Trio Spearheads New Bid to Save JCC


At the downtown YMCA on Saturday mornings, parents
congregate at poolside tables to gossip, kibitz and trade jokes, while their
children take swimming lessons. For the adults, these hour-long sessions
represent nothing less than a much-needed respite from the grind of the work
week.

Janie Schulman, Jenny Isaacson and Barry Jacobson are not
like the other mothers and fathers. While their children learn the
breaststroke, the trio — an attorney, public relations specialist and
businessman, respectively — huddle together at the Y, plotting ways to save the
beleaguered Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (JCC). They discuss
strategy, talk marketing and try to buoy each other’s spirits as the JCC they
have worked so hard to rebuild could be sold to an outside party by the property’s
owner, the financially troubled Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles
(JCCGLA). The threesome fret that Silverlake could one day soon end up as a
strip mall or some other soulless venture denuded of any Jewishness if it
changes hands.

To prevent that from happening, the Silverlake three have
just submitted a $2.1 million offer to purchase the center. JCCGLA, which
rejected an earlier $1.8 million offer, will give careful consideration to the
new bid, Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi said. JCCGLA officials
said they have received several offers in the $2.4 million range, but might
accept a discounted offer from Silverlake supporters, provided they offer
acceptable terms.

For Silverlake President Schulman and activist board members
Isaacson and Jacobson, nothing less is at stake than preserving an important
piece of Judaica that has helped create a sense of community among Jews in
Silverlake, Echo Park and Los Feliz. That’s why from the moment JCCGLA first
threatened to shutter Silverlake two and a half years ago amid a budget crisis,
they led the movement to stave off the JCC’s death sentence.

Not only did they succeed, but Silverlake has seen its
preschool enrollment boom. The center is the area’s only profitable JCC,
despite receiving not a penny from its former biggest benefactor, The Jewish
Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“I am not a religious person, but the Silverlake JCC has
helped my family and me stay in touch with our Jewish history, tradition and
culture,” said Isaacson, whose son just graduated and whose daughter attends
the center’s preschool. “Silverlake embodies the concept of tikkun olam, or
repairing the world, an important principle I hope to instill in my children.”

Silverlake’s success notwithstanding, JCCGLA, an
organization entrusted with aiding and abetting local JCCs, put the center up
for sale in January partly to help pay off the $2.2 million it owes The
Federation. The Jewish philanthropic organization has a $550,000 loan on the
property.

For its part, Federation officials praise Silverlake for
bringing Jewish programs to an underserved community. Still, the organization
has so far refused to help save the center by buying it outright and
transferring ownership to Silverlake supporters or by forgiving enough JCCGLA
debt to make a sale unnecessary. The Federation has also turned down or ignored
specific ideas floated by Silverlake supporters, including requests to cosign a
loan, Schulman said.

“The Federation and JCCGLA have offered little beyond
platitudes and have utterly failed to respond to written and oral requests to
commit to our survival,” Schulman said.

John Fishel, Federation president, said his organization has
helped Silverlake on several occasions, including making $50,000 available two
years ago for emergencies. He said he would gladly sit down with JCCGLA and
Silverlake executives to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis, adding
that The Federation is willing “to be flexible in all sorts of ways.”

With time running out, Schulman, Isaacson and Jacobson said
they have had to ratchet up the pressure lately to save the center.

On March 23, they organized a demonstration with 150
preschoolers, parents and concerned community members in front of The
Federation building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Clad in orange shirts with “Shalom”
emblazoned on the front, the group carried signs, sang Jewish songs and chanted
slogans such as, “Let my people stay!” Jacobson, who oversees the center’s
security and keeps the grounds spotless, exhorted protesters to shout louder to
make their voices heard by Federation executives upstairs.

Public relations maven Isaacson succeeded in getting the
event covered by such mainstream media outlets as NBC, Fox News, KCBS and the
Los Angeles Times. Against that backdrop, Schulman succeeded in convincing
JCCGLA to hold off selling Silverlake until center supporters could cobble
together their own offer by the end of last week (March 26).

“I take my hat off to them for pushing so hard to bring this
to a positive solution both for their kids and the other kids at Silverlake,”
Fishel said.

If nothing else, Schulman, Isaacson and Jacobson have shown
pit bull-like tenacity in their efforts. They each devote at least 20 hours a
week to the cause, spending much of their time on three-way phone calls and
answering one another’s e-mails. “I’ve divorced my family to do this,” quipped
Schulman, a partner specializing in labor law at Morrison & Foerster LLP.

She has done a lot, JCC supporters said. Schulman helped
incorporate Silverlake and has served as the point person in negotiations with
The Federation and JCCGLA.

When she heard in October 2001 that Silverlake was going to
close in six weeks, she landed a 5 p.m. meeting that same day at Fishel’s
office. Cradling her 4-month-old son, Max, in her arms, she spoke to him about
the center’s importance to the community.

The next day, Fishel and JCCGLA executives went to
Silverlake to confer with supporters. The Federation and JCCGLA later committed
to keeping it open until at least the end of that school year.

“It would have been very difficult to hold things together
without Janie’s knowledge and leadership,” Silverlake board member Shelly
Freiberg said.

For Schulman, the child of Holocaust survivors, the JCC has
made it easy for her to keep her Jewish heritage alive, despite having married
out of the faith, she said. Schulman remembers her parents “kvelling” as they
listened to their granddaughter, Emma, recite the Chanukah blessing over the
candles two years ago, a prayer she had learned at the JCC.

Like Schulman, Jacobson has made a mark at Silverlake.
During hot summer days, he has spearheaded cleanup efforts. In winter, he has
braved the pouring rain to patch holes in the aging center’s roof. Drawing on
his knowledge of business, he renegotiated contracts with security firms,
janitorial services and phone providers after Silverlake became independent,
saving the center thousands, Schulman said.

The 48-year-old entrepreneur said the center has served as
more than a place where his son and daughter received a strong Jewish
education. It has strengthened his family’s connection to Judaism. Jacobson
said he attributed his two children’s strong Jewish identity and his son’s
desire to have a bar mitzvah to their positive experiences at Silverlake.

“Without JCCs, there will be a generation lost to their own
Jewish culture and heritage,” he said. “This is what shortsighted [leaders] at
JCCGLA and The Federation miss. You can’t make business-only decisions when it
comes to culture and community.”  

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