the Westside JCC believestrongly that the center belongs to them, no matter how infrequentlythey use it.

By what right does the JCC/LA Executive Committeepresume to take the place away from them? On paper, every right. TheJCCs actually belong to the Executive Committee and its Board ofDirectors, not the members, the People. But without loyal members,people with an emotional commitment to the community center, the JCChas no reason for existence. So “on paper” doesn’t always holdup.

What has been absent throughout these proceedingshas been a sense of linkage between the Executive Committee and thePeople — a realization that communities resent committees and boardsthat make decisions on their behalf. That process and informationsharing take priority over bargaining strategy.

The irony is that the JCC/LA may lose, whateverthe final decision on Tuesday. The Westside members are likely toabandon their leased-back programs if the sale goes through. Nomatter how visionary the plans, how progressive the outcomes, theircenter now will belong to Shalhevet.

And should the sale not go through, the questionthat needs to be raised by everyone is, Where will the dollars comefrom for the Westside JCC’s entrance into the 21st century? n