Milken JCC Thrives With Dollars, Sense

In recent years, one of the biggest Jewish stories in Los Angeles has been the death of the Jewish Community Centers. For decades they’d served the broader community as well as Jews, often providing a gateway for nonobservant Jews into Jewish life and culture.

But center after center closed — maybe their time was past, maybe the cause was gross mismanagement by the parent organization or maybe some combination of the two. Whatever the case, an era was coming to an end; a resource was shutting down.

Or not.

At least not in West Hills, where the scene that greets you at the New JCC at Milken is anything but sad. It tells a different story: that funding, commitment and leadership can keep such community centers thriving.

On weekdays, 150 children attend the preschool, in classes for 2-year-olds through kindergartners. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, 80 to 100 seniors suit up for aerobic and fitness programs. And on Monday and Thursday nights, up to nine teams of men, ages 20s through 50s, play in basketball leagues.

In fact, the JCC at Milken has just published its first program guide in more than 10 years, listing more than 35 pages of classes and activities — for infants to nonagenarians — ranging from educational to recreational, cultural to therapeutic.

Programs vary from Postnatal Mommy and Me Baby Yoga to Teen Late Night Out to World Literature for seniors. In addition, the JCC houses the Latin American Jewish Association, a new swim school run by Olympic champion Lenny Krayzelburg and the Los Angeles headquarters of the JCC Maccabi Games.

“Over 1,000 people a day pass through this building,” said Jack Mayer, executive director of the JCC at Milken, which shares the 100,000-square-foot facility, open most days from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., with The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, various social service agencies and the Finegood Art Gallery.

Nor is all this bustle taking place in a make-do or use-worn facility. The $15 million Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, in its verdant residential setting, was finished in 1987 and then completely refurbished in 1995 after the Northridge earthquake. It’s spacious, comfortable and well maintained. And the $4.5 million Ferne Milken Youth & Sports Complex, dedicated in December 1999, added a 12,000-square-foot gymnasium, an Olympic-sized pool and a fitness center.

The center’s civic prominence and vitality got a public affirmation last month when the new Public Affairs Committee hosted a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 to hear a talk by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

So what made the difference at the New JCC at Milken? Much of the answer is money. It was here that The Jewish Federation decided to invest in a JCC and also here that a center managed an early escape from the control of the foundering parent organization, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA).

Others haven’t fared as well. The Bay Cities and North Valley properties were sold off by the parent organization to help pay staggering debts. Conejo Valley shut down. Silver Lake became independent but needed to partner with Los Angeles’ Episcopalian Diocese to purchase its property from the parent organization. Valley Cities is trying to nail down a deal to buy its land.

The Westside JCC, located south of the Fairfax District, is perhaps the most financially viable of the other JCCs. It got an infusion of $115,000 from Olympic medalist Krayzelburg, for refurbishing the pool and hosting his swim school. Westside also is aiming to raise $14 million for crucial renovations.

The New JCC at Milken avoided a terminal financial bind because of its unique history. The West Valley Jewish Community Center, as it was originally known, was founded in the early to mid-1970s. It bought and moved to its current site, a former horse ranch consisting of a cottage and a converted garage on four and a half acres, in 1976. Then, in a complicated deal, the JCC parent organization deeded the property to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which purchased an adjoining acre and a half and raised the $15 million needed to build the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus. Because the JCC parent organization didn’t control the land, it never had the power to sell off the land when it succumbed to financial tailspin, as happened with most of the other JCCs.

Moreover, from the beginning, The Federation has solidly supported the West Valley JCC, renamed the New JCC at Milken in October 2003 when it declared its full independence from the parent organization. The Federation’s rent subsidies amount to about $900,000 annually. Additionally, The Federation has provided cash allotments, about $375,000 this year.

Another factor is that this JCC, unlike others in Los Angeles, has been able to attract a large donor, the Milken Family Foundation, which contributed one-third of the original $15 million. The Foundation also donated $2.25 million of the $4.5 million needed to build the Youth and Sports Complex.

The Milken JCC is full service. It has “the three revenue-producing businesses of a Jewish community center — preschool, camp, and physical education and recreation,” said Allan Finkelstein, president of the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America.

The JCC caters to working and single parents with preschool hours that extend from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and an after-school program that picks up about 65 students from 18 schools in the Los Angeles Unified and Las Virgenes Unified School Districts.

In the summer it sponsors Camp Yeladim, which was the fullest ever this year with 225 kids in grades kindergarten through sixth, plus 30 middle school-aged counselors-in-training. Another 65 youngsters participated in the new theater arts camp.

Fred Grafman, 82, joined the fitness center four years ago when his doctor ordered him to do “pool walking” and now comes four times a week. “The bottom line is that it’s a good place for older Jewish people,” he said.

The Federation named Jack Mayer executive director when the center became independent of the parent organization. Before that, since 1984, Mayer served as head of the Valley Alliance, except for a five-year stint at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion from 1990 to 1994.

“Jack’s office door is always open, and you can talk to him,” preschool parent Sigal Ratoviz said.

Mayer has harnessed creative and administrative talents for his board and staff, and also gets people to write checks. Still, despite its growth — from about 900 membership units or 2,700 people when it became independent to almost 1,450 membership units or over 4,000 people today — the New JCC at Milken still operates at a deficit.

“We don’t turn away anybody, no matter what their financial situation is,” Mayer said. “It’s a point of pride here.”

The JCC distributes almost $150,000 annually in full or partial scholarships to 30 percent of the preschoolers and after-school students, to 20 percent of the campers and to 15 percent of the seniors, who already benefit from reduced membership fees.

This year the JCC needs to raise an additional $300,000. A Debbie Friedman concert, celebrating the center’s second anniversary, took place on Oct. 9 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Auditorium, drawing a crowd of 1,400 and raising $30,000. And a Monte Carlo Night is scheduled for spring, in addition to other fundraising activities.

Mayer’s goals are to increase membership and visibility and provide new programming, including meaningful events such as Villaraigosa’s appearance. Mayer wants to continue to serve the estimated 240,000 Jews in the San Fernando Valley and some 40,000 in Conejo Valley — including immigrants and unaffiliated Jews, children and teenagers, seniors and singles.

He also believes that a Jewish Community Center’s mandate is to benefit the entire community, and thus he plans to feature more public figures and sponsor events that focus on poverty, education and housing. He sees the Milken JCC serving as a broad educational and cultural forum that is neither geographically nor ethnically limited.

“We’re working hard on a daily basis here to build a quality program,” Mayer said. “We’re struggling successfully.”