Silver Lining for Silverlake

At the onset of 2002, it looked like curtains for the Silverlake-Los Feliz Jewish Community Center (JCC). The JCC, located at Sunset Boulevard and Bates Avenue, was one of five sites originally slated to be shut down and sold so that parent organization Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) could repay a $3 million debt.

Seven months later, the Silverlake center will have much to celebrate during its community-wide party on July 28. Renamed the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC), the center is still standing, still open for business, and, as its new moniker suggests, the JCC is severing ties with JCCGLA — with the JCCGLA’s help.

Silverlake’s move toward independence is part of the ongoing rearrangement of the JCC network since a financial crisis last summer spurred a dispute between JCCGLA and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and threatened to shut down many of the facilities. But how Silverlake’s move will affect other JCCs — if they will also choose to go independent — is yet to be seen.

JCCGLA President Nina Lieberman Giladi told The Journal that it is premature to predict the shape that the centers will take in the future. "Everything that we have done since we inherited and tried to manage this crisis is unprecedented," she said.

"The JCC leadership and the Federation leadership are now looking for broader solutions in terms of the long term solutions of JCC services in L.A.," said Federation President John Fishel. "The spirit is positive, anger has dissipated and everyone’s working to find solutions.”

In Silverlake, "It’s been a roller coaster ride these past six months," said Janie Schulman, chair of SIJCC’s 13-member board of directors, who spearheaded efforts to save Silverlake’s JCC. Since the JCCGLA crisis was first made public in late 2001, Silverlake’s members galvanized to marshal political and financial support to save their institution. By February, action committees formed to develop a viable business plan to keep their center alive. They created a nonprofit group called Friends of the Silverlake-Los Feliz JCC to facilitate these efforts.

Today, the center is in the process of forming a new independent 501(c)(3) entity, using the nursery school and kindergarten early childhood education (ECE) programs as its primary service. JCCGLA is assisting the nascent SIJCC make the transition by letting members use the building rent-free until summer of 2003, when the organization will sell the property. This gives members, who have organized into various committees, nearly a year to find a new building.

"They’ve been very cooperative," Schulman said of JCCGLA, which technically still operates the SIJCC until the nonprofit status is finalized. To ease continuity, SIJCC has incorporated the phrase "Jewish Community Center" — not a registered trademark of JCCs of North America — into its name.

In addition to JCCGLA’s support, Schulman said that The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has provided the center with a $55,000 contingency cushion, to be used in case of a sudden drop in enrollment, need for repairs or other emergency.

"I am very pleased by how the numbers look," Schulman said. "We are making a real effort to be fiscally responsible and making sure we don’t have a hole in the middle of the school year."

Such potential snags have not deterred parents from committing children to SIJCC’s schools. Nearly 60 kids have enrolled.

"The irony was that the original plan was to close us down because there was no Jewish community on the east side of Los Angeles," Schulman said. "Now we might have a waiting list."

JCCGLA’s crisis was not the first time that the Silverlake center has experienced hardships. In fact, the center was born from turbulence, opening its doors in 1936 as the Hollywood-Los Feliz JCC after area Jews experienced anti-Semitism.

An early 1970s joint review by the institutions that are now JCCGLA and The Federation identified demographic, membership and financial redundancies. The center had 841 members — an enviable tally by today’s standards. Nevertheless, funding was eliminated in 1976 for Hollywood-Los Feliz JCC, which was on the brink of closure until community activists pressured the organizations to reverse their decision.

For now, SIJCC will concentrate on rebuilding step by step into a full-service community center.

"There is a definite need in our area," said SIJCC Director Ruthie Shavit, who emphasized how important the center is to Jewish and interfaith families alike. "If the center was not here, many people would not seek a synagogue."