For more than 50 years, Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC) has served as a magnet for San Fernando Valley Jews, a one-stop shop that offers a panoply of services, ranging from nursery school for the young to lectures for seniors.
Thousands of Jews have kibitzed, made lifelong friends and gained their first exposure to the community at Valley Cities, which has become nothing less than one of the linchpins of Jewish life in the Southern California.
In a blow to area Jews, Valley Cities is slated to close its doors forever on June 30, a victim of rising deficits, falling enrollment and a nasty fight between The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, its biggest benefactor, and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), the agency charged with running it.
The center’s impending demise follows the closure less than two years ago of Bay Cities JCC and is yet another sign of the shaky overall health of Los Angeles’ JCC system. More casualties, including the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center and possibly JCCGLA itself could follow.
The problems plaguing L.A.’s community centers come at a time when the national JCC movement has shown robust growth. Close to $500 million in construction is planned, under way or has recently been completed at JCCs around the country, said Alan Mann, executive vice president for JCC and community services at the JCC Association of North America.
The movement has flourished despite a decline over the past decade in federation funding. In the early 1990s, federation dollars accounted for 25 percent to 30 percent of JCCs’ overall budgets but have dropped to about 13 percent, Mann said. To compensate for the reduced funding, JCCs have raised more money from donors, increased membership and expanded program offerings.
News of Valley Cities’ fate has stunned many current and past members who argue that the center is too much a part of the fabric of local Jewish life to be allowed simply to disappear.
Art Verity, a former Valley Cities advisory board member, said both his daughters benefited greatly from attending nursery school there. He partly attributed his 21-year-old daughter Sarah’s active participation at UC Berkeley’s Hillel to the strong Jewish identity she developed at Valley Cities.
"This is a tragic loss," Verity said. "The center is unique, irreplaceable and plays an important role in fostering tzedakah [charity] within the Jewish community. It’s a place where nonaffiliated, secular and other Jews can gather in a Jewish setting, an anchor."
Thirty-seven full- and part-time employees could lose their jobs when Valley Cities closes. The center serves 90 preschool students, about 70 grade-school students through its after-school program and 100 seniors.
Michael Brezner, Valley Cities board president, said he was stunned by JCCGLA’s decision to shut the center and sell the property, especially since JCCGLA had spent more than $100,000 at the center over the past six months for such capital improvements as repainting the auditorium and replacing its 400 chairs. Brezner said JCCGLA officials, in the midst of discussing the 2004 budget with the board, suddenly pulled the plug on the center, saying they needed to sell the property to pay off debts to the L.A. Federation and other lenders.
JCCGLA officials said they told Brezner they could no longer afford to subsidize a money-losing operation. The organization owes The Federation $2.2 million, JCCGLA Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi said. The agency must still replenish $1 million in its special fund and owes banks $450,000, she said.
The centers’ organization reduced its debt by more than $600,000 last year after paying The Federation that amount from the $4.7 million it netted from the sale of the Bay Cities and North Valley JCC properties. It also paid down the debt on its special fund by $550,000 and paid off $350,000 of its bank debt.
A beleaguered JCCGLA plans to reinvent itself again, just a year after Lieberman Giladi said the organization was set to move out of the business of running centers and into providing them legal, financial and other consulting services. It has yet to map out its future role, although its size will shrink significantly, said Lieberman Giladi, who acknowledged that she might lose her job in any reorganization.
Brezner said he and other Valley Cities supporters hoped to find a benefactor who could help them purchase the center, which he said JCCGLA has valued at about $2.5 million. Other options include rezoning the property and attracting a developer who would allow the center to continue operating at a reduced rent. Valley Cities boosters are planning rallies and fundraisers to save the embattled center, he said.
"We’re not going to just walk away from this," Brezner said. "We want this 50-year treasure to flourish for another 50 years."
Those efforts might fall short, JCCGLA officials said. Valley Cities loses more than $16,000 a month, and its after-school program has seen participation plummet over the past year as nearby public schools have opened competing programs of their own. With little indication the center can right itself financially, JCCGLA has no choice but to sell Valley Cities and other nonperforming properties, especially since its own finances are stretched thin, Lieberman Giladi said.
"The board has decided it wouldn’t incur any more debt, and any plan going forward had to see all outstanding debts paid in full," she said.
Lieberman Giladi said the Westside JCC, Shalom Institute in Malibu and Zimmer Children’s Discovery Museum all have the capacity to become self-sufficient.
JCCGLA executives appear to think that their best hope for reviving the city’s centers lies in helping the Westside JCC raise millions to construct a state-of-the-art facility.
"One fabulous center will beget other fabulous centers," JCCGLA President Randy Myer said at the group’s Feb. 12 annual meeting. "And down the line, I see a Los Angeles dotted with active and thriving JCCs."
Looking back, JCCGLA’s sanguine predictions have sometimes soured.
Little more than one year ago, the association said it wanted to help those centers under its control become independent and strong. The West Valley JCC, with significant funding from The Federation, has achieved those goals.
However, Valley Cities is on its deathbed. North Valley JCC, albeit now independent, is far smaller than at its peak. In the Conejo Valley, JCCGLA is actively working with local Jewish leaders to ensure the continuation of services at the JCC.
In Silverlake, JCCGLA appears less interested in saving the Silverlake Independent JCC than in fetching the highest possible price from selling it, Silverlake executives said. The agency has rejected a $1.8 million bid from Silverlake supporters that would have ensured the center’s survival, they said. Instead, JCCGLA has put the property on the open market.
"Having somebody look at it doesn’t mean that it’s sold tomorrow," JCCGLA President Myer said. "The ball has been in their court" to make another offer.
The Federation has a $550,000 lien on the Silverlake property.
Given the checkered performance of the area’s JCCs, JCCGLA has lost some of its credibility.
"Our [Valley Cities] members stand to lose their jobs, which I think is a real indictment of GLA’s new management," said Jeff Rogers, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 800.
JCCGLA leaders said they have done the best they could there and elsewhere, despite a precipitous drop in Federation funding. Also, they inherited a financial mess created by a former JCCGLA chief financial officer who hid ballooning deficits. The group’s one major shortcoming has been its lackluster fundraising record relative to other Federation beneficiaries, Lieberman Giladi said.
Some in the community think The Federation should do more to help the ailing JCCs. Activist Barbara Yaroslavsky wonders why The Federation doesn’t just forgive or restructure JCCGLA’s debt. At the very least, The Federation could have undertaken a special fundraising campaign for the centers as it has done for Israel in times of crisis, she said.
"I don’t know why The Federation hasn’t stepped up to the plate," Yaroslavsky said.
Indeed, federations in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and elsewhere in the country have helped bail out troubled JCCs in the rare instances when difficulties have flared up, said Mann of JCC Association of North America. They have forgiven loans, made emergency cash infusions and hammered out long-term strategic plans with the centers to shore up balance sheets, he said.
Los Angeles Federation President John Fishel said his organization has worked hard over the past decade to ensure the survival of local JCCs, although he acknowledged that his relationship with JCCGLA executives has verged on frosty at times. When JCCGLA experienced its major financial crisis two years ago, The Federation loaned it $1.1 million. (To secure the debt, The Federation put a lien on the Bay Cities and Silverlake properties.)
In the early 1990s, The Federation lent JCCGLA $1 million during a cash-flow crisis. The group later forgave the loan, he said.
The Federation’s commitment to JCCGLA appears to have waned. Fishel said that his organization last year allocated $2.8 million. However, it only disbursed $2.5 million, including $1.3 million to the West Valley JCC, which later went independent. The Federation held back funds because JCCGLA had failed to provide registration, membership and other program information as required, he said.
Lieberman Giladi said she was told their money was withheld because JCCGLA had outstanding debt. She added that her organization gave The Federation all requested information.
The ongoing financial problems of JCCGLA seem to suggest that local centers cannot survive without "extraordinary grants," Fishel said. Given the need to balance local, domestic and international demands, The Federation is not in a position to provide that kind of money, he said.
With many "megashuls" and other Jewish institutions now offering teen services, adult education and other programs similar to those found at community centers, it is unclear how many JCCs Los Angeles can support at the beginning of the 21st century.
"The danger for an organized Jewish community of our size is we try to do everything at the same time and don’t achieve the level of excellence we should," Fishel said. "I think the question might be how do you have less venues providing quality programs with superior staff and market them effectively. I think you start with the premise of creating centers of excellence in a few places."
Fishel wouldn’t say how many centers he thought appropriate for Los Angeles. JCC observers, though, said they thought the West Valley and Westside are the only two centers likely to emerge from the wreckage with strong Federation support.