Silverlake JCC to Fete Bishop Bruno

Every Friday morning, the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center’s preschoolers, along with their parents and teachers, celebrate Shabbat. This Friday morning, the SIJCC is set to honor its most generous — and probably most unexpected — benefactor, the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles, J. Jon Bruno. In recognition of his two remarkably generous acts that helped save and strengthen the center, the SIJCC will officially rename a prominent space on the building’s upper floor the J. Jon Bruno Community Room.

Bruno first came to the rescue in 2005 when, after a few tumultuous years, the SIJCC faced imminent closure. The Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles was ready to sell the SIJCC leadership the 50-year-old building for $2.1 million but hadn’t been able to raise enough for the down payment.

Using $335,000 from his discretionary fund,  Bruno partnered with the community and became a co-owner of the SIJCC. The Episcopal Diocese owned 49 percent of the building, which left the Silverlake community in charge of its operation and allowed the center to continue serving the approximately 50 toddlers enrolled in its early childhood education program.

Keeping that program running was the bishop’s priority. “He was — and I presume still is — a firm believer in faith-based education, and he didn’t particularly care what faith it was,” said Janie Schulman, who was president of the SIJCC board at the time. “He said he didn’t want to see a good faith-based educational program harmed or die off.”

Fast forward to late 2009: Preschool enrollment was at an all-time high of 100 children, and the SIJCC had just launched the Jewish Learning Center, a cultural Jewish education program for older students, with 30 families participating. “We thought maybe we’d get 10,” said Jenny Gomez, the current SIJCC board president.

With the building bursting at the seams, the community interested in expanding its programmatic offerings and the original mortgage about to mature, Gomez phoned the bishop. “I said, ‘What’s going on? What’s the story? Do you guys want to have classes here? What’s going on with the future of our relationship?’ ”

“The diocese had all kinds of rights and privileges through their 49 percent ownership of the building that they were never exercising,” explained the SIJCC Board’s treasurer, Mike Abrams. “We were co-owners of the building, and nobody was acting like it.”

For the bishop, that was a conscious decision. “Bishop Bruno is very respectful of the ongoing services provided by the Silverlake JCC,” said the diocese’s Canon for Community Relations Robert Williams. “He did not want to impose in any way on the ongoing programs. He just found that he could be a good neighbor and wanted to do so.”

The bishop’s terrifically charitable act was inspired by Hands in Healing, an ongoing “humanitarian teaching initiative led by Bishop Bruno and the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles,” Canon Williams said. One of the initiative’s aims is “building cooperation among the historic Abrahamic faiths.”

But what happened next went beyond any usual definition of neighborliness or interfaith cooperation. In that same telephone conversation, Bruno told Gomez that the diocese would be happy to sell back its share of the building to the JCC — with no interest. “I was flabbergasted,” Gomez recalled, “because that’s just an amazing gift to give us.”

When the diocese made the offer official in February, the SIJCC board unanimously voted to proceed with the buyout, even though they were “not exactly sure how that would happen,” Abrams said.

“We were being offered an amazing opportunity,” he said, but they didn’t have an extra $335,000 lying around. Still, the SIJCC was able to quickly buy back the bishop’s share without doing any fundraising by “taking some money out of the reserves” and adding “a couple hundred thousand dollars” to its new mortgage.

This was possible, Abrams said, because the building is worth “over $4 million” today. “It’s a combination of the building having gone up in value and of us having gotten a sweetheart deal when we originally bought the building,” said Abrams, who will succeed Gomez as the SIJCC board president in September. “The building didn’t double in value over five years.”

Abrams’ pointing out Federation’s generosity to the Silverlake community shows just how far the SIJCC has come in the last five years. All parties — the SIJCC, the JCC Development Corp. and Federation — want to put the public disagreement of five years ago behind them. And as of June 1, the SIJCC is once again affiliated with the JCC Association, whose Vice President of Community Services Janet S. Elam said she was “enthusiastic” about their working together.

The story of the SIJCC and Bishop Bruno feels made for Hollywood, even down to its details. The bishop — who played basketball in the gym as a youth, whose diocese once owned half the building and whose name will remain attached to the institution’s central communal space — has one more connection to the SIJCC. His grandson, Evan Bruno, started as a student there in January. (Both of Evan’s parents are Jewish; the bishop’s son converted a few years ago.)

“The only thing we don’t have to make a great movie is that we don’t have a villain,” said Abrams, a talent agent who knows a good story when he hears one.

Your Letters

Silverlake JCC

I always assumed that a healthy part of our donations to TheFederation went to support our local JCCs and support Jewish education(“Members Rally to Save Centers,” March 26).

Now The Federation’s commitment seems to be to building someflashy building in an area with competing programs already offered by megashulsand abandoning core known provable assets in an area with few alternatives.Without the “kid” all would be lost. Without the Silverlake JCC much of theJewish youth on the Eastside will have no exposure to Jewish culture and belost. Now is the time to negotiate so the Silverlake Independent JCC cancontinue to offer its many programs and expand in a community that has shownits support for it. I urge whoever is responsible within The Federation andJCCGLA to sit and talk with the community now instead of destroying thebuilding so a developer could build a strip mall.

Jeff Rosen, Silverlake

I am writing as a long time participant in JCC activitiesand a deeply concerned grandparent to urge you to do whatever is necessary tokeep the Silverlake Independent JCC alive as the vibrant, necessary center itis — in its present building.

I teach an undergraduate course in ethics at the UCLA Schoolof Engineering and Applied Science. One of the strong points I make is thatsometimes ethics simply trumps economics. This is one of those times. Evictingthese parents and children from their center to make up for past mistakes ofothers is an unethical and un-Jewish response.

If the Silverlake Independent JCC is closed and its schooland other worthwhile activities disbanded, which they undoubtedly will be, thiswill indeed be a black day in the history of Jewish affairs in Los Angeles. Atrue shanda.

Gershon Weltman, Sherman Oaks

Missing Mojo

Teresa Strasser missing her mojo? (“Missing: My Mojo,” March19).

Pullleeezzze! That strikes me about as sincere as RodStewart singing “Some Guys Have All The Luck.” Teresa, let me see if Iunderstand this correctly (since I have read numerous articles of yourslamenting that guys don’t call you back, you stay home alone a lot, etc).

You are great looking, sexy, smart, funny, “hip” andcharismatic. (I stopped watching “While You Were Out” once you were out.) Youare the poster child for what every single, bachelor guy out there is hoping tofind (Jews and non-Jews alike). Austin Powers I can buy losing his mojo, butyou? No way!

So come on. It is OK to write about all the guys that thinkyou are great, awesome, a goddess etc. … and would call you back!

Dan Rosman, Redondo Beach

Bush or Kerry?

I read with interest Joel Kotkin’s “Bush or Kerry?” piece(March 26). In it Kotkin alleged that Teresa Heinz Kerry had supported theTides Foundation which in turn had supported causes Kotkin alleged were “jihadists.”This assertion is flagrantly untrue and to my mind is evidence of true malicetoward Kerry. The Howard Heinz Endowment, which she chairs, gives grants to thebenefit of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Likewise, the Vira I. HeinzEndowment, where she serves as a director, gives almost all of its support tobenefit the Pittsburgh region.

To ensure that the Heinz philanthropic interest inPennsylvania was respected, Heinz and many other Pittsburgh foundationsinsisted that Tides [Center] create a separate Pennsylvania subsidiary. All ofthe Heinz money goes to this subsidiary and the funds may only be used inPennsylvania. None of the causes Mr. Kotkin cited receive any money from theTides Center of Pennsylvania, nor do they receive a nickel from the HeinzEndowments.

Kotkin is entitled to his own opinion, but not his ownfacts. Teresa Heinz Kerry’s strong support for the state of Israel is awell-known fact.

Andrew McElwaine, President Pennsylvania EnvironmentalCouncil Pittsburgh

I was appalled not so much by what Joel Kotkin said, butwhat he left out in his “Bush or Kerry?” piece (March 26). Whether or not youagree that John Kerry’s “wobbliness” on the war against terror is cause forconcern — and I don’t — Kotkin fails to give any attention Bush’s actions — orI should say, overreactions — since Sept. 11, which to me seem far morealarming.

What about this administration’s rush to war against Iraq onthe pretext that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which all evidence nowshows were nonexistent? What about the testimony this week from Bush’s formercounter-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, that Bush & Co. largely ignoredthe threat from Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks?

I too love Israel, but I don’t understand why we have tothrow all morality aside on the world stage in our eagerness to support ourgovernment’s rush to war based on a completely phony pretext — all because wethink it’s good for Israel. I’d prefer a bit of wobbling from my candidate tothe outright lies that have been put forth by this administration under theguise of fighting terrorism and avenging Sept. 11.

Ruth Stroud, Redondo Beach

Members Rally to Save Centers

In a forceful display of support for the beleaguered Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (JCC), an estimated 150 preschoolers, teachers and parents rallied March 23 in front of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to protest the possible closure of their thriving JCC.

Protestors, many clad in orange T-shirts stamped with the word "Shalom," cheered speakers who alternately pled for the center’s survival and criticized The Federation and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) for failing to do more to save it. Holding placards that read "Save Our Center," and "They Don’t Sing Shabbat Songs at Strip Malls," JCC members chanted, "Let my people stay!" Passing cars honked in support.

"If we don’t speak now, we’ll be gone," said Nelson Handel, a 44-year-old freelance journalist who attended the march with his 3-year-old son, Charlie. "We’ve become a real estate Ping-Pong ball. When [The Federation and JCCGLA] look at our building, they see dollar signs, not the faces of our children."

The clock is ticking.

JCCGLA has received several offers of $2.4 million or more for the Silverlake property, organization President Randy Myer said. Silverlake supporters, whose $1.8 million bid JCCGLA recently rejected, have until March 26 to submit another offer.

Some JCCGLA board members have said they would accept $2.1 to save the center. However, if the JCC eventually went under, JCCGLA would want any profits from the sale of the property, JCCGLA executives said.

The two-hour rally at The Federation came less than a week after an emergency meeting at the Valley Cities JCC, which is scheduled to shut down in late June. JCCGLA, which owns Silverlake and Valley Cities, said it must sell the JCCs to pay off its debts, including $2.2 million to The Federation, $450,000 to banks and $1 million to a special agency fund it tapped during the systemwide crisis two and a half years ago.

Critics blame JCCGLA for financial mismanagement and the declining health of the city’s community centers. They are equally upset with The Federation for failing to forgive JCCGLA’s debts and deeding the properties to JCC supporters.

Federation Chair Harriet Hochman said The Federation could do only so much given the demand on its resources.

"We’ve got people living below the poverty line, people not getting the proper food," she said. "We are up to our necks in needy Jews here. They’re our first responsibility."

She said The Federation has discussed forgiving a portion of JCCGLA’s debt so that the group will have resources to support the operations that remain under its control. However, Hochman said she expected JCCGLA to sell both Silverlake and Valley Cities because of that agency’s shaky financial condition.

In related news, JCCGLA directors voted March 23 to create separate, independent boards for the Westside JCC, the Zimmer Children’s Museum and the Shalom Institute. The future of the Conejo Valley JCC is still under discussion with center leaders.

Silverlake members said they feel especially frustrated because their center has grown enrollment and makes a small surplus, despite receiving no Federation funding. By contrast, The Federation gave the West Valley JCC $1.3 million last year. That center is located on Federation’s Milken campus in West Hills.

The demonstration at 6505 Wilshire marks a shift in tactics by Silverlake leaders from behind-the-scenes accommodation to in-your-face confrontation. They recently ran a full-page ad in this paper asking The Federation and JCCGLA to work with them to save the center.

"Mommy and Daddy say you are fighting about money," a caption beneath a picture of a little girl read. "When we disagree at school, we use our words and talk about it. Why can’t you?"

Federation President John Fishel said he doubted the Tuesday morning demonstration would be the "silver bullet" that would help the Silverlake group buy the property or continue offering services there. JCCGLA President Myer echoed Fishel’s sentiments.

"I don’t think it helps the board to feel warm and fuzzy toward that community when we’re being accused on all sorts of negativity," she said, adding that JCCGLA directors wouldn’t allow emotions to color any decisions.

Neither Fishel nor JCCGLA officials accepted invitations to address marchers.

Valley Cities supporters gathered March 17 to buoy their spirits and come up with ideas to save the money-losing center, which is scheduled to shut down June 30. Children spoke of the JCC’s importance, center veterans spoke about its history and Valley Cities officials assessed blame and offered a mixed picture of the center’s prospects.

"The JCC is kind of like my second home," said 12-year-old Jeffrey Bejian, who attends Valley Cities along with his two sisters. "If it closed, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d lose [almost] every single one of my friends."

The gathering had been billed as an emergency town hall meeting to demonstrate the community’s support for Valley Cities. A large banner hanging from the JCC read, "Our Community Center Is Not for Sale." Envelopes soliciting donations to buy the center blanketed every chair in the cavernous auditorium.

In a potentially ominous sign, only about 150 people showed up to the event. That compared to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 who turned out 2 1/2 years ago when JCCGLA first threatened to shutter the JCC amid its crisis. JCCGLA later rescinded the threat after coming under intense pressure.

Valley Cities leaders have asked JCCGLA for an extension to give them time to raise money to purchase the JCC, and, in the meantime, continue to operate the center. Center supporters received a dose of bad news recently when JCCGLA’s real estate appraiser valued the property between $3.2 million and $4 million, well above the $2.5 million estimate. That higher price tag makes it that much more difficult to raise money to buy the center.

Also, JCCGLA’s continued ownership might scare away potential contributors, said Miry Rabinovitch, a former Valley Cities board member whose three children attended the JCC. She said JCCGLA’s inability to right its finances since the last crisis made her and others reluctant to donate money, lest JCCGLA waste it.

"I refuse to give anything, much as I’d like to," she said.

Former Valley Cities President Tom Herman thinks both JCCGLA and The Federation bear equal responsibility for the center’s plight. In his opinion, the organizations have long favored two "super centers" on the Westside and West Valley rather than several smaller and older ones.

Federation President Fishel disputed that characterization. As a reflection of The Federation’s support for area JCCs, he said his group allocated $220,000 late last year for Valley Cities. At the time, he added, The Federation was not aware of the depth of the center’s financial problems.

Fishel said The Federation would not single-handedly prop up the center, although it would work with Valley Cities’ leadership to come up with a plan to save it or provide like services elsewhere.

JCCGLA, like The Federation, has allocated thousands of dollars to troubled Valley Cities over the past year. In 2003, the agency earmarked $300,000 to fund operations, cover the deficit and for such capital improvements as repainting the JCCs auditorium and replacing its 400 chairs. Lieberman Giladi said JCCGLA had not made a mistake by pouring money into Valley Cities, even though board members have worried about its financial stability since last spring.

"I absolutely believe they should have been given an opportunity to give it a go," she said. "You have to take that risk to see if they had the chance at viability."

Michael Brezner, Valley Cities board president, thought supporters might yet keep the JCC open. Still, he admitted it won’t be easy.

"In any business, you need money in the bank to operate, and Valley Cities doesn’t have any money in the bank," he said. "JCCGLA was the bank."