JCCs in Jeopardy

In what appears to be a critical juncture for the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), the organization is devising a structural overhaul to prevent severe cutbacks in services and the potential closure of several centers.

For decades JCCGLA has offered Jewish Los Angeles a broad spectrum of community services that include Jewish enrichment, day care, summer camp and athletic facilities, and the reduction or cancellation of these services would affect thousands in the community.

JCCGLA has entered into negotiations this week with their primary benefactor, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Officials of both organizations expressed hope that a resolution can be reached to rescue the ailing Centers

"Right now, the agency is in a very critical situation," JCCGLA’s Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman-Giladi told The Journal between meetings with Federation executives on Nov. 28. "We are experiencing very tough economic times. There are changing needs in the community."

When asked to define the "critical situation" and "changing needs," Giladi said: "At this time we are operating in a manner where our expenses exceed our revenue and we need to identify a responsible plan where we can continue to provide our services to the community."

Giladi did not directly address the November resignation of Chief Financial Officer Gail Floyd, a reflection, according to some sources, of a long history of mismanagement that has beleaguered JCCGLA in the years preceding Giladi’s installation this past July. The sources were quick to note that Giladi, who has worked in the JCCGLA system for five years, is doing a formidable job in her new position and has her work cut out for her.

"It is fair to say that the goal of our agency, moving forward, is to create a [financial] model that is different than the one that existed," Giladi said. "There is more competition with services — Jewish preschools, health and fitness services. Charitable donations have dropped because of the climate we’re in right now. Our job right now is to look to all of those factors and cooperate in a fiscally responsible manner. Of course it’s my greatest hope that the JCC system will grow and serve this community in the future."

"We’ve had very intensive discussions with concerning the future of their programming," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "Everyone is taking this very seriously. Our primary interest remains to the clientele. The situation is complex; it takes a lot of ingenuity, flexibility and creativity to find solutions. The fact that we are a service system helps us to explore issues in a thoughtful manner. The good news is that other affiliated bodies have stepped up to help find solutions."

These Federation affiliates include Bureau of Jewish Education, Jewish Family Service and Jewish Vocational Service.

Todd Morgan, who will complete his two-year term as the Federation’s chairman of the board next month, has been among the Federation brass involved in JCCGLA-Federation board discussions.

"Corporate America has changed," Morgan said. "It’s the first severe recession we’ve had in a decade. There’s a lot of restructuring going on around across the country, all over the world. It is no different for The Federation and the JCCs than other institutions being affected by the recession and Sept. 11."

Morgan emphasized that while The Federation, which allocates more than $3 million a year to JCCGLA, is "playing a financial role, but we’re not involved in running it."

But most likely, new Federation moneys toward the JCC system will come earmarked with more restrictions. When asked whether The Federation will have a stronger hand in shaping the JCC’s direction and programming, Fishel responded, "We want to be a very active collaborator" with JCCGLA, which he said has always been "a large and important constituent."

"That was the good news," Fishel continued, "in terms of sitting with colleagues and talking about the economy, and how do we collaborate rather than duplicate. I felt good coming out of that discussion this morning."

On the potential of an expanded Federation role in JCCGLA governorship, Giladi said, "The Federation has always had the responsibility to identify how to provide allocation to agencies to meet the needs of the community. We fall in this criteria."

The tradition of a Federation bailing out its city’s JCCs is not exclusive to Los Angeles. JCCs in cities such as Cincinnati, St. Louis and Toronto have enjoyed a robust rebirth after their respective Federations came to the rescue. However, a JCCGLA insider observed that "The Federation is a champion of the JCC. But why should it be responsible? In a perfect world, the JCC should be autonomous."

Several sources echoed the sentiment that other institutions — synagogues with day schools and after-school care; educational facilities, such as University of Judaism and the Skirball Cultural Center; and 24-hour health clubs — have all encroached on the key services offered by JCCGLA. The sources also believed that L.A. Jews, unlike closer-knit communities in Detroit or Cleveland, suffer from a lack of cohesion due to geographical and demographic situations unique to our city.

Morgan does not want to lay the JCC’s problems at the feet of the community that it services.

"It’s one of several factors, but I don’t blame the community because they need a tune up," Morgan said. "But for the next generation, we need to do more which means more funding to bring up the current standards that other cities have."

Years ago, the JCC system’s purpose and function in the community was sharply defined. In the 1880s, the national JCC system was created to facilitate the acculturation of Russian Jewry. In the 1930s, JCCs kept juvenile delinquents off of the streets and put them into boxing clubs, which became an incubator for many of the great Jewish boxers. By the 1950s and 1960s, suburbia crept in and the JCCs occupied prime spiritual real estate in the Jewish community. Since then, the gradual blurring of the line between community centers and synagogues, which have come to offer day schools and other educational and child-care services.

Resurrection of the JCC and its raison d’etre seems to be a common chorus from those in the know.

"They’re going to have to restructure it," Morgan said, "It’s going through this painful period so that they can come back in the next few years."

One person close to the JCCs suggested that if the JCCGLA is intent on surviving, it must revise its game plan drastically. The source believed that the organization should perhaps even go so far as to eliminate membership, in order to cultivate attendance.

"Institutions like Hillel and Hadassah," observed this source, "they recognized that they were becoming stale and they’ve changed with the times. They’ve repackaged themselves. The problem is, nobody wants to look at the hard facts, that maybe the concept is just passé."

Morgan is saddened by the current state of L.A.’s JCC system, but he emphasizes that he has not lost faith in the enterprise as a viable community outlet. In fact, he has been a main proponent of a $40 million capital campaign for a brand new JCC headquarters on the Westside.

"It got board approval, but we put it on the back burner because of the economy and Sept. 11," Morgan told The Journal, adding that the Federation went so far as to enter talks with prominent Jewish families who would help endow the project.

"One of our biggest contributions that we make is to the JCCs," Morgan said of The Federation. "I want this to be a world-class JCC where we can ensure continuity in our community. We get young families to use the athletic facilities, to go there for coffee, to attend events. That’s my dream. It’s been postponed."

Giladi was reluctant to comment on this project.

"When we have dealt with the current situation to the best of our ability in the most humane and responsible manner than we’ll think of building bigger and greater toward the future," she said.

For now, discussions over the direction of the JCCGLA system will continue. Fishel predicted that "a formal plan of action" will be finalized and announced within 1-2 weeks.

"A lot of it will become apparent when we move forward," Fishel said. "We have an immediate situation and then we look forward to long term solutions."

Giladi’s primary focus right now is to maintain the key services for the "several thousand members" of L.A.’s JCC system.

"There are many people in the community who entered the JCC doors, and that was the beginning of their engagement with Jewish life," Giladi said. "The JCCs do play a significant role in Jewish life. Fishel was optimistic that The Federation and JCCGLA will construct a practical solution to improve the long-ailing system and better serve its constituents.

"There are a lot of examples where creative solutions have helped revive institutional life and Jewish life in the community," Fishel said. "What’s becoming more apparent to everyone is that we are all one system. We need to think collaboratively. We’re a community that’s changed dramatically, but together, working as a system, we will find a solution."

"Right now the biggest challenge is how to address the need of our membership," Giladi said. "It’s a very difficult process, it’s a sad process, and there is no greater goal than to work to meet the needs of our families."