Invest in Your Community

It has been one year since a financial crisis engulfed the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). In response to this crisis, JCCGLA was forced to close facilities, cut services and lay off scores of staff. Programs that served more than 1,000 people were discontinued. It was a very difficult year — but we survived.

In a city that is divided by geography, class, denomination and national origin, every Jewish institution questions its mission. In a time when assimilation, the economy and security issues consume us, every Jewish institution questions its relevance. Surviving the crisis helped JCCGLA appreciate the central role it plays in addressing critical issues affecting the L.A. Jewish community.

As highlighted by the recent National Jewish Population Survey, American Jews are profoundly concerned by evidence that our Jewish community is fractured and in decline. Whether the discussion focuses on the survival of Israel, interfaith marriage, our aging population or divisions among the denominations, people are searching for meaningful connections with others. In Los Angeles, this dialogue takes place in a region that is physically vast — compounding the difficulty of creating a sense of community.

JCCs address many issues raised by this dialogue. We provide Jewish continuity and cohesion. We are open to the entire Jewish community — Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, unaffiliated, intermarried or agnostic, fifth-generation American or recent immigrant. We offer programs for young children, teenagers, families, single adults and seniors. The range of programs is impressive: from the Celebrity Sunday Staged Play series and Israeli dancing to basketball leagues and the Zimmer Children’s Museum. JCCs are gathering points for the entire community.

According to the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey, 41 percent of L.A. Jews who married during the previous five years married non-Jews. Some 66 percent of Jewish households in Los Angeles are not affiliated with a synagogue. JCCs serve as the bridge to Judaism for a significant portion of the L.A. Jewish population. In many instances, the programs run by JCCs are the single most important link to these at-risk Jews.

I often joke that my family is the poster family for the role JCCs play in Jewish life. I was not raised in a religious household. We were cultural Jews, unaffiliated with a temple but unquestioning in our knowledge that we were Jewish. I met, fell in love with and married a wonderful woman from Maine — no, she isn’t Jewish. We established our home in Los Angeles, far from family and tradition.

When our daughter reached preschool age, I hesitated to suggest the Westside JCC — although it was only six blocks from our home and operated a well-regarded preschool. I didn’t want to impose my religious background on our interfaith family. My wife recommended that we visit the school and when we saw the happy children, the decision to attend was simple and obvious.

Westside JCC was welcoming and supportive. The Shabbat dinners, holiday festivals and Judaic curriculum, educated and enriched our family and provided a warm sense of community. Summer day camp at Camp Chai followed preschool. We established lifelong friendships. I became involved in center leadership.

Today, our family often lights candles to celebrate Shabbat. We attend High Holiday services at a local temple and my daughter looks forward to attending her religious class on Sundays. I have no doubt that Westside JCC made all this possible.

This past year confirmed that Los Angeles’ JCCs were taken for granted for too long. Years of neglecting the aging facilities and the failure to address long-term financial stability took their toll. The facilities must be renovated, highly trained staff professionals must be hired, programs of excellence must be reestablished and expanded.

The challenges ahead are significant. These goals will be accomplished only if the community financially supports the renewal of the L.A. JCC movement. The issue of funding this renewal in Los Angeles is sensitive. Los Angeles is home to more than 500,000 Jews. Despite these resources, The Jewish Federation’s annual campaign is disproportionately smaller than campaigns of cities with significantly fewer Jews (i.e., Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland). Clearly L.A. Jewish organizations must do a better job of engaging the community.

The financial investment is worth it. A visit to the thriving new JCCs on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, La Jolla or Scottsdale, Ariz., confirm that state-of-the-art facilities with sufficient programming staff are central hubs of Jewish life.

Westside JCC has raised more than $5 million for its capital campaign to renovate its aging campus. The capital campaign’s goal is $14 million. While we are well on our way, moments of opportunity are fleeting and must be seized. After Westside JCC is rebuilt, other JCCs in Los Angeles must renovate their facilities. State-of-the-art buildings must open to serve new communities.

If the L.A. JCC movement is to succeed, the L.A. Jewish community must recognize the important mission played by JCCs and support this renewal with significant investments. Failure to recognize and support this mission is an opportunity lost to build a stronger more cohesive L.A. Jewish community.

Michael J. Kaminsky is president of the Westside Jewish Community Center advisory board and a member of the board of directors of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles.