Remember the Roots of the JCCs

Talk about irony.

With the theme "JCCs as Community Builders," representatives from Jewish community centers from throughout the continent will gather at the Century Plaza for four days beginning April 21 for the Jewish Community Centers (JCC) of North America’s 2002 Biennial conference.

This, as Los Angeles’ Jewish Community Centers (JCC) face their worst financial and organizational crisis ever; when, at latest count, three centers are facing closure and the sale of their properties; when, The Jewish Federation and L.A. JCCs are locked in an internecine battle in the press and on their Web sites, and when, leadership of the individual centers feels it has no choice but to pursue autonomy, while the rest of the community looks on with dismay, bewilderment or indifference.

"JCCs as Community Builders." One of the centers slated to be closed, North Valley, is just achieving a sense of healing among its members after receiving international attention three years ago, when five people were wounded there during an anti-Semitic shooting. Another, Silver Lake-Los Feliz, is one of the few outposts of Jewish life and stability in its neighborhood and has served its community for more than 50 years, surviving an attempt to close it 25 years ago.

Sadly, Los Angeles could serve as the case study for a session on "JCCs and Crisis Management."

While the magnitude of the current situation is unprecedented, at various times during its colorful, more than century-long history, Los Angeles’ JCC movement has suffered from inadequate funding and insufficient interest, as well as a struggle for autonomy between neighborhood centers and the central JCC association, and between the central JCC association and The Jewish Federation. In recent months, when JCC members and friends marched outside The Federation building to protest the planned closures, they were walking in the well-worn footsteps of several generations.

It all began with Emil Harris. Born in Prussia in 1839, Harris came to the United States in 1853. After living in New York and San Francisco, he moved to Los Angeles in 1869, got a job as a barkeep and quickly became involved in civic life.

Harris joined the Los Angeles Police Department and acquired a well-deserved reputation for brilliance as a detective. He was honored by the Chinese community for trying to head off the tragic events of 1871, when 20 Chinese residents were massacred downtown. In 1878, Harris was appointed Los Angeles’ first, and so far only, Jewish chief of police.

With his younger brother, Max, Harris became one of the prime movers in the 1887 founding of Los Angeles’ Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), forerunner of the Jewish community centers movement, which began in Baltimore in 1854. Two hundred and fifty attended the opening banquet, whose reception committee was chaired by Harris, and whose active members were some of the most promising young leaders in the community.

Between 1880 and 1887, Los Angeles was undergoing a transition, with a population growth from 11,000 to 100,000, and a municipal culture shift from a Spanish-Mexican-Western frontier town to Midwest provincial. Unlike the pioneer period, Jews were no longer welcome in the social clubs, like the Jonathan and Los Angeles Athletic, and their children were not invited to dances and other activities. In such times, the YMHA would seem to take on even greater importance, but by 1889, it ceased to exist, perhaps due to an economic downturn and the departure of its founders.

Nonetheless, the population as a whole, and the Jewish population in particular, continued to increase. An influx of Yiddish-speaking, Eastern European-born, working-class Jews, many of them health seekers, caused the Jewish population to grow from 2,500 at the turn of the 20th century to 10,000 by 1912.

In 1911, the Educational Alliance was organized by members of the National Council of Jewish Women for "the moral education and social welfare of the Jewish immigrant," echoing the then-prevailing attitude of noblesse oblige toward assimilation of "greenhorns." The women acquired a building on Temple Street near the present site of the Music Center and renamed their enterprise the Jewish Alliance.

That same year, 1915, a new YMHA was organized, but its members wanted an independent identity and space and stayed away from the Jewish Alliance building. Noting the generous support enjoyed by YMCA, the YMHA members asked if "we Jews are not interested in the Jewish welfare of our boys, young men and adults … there is definitely something wrong in our system, our Jewish body politic."

Simultaneously, the Yiddish-speaking newcomers were moving to East Los Angeles. Los Angeles’ first Jewish community center, the Modern Hebrew School and Social Center, later renamed Soto-Michigan, opened in Boyle Heights in 1924.

"Skipping from area to area, housed in inadequate facilities, always lagging far behind Los Angeles’ phenomenal Jewish population expansion, the centers offered a sorry picture in 1942," noted a 1957 article in Southwest Jewry.

As a result, based on the findings of a National Jewish Welfare Board study of Los Angeles, a centralized Jewish Centers Association (JCA) was established in 1943, with two other centers — West Adams and Beverly-Fairfax — in addition to Soto-Michigan in Boyle Heights and Menorah in City Terrace, reflecting the growth of Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Eastside.

The establishment of JCA was really a new model, because the only other association of its kind at the time was in Boston. It was mandated by The Federation in order to raise personnel standards, provide oversight of funding and provide services on a centralized basis. Not surprisingly there was tension between the individual centers, desirous of autonomy from JCA, and JCA, which, although dependent on it financially, wanted autonomy from The Federation.

The 1957 article in Southwest Jewry continued:

"The JCA facilities, more adequate than they were in 1942, are, because of budget limitations, not yet sufficient to meet the demand of Los Angeles’ growing population. It is our confident prediction, however, that in the years ahead, proper provision will be made to meet all the group work needs of our expanding community."

By the time those words were written, Menorah Center, with its strong Zionist-based, religious-cultural approach, was closed by JCA in 1952 over the angry opposition of local residents, and consolidated with the Soto-Michigan Center, which was more intercultural in its programming. Soto-Michigan’s closure was not long deferred. In both cases, while the overall Eastside Jewish population was diminishing, neither Soto-Michigan nor Menorah had experienced substantial drops in membership.

By then, however, Soto-Michigan had been under attack for several years as a hotbed of subversive, left wing radicalism by state Sen. Jack Tenney, a right-wing Republican and anti-Communist who chaired California’s un-American Activities Committee. As Deborah Dash Moore wrote in her 1994 book, "To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Dream in Miami and L.A.": "Amalgamation of the two Jewish community centers serving the Eastside involved more than administrative efficiency … through a reorganization of staff and center board members, also eliminated many radicals and progressives."

Arguably, similar to the situation today, the closure of the Eastside centers, and later West Adams, served to destabilize the Jewish character and culture of those neighborhoods. Centers served as anchors; when Jews saw their community failing to invest in services where they lived, they got the message, intentional or not, that they no longer lived in a Jewish neighborhood.

Looking at more recent history, it is important to note that several Los Angeles JCCs resulted not from the top-down initiatives of professionals, but from grass-roots efforts by isolated Jews in new neighborhoods who banded together to create a locus of Jewish identity for themselves and their children.

Hollywood-Los Feliz JCC, now Silver Lake-Los Feliz JCC, began when Jewish residents of Los Feliz experienced anti-Semitism at a 1936 PTA meeting. By 1951, they had built the current home of the center on Sunset Boulevard and Bates Avenue. Valley Cities JCC began with the self-help efforts of parents who began a day camp — Camp Akiba — in North Hollywood Park in 1950 and then a second weekend camp–Camp Fress-und-Shpiel ("eat and play").

In the early 1970s, a joint JCA-Federation study identified many identical demographic, financial, programmatic, membership and facilities issues facing the community today. As a result, funding was eliminated in 1976 for Hollywood-Los Feliz JCC (which had 841 members at that point, a statistic that would be the envy of all Los Angeles centers today) and for the Israel Levin Senior Adult Center, later the subject of "Number Our Days," the Academy Award-winning documentary based on the work of the late Barbara Myerhoff.

Activists picketed outside The Federation, reversing those decisions, and both centers remain open today, making a difference in the lives of thousands in the intervening years. Unfortunately, in hindsight, few other concrete actions were taken in the past three decades to avert the current situation.

The crisis facing JCCs in America’s second largest Jewish community does not appear on the formal agenda of the Biennial conference. But in informal sessions — in the hallways and coffee klatches where real learning takes place — perhaps new hope and ideas can be gleaned that can help us to put our house back in order and rebuild our community once our guests return home.