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A new home for Israeli-American engagement

The sign on the futuristic white building, located on Winnetka Avenue just north of Pierce College, will welcome visitors to the Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) Shepher Community Center. But the family whose $3.6 million donation made the center possible envisions the site as having an even more profound purpose than simply a place to meet for a book club or take an arts and crafts class.

“This is your home,” businessman and philanthropist Isaac Shepher told the more than 200 people who gathered Jan. 10 in Woodland Hills for the grand opening preview of the Shepher Center. “Our community, our children, our elderly, our moms and dads, young professionals looking for engagement … we all have a home. If you are Israeli American, this is your home. If you are Jewish American, this is your home.”

“We’re going to be doing good things for ourselves, for our children, for our community and for the State of Israel,” added Shepher’s wife, Miri, the IAC Los Angeles council chairwoman. “This is our mission.”

Administrators from the 8-year-old IAC said that prolific growth within their organization and in the national Israeli-American population made it a necessity to establish a community center that could also serve as a hub for agency operations. Established in Los Angeles in 2007, the IAC now operates nine offices throughout the United States, and the agency hopes that similar new community centers will spring up all over the country as well.

The Woodland Hills facility will occupy what had previously been the rehabilitation center for the Crippled Children’s Society, designed in 1979 by renowned architect John Lautner. The building had once been slated for demolition. Instead, beginning this spring, it will fill a distinct social and cultural need, according to Adam Milstein, IAC national chairman. 

“We have recognized that there are 1 million people [in the United States] who have an Israeli-American identity, who want to have an active part of our movement,” Milstein said. “We feel we are the bridge between American and Israeli people.”

Currently, the unusual Space Age-looking building with a pie slice-shaped floor plan features a series of rooms, including a stage. Before long, officials expect the Shepher Community Center to provide a range of offerings — from dance classes and Hebrew-language films to mother-and-baby classes and senior citizen activity groups. There’s also the promise of exhibitions that focus on Israeli-American life, culture and history, as well as recreational facilities that include a gym and a basketball court. 

In addition to running the existing 11,000-square-foot building formerly owned by the nonprofit AbilityFirst, the IAC will build an additional 30,000 square feet of office space, which is slated to be completed in two years. The new building will house the IAC headquarters and space will be available to rent by partnering nonprofits that promote Israeli and Jewish values, according to IAC leaders. 

IAC administrators envision the center as a place for the next generation of Israeli-American and Jewish leaders to continue to learn about and promote diplomacy and pro-Israel advocacy. 

“We’re going to try to encourage activism,” said Naty Saidoff, an IAC national board member. “For something bad to happen, all you need is a bunch of good people not to take action. Apathy is the enemy, and so we all have to get engaged.”

IAC administrators say the Shepher Center steps into the breach left by the closing of numerous area JCCs and similar facilities throughout the city over the years. (In the San Fernando Valley, it will join the Valley Jewish Community Center, also located in Woodland Hills.) Programming will be based to some extent on community need, said Erez Goldman, IAC regional director. 

“I have already been approached by people who served with the Israeli veterans who have said, ‘Let’s start a group,’ ” Goldman said. “The IAC’s national offices are running engagement programs where we say to the community, ‘Tell us what you need and we’re at your service. We’ll give you the house and we can host whatever the community needs.’ ”

The grand preview opening drew IAC supporters as well as city and state legislators who presented the IAC with certificates and commendations. IAC honored Naty Saidoff and wife Debbie, who — along with the Shephers — led the capital campaign to acquire the property from the Crippled Children’s Society, which changed its name to AbilityFirst in 2004.

L.A. City Councilman Bob Blumenfield, whose District 3 includes the west San Fernando Valley, said he expects the Shepher Center to greatly enhance the community. 

“It’s wonderfully important, not only because this is my council district, but also because it is a center for the Jewish community and for the Israeli-American community, and we haven’t had that for a very long time,” said Blumenfield, who worked with the IAC and the city to help move the project forward.

“This is going to be a place that will enliven the community, and I think will create stronger bonds within the Israeli-American community and in the larger Jewish community,” the councilman added. “So I’m just ecstatic that this is happening.”

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