Why Not L.A.?

When the Jewish Community Centers Association (JCCA) of North America convened its April 21-24 Biennial 2002 convention in Los Angeles, delegates from all over the continent assembled to discuss the challenges facing the JCC system: security issues, the direction of early childhood education and camp components, a lack of financial resources and the breakdown of the nuclear family.

Oddly enough, what was largely missing from the discussion during the four-day convention was the recent meltdown of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA).

The irony of Los Angeles playing host to the JCCA convention was not lost on its delegates. The gathering was held within weeks after seismic shifts at JCCGLA’s central office that have created rifts between JCCGLA and its chief subsidizer, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The changes have led to the termination of programs and the closure of three local JCC centers — Silver Lake-Los Feliz, Bay Cities and North Valley — with more possible cutbacks to come.

"There’s some irony involved," said Howard Wasserman, representing the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, commenting on Los Angeles as Biennial 2002’s city of choice. "I’m sure there’s been conversation about the L.A. centers, but I haven’t been privy to it."

Neither had a cross-section of the 800 delegates arriving from all across the United States and Canada.

"They haven’t gone into details, but it’s been mentioned," said Wendy Bernstein, a lay person representing Houston’s sole JCC.

"A lot of JCCs have gone through what we have gone through, and they have rebuilt and that’s what we’re going to do," said Randy Myer, Biennial 2002 co-chair and JCCGLA board vice president.

Philip Shiekman, a JCC of Philadelphia board member who received an for distinguished contributions to the Jewish Community Center field, offered a different perspective. "I’ve been involved with JCC Association for 30 years, and I don’t know of any city like L.A. going through a situation like this. I’ve seen individual centers have problems. A number of JCC Association centers disassociated themselves from the JCC Association because they couldn’t pay dues, but nothing like this."

According to Shiekman, Alan Mann, president of JCC of North America, and Alan Finkelstein, JCC executive director, did explain the JCCGLA situation at a closed board meeting.

"They were here in Los Angeles to help," he said. "We all support that."

The decision to hold Biennial 2002 at the Century Park Plaza in Century City was made two years ago before the current Los Angeles crisis, during Biennial 2000 in Boston. Despite JCCGLA’s problems, about 800 people attended the Los Angeles biennial — a small drop from Boston 2000’s tally of just over 1,000.

As for the JCCGLA-Federation rift, leaders on both sides say they are closer to choosing mutually agreed upon mediators who can help address their points of conflict.

If there was a lack of representation at Biennial 2002, it was with local JCCGLA lay leaders. The majority of attendees came from every major city except Los Angeles.

"The Jewish community here hasn’t focused on the biennial. They have other things to focus on," Ballin said. Ballin and Brown noted that biennials attract more numbers when held on the East Coast, which makes a convention more economical and accessible by car. This year’s convention entailed booking flights at a time when post-Sept. 11 queasiness still lingers.

Century Park’s Santa Monica Room was the heart of Biennial 2002 — a small convention floor where institutions such as the Shalom Institute and the Anti-Defamation League set up booths. The Jewish Book Council booth sold books by authors such as Robert Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard University who spoke at the biennial. And for the first time, an arts-and-crafts corner allowed guests to make mezuzot with Nancy Katz of Eye of the Needle and paint a "Jewish values" banner.

The JCCGLA crisis aside, Biennial 2002 covered a variety of topics and activities for JCC personnel. Speakers included Dr. Daniel Gordis, director of Mandel Jerusalem Fellows at the Mandel School in Jerusalem, and professor Steven Cohen, director of the Florence G. Heller-JCC Association Research Center in Jerusalem.

Seminars focused on such topics as "Hosting the JCC Maccabi Games" (the games’ 20th anniversary was honored at Biennial 2002’s opening dinner) and "Terrorist Nightmares vs. American Dreams." Plenaries touched on community issues and what the JCC membership can do to support Israel. Activities included a party at Sony’s Culver City lot.

While Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, JCC Association scholar-in-residence, mentioned 1999’s North Valley JCC shooting in passing, Sept. 11 was the catalyst for discussions on security issues. Another area of exploration was the dissolution of family and societal ties.

"There isn’t community now as there was in the past," Ballin said. "Families no longer go bowling, play bridge, have picnics."

Despite these challenges, JCC representatives did not believe that the JCC system is obsolete. If anything, Shiekman said, they are needed now more than ever.

"Very often, the center is the only Jewish organization that nonaffiliated Jews belong to," he said. "It’s the one place where they are not threatened. They would rather join a Jewish gym than a YMCA."

However, Shiekman did not lose sight of what was essential to keeping the system relevant.

"Quality is the key if you’re going to compete very well with non-Jewish services," he said.

Cyrisse Haddad of Sephardic Community Center of Brooklyn, who came to biennial with her colleague Marty Maskowitz, received a JCC leadership award and collected several other awards on behalf of the center, which has a membership of 1,400, made up mostly of Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian Jews. With a membership that is only 20 percent Ashkenazi, the JCC affiliate reflects the 50,000 Sephardic Jews of Brooklyn’s Midwood area.

"We’re always looking to improve our board and services," Haddad said.

Wasserman saw Biennial 2002 as "an opportunity to meet with people in similar work. We’re in a very unique position. We have 50,000 Russian-speaking refugees in our community," he said of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn.

Expanding financial resources was an issue for both Brooklyn centers.

Locally, JCCGLA executives said they were satisfied with what Biennial 2002 had to offer.

"It has helped us clarify who we are, what we’re doing and what we can be one day," Myer said.

Out-of-towners such as Shiekman ultimately found any focus on the JCCGLA situation to be beside the point. After all, as Nina Lieberman Giladi told The Journal, JCCGLA will soon present a JCC renewal plan, accompanied by a citywide fundraising campaign, to Los Angeles’ Jewish community.

"It’s irrelevant," Shiekman said. "The answer is that we know they are trying to rectify the situation. We know it’s not the end because they’re working to resolve it."