Westside JCC Bash Celebrates 50 Years


Sol Marshall looked at the aging Westside Jewish Community Center and smiled.

“I think it looks great,” he said.

Marshall, 92, served as the center’s first public relations director five decades ago. For an instant, he allowed himself to become lost in remembrance of things past.

“There was always so much going on back then,” he said. “Never a dull moment.”

And so it was on Sunday, Dec. 12, when the Westside JCC threw a 50th anniversary party for itself, and 250 of its friends came. Septuagenarians and octogenarians who hadn’t seen each other for years reminisced about the good old days, when the Westside JCC was considered one of the country’s state-of-the-art Jewish community centers.

Preschoolers and kindergarteners ate ice cream, hot dogs and jumped around on an enormous moon bounce. Fathers and sons in kippot engaged in fiercely contested table tennis games, playing alongside secular Jews in T-shirts and jeans.

“I think this is a new and exciting time for this important communal institution,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “There’s a nice feeling here, a lot of energy.”

That the Westside JCC is still standing is itself a minor miracle. When the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) experienced a major crisis a few years back because of financial mismanagement, the organization threatened to shutter all nine local JCCs. A public outcry forced a reversal.

Although since then, the Southland has seen more centers permanently close than any other part of the country. The Bay Cities JCC no longer exists. Earlier this year, Conejo Valley’s center also disappeared. Valley Cities JCC, which JCCGLA had planned to shut down earlier this year, is actively trying to raise money or find a buyer to purchase the center. Its fate remains unclear.

JCCGLA’s problems spilled over into the Westside JCC, which found its funding slashed. Concerned about the center’s prospects, donors reduced contributions or held back altogether.

Over the past two and a half years, the Westside executives had to make some painful decisions to keep the center in business. They closed the unprofitable health and fitness center, the swimming pool where Olympian Lenny Krayzelburg once trained and cut staff by 50 percent.

Those hard choices staved off disaster, Westside JCC President Michael Kaminsky said. Now, the Westside JCC is in expansion mode, having recently hired a highly regarded executive director — Brian Greene, former executive director of Camp Ramah in California — and reopened some classrooms to accommodate the surging demand for its preschool and kindergarten programs. To generate income, empty spaces have been rented to several nonprofit and academic institutions, including the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Most important, the center has raised nearly half the $14 million needed for an ambitious renovation that Westside JCC leaders hope to begin within two years.

“When this center is outfitted with a brand-new swimming pool and health and fitness center, it’s going to bring in adults,” Kaminsky said. “So when a mother drops her kids off, she’ll go to the new gym.”

“Or, when a new person moves into the neighborhood and says he’s looking for place to workout, people will tell him there’s a real haimish center here,” he continued. “And then he’ll check out the adult programming. That’s how it all starts.”

The center appears in need of a facelift. Some shutters around the windows in the basketball arena are broken. The facility’s tile floor looks like something out of a 1950s hospital. The plumbing, heating and air conditioning are in dire need of upgrades.

But none of that seemed to matter to the revelers, who lent the occasion a levity and lightness.

For many, the highlight of the three-hour soiree occurred when children commandeered the stage and sang Chanukah songs in their high-pitched voices. First up was a group of 20 2- to 3-year-olds. Wearing paper hats decorated with Chanukah candles, they sang the “Dreidel Song” and the “Macabee March.”

Lest their parents miss anything, the sound of camcorders and digital cameras began before a single note was sung. A group of 3- and 4-year-olds and finally 5-year-olds followed.

David Berke and his wife, Wende, beamed as they watched their sons, Isaiah, 3 1/2, and Elijah, 5, perform. David Berke said Isaiah — whom he calls “our little cantor” — had gained such an appreciation of Hebrew songs at the Westside JCC that he recently broke out in a rendition of the Shema at a neighborhood Target.

“It’s important for us to have Jewish identity reinforced not just at home and at temple but also in their education, as well,” said Berke, adding that his boys might not get such an appreciation of Judaism at a public school.

American gold medalist Krayzelburg said he appreciated the Westside JCC for an entirely different reason. The four-time Olympic champion said he had fond memories of the three years in the early 1990s when he worked as a lifeguard at the center and was on the swim team.

At the center, Krayzelburg, then a new Ukrainian Jewish immigrant with a poor command of English, said he forged strong friendships and reveled in the center’s “family-like atmosphere.” Now a much-in-demand product endorser, the 29-year-old former Olympian said he attended the anniversary party to raise money for a place that “touches so many lives.”

Los Angeles Councilman Martin Ludlow presented Westside executives with a plaque commemorating the center’s 50 years. After a menorah-lighting ceremony, the African American politician said the Westside JCC’s revival mirrored another positive trend in his district, which includes the center’s greater Fairfax home.

“The [facility’s] renovation is a symbol of the renewal of the area and of its openness and diversity,” the councilman said. “Just a few miles east of here, you felt a dearth of energy. Now, businesses are moving back. Families are moving back in.”


Q & A With Nadav Morag

Nadav Morag has joined the University of Judaism (UJ) as the first director of its new Center for Israel Studies and chair of the political science department. Now 37, Morag was born in Israel, but came to the United States with his parents at age 2, and spent the next 20 years in this country before returning to his birthplace.

He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UCLA and his doctorate at Tel Aviv University. Before assuming his present post, he served on Israel’s National Security Council, in the prime minister’s office, as senior director for domestic policy and subsequently for foreign policy.

Morag has been a teacher and researcher at the Technion and Tel Aviv University, and worked with Palestinian experts on joint economic and education projects at the Neustadter Institute for Peace Implementation. He is married to Galia, a Hebrew teacher, and has two children, Adi and Edan. The Jewish Journal recently interviewed Morag at his UJ office.

Jewish Journal: Given the already large number of Jewish defense organizations, academic study centers and Middle East think tanks, what do you see as the distinctive role of the new UJ center?

Nadav Morag: Our center will focus entirely on Israel from the academic, general educational and public affairs perspectives. We hope to provide in-depth analysis of Israel-related issues through college courses, public forums, policy reviews and serve as a knowledgeable source for the media.

JJ: Aren’t these areas already covered by other institutions?

NM: Not at all. There is a lack of Israel-focused centers such as ours, particularly in the Western United States, where the only other one is at the University of Denver. I think the need was shown to me early this year, when the Anti-Defamation League asked me to speak on campuses, synagogues and before law enforcement groups in the South and Midwest. I found both a tremendous lack of knowledge about Israel and a real thirst for it, especially about the logic and rationale of Israeli policies.

JJ: Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard recently reported that it’s considered “uncool” among students to be pro-Israel at American universities, and that in many places Jewish professors are afraid to speak up and defend Israel. What has been your experience?

NM: It’s a bad situation — though not as bad as in Europe — much of it based on misinformation and ignorance. Next month, I am going to Anchorage, Alaska, for the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, which is a bastion of anti-Israeli sentiment. It should be interesting.

JJ: What can you do to remedy the “bad situation?”

NM: Look, I’m not here as a propagandist, but I can present what the Israeli considerations are, that there are valid reasons behind Israel’s actions, which the foreign ministry doesn’t always know how to get across.

JJ: How so?

NM: Especially before American audiences, you have to explain the moral dimensions of the problem, not just talk about Israeli interests and power. In my conversations with foreign military leaders and diplomats, questions of morality keep coming up.

JJ: When you served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), you advised the chief IDF spokesperson on media relations. What do you hope to accomplish with the media here?

NM: I’ve been trying to introduce myself to news editors and establish relationships. I hope that, at some point, they will use my background for comments and clarifications on Israeli issues. We’ll see … you can take the horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

JJ: The UJ always faces a tight budget. Is there any problem in starting and supporting a Center for Israel Studies now?

NM: Frankly, I was surprised that such a center didn’t already exist here. Israel plays a central role for Jews, maybe not for all Jews, but you can’t be a Jew today without having a basic understanding of Israel. Financially, we have a very modest budget and at this point I have no support staff. We have a grant from The Jewish Federation and are looking for private donors. On the academic side, professor Steven Spiegel, who was my thesis adviser at UCLA, has agreed to serve as chief research consultant for our center here.

JJ: Let’s close with an easy question. What is the future of the peace process?

NM: I didn’t bring my crystal ball, but it’s clear there will be no change until Yasser Arafat leaves, one way or the other. He’s been very good at sabotaging every peace initiative and he is so central to Palestinian politics that there can be no meaningful changes as long as he’s around. I can’t say how long it will take after he’s gone, but the Palestinians have suffered a great deal, at some point they must want to lead normal lives, too.

For more information about the Center for IsraelStudies, visit www.uj.edu .

JFS Picks Up Several JCC Services

Effective Jan. 1, Jewish Family Service (JFS) will take over some key JCC services — SOVA Kosher Food Pantry, Israel Levin Senior Adult Center, and Westside JCC’s Social Day Care Center for seniors and people with disabilities. At the annual JCCGLA meeting, Jewish Federation President John Fishel told The Journal that his outreach organization wants to preserve the continuity of these JCC programs.

"We’ve been discussion since summer with the Centers about these programs," JFS Executive Director Paul Castro told The Journal. Castro’s agency has spent the last few months exploring operational, budgetary, funding and other issues pertaining to the programs. "Fortunately we’ve gotten those issues to a level where we feel comfortable taking them over," Castro said.

He added that SOVA’s staff will be maintained for now, with a Federation allocation of $125,000 slated for the first six months "with understanding that it would be annualized" pending a business plan that JFS will provide in the spring. In assuming the Venice-based Israel Levin Center, JFS will keep the current staff.

The most fiscally stable of the three programs will be Social Day Care. JFS has secured a Department of Aging grant through the city of Los Angeles that amounts to $185,000 per year over four years. The annual $185,000 grant does not include Federation allocations earmarked for this program. For the time being, the program will remain at Westside JCC. However JFS is currently looking for an alternative site to prepare in case Westside closes by July.

"We’re looking forward to bringing them into the JFS family and we believe these programs will be a good fit for the services we provide," Castro said of Israel Levin Center and Social Day Care. "While the food bank is new to us, many of our clients have experience with SOVA."

In addition to JFS pitching in to relieve JCCGLA, Federation agencies Jewish Free Loan and Jewish Vocational Service will assist recently laid-off Federation employees with interest free loans and job-hunting assistance, respectively.