January 19, 2020

JFS expands its own heart in the heart of L.A.

Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) is in the midst of what leadership is describing as a “new era,” a $36 million capital campaign that will result in the renovation of its Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center and the relocation of its headquarters there.

JFS plans to take the senior-focused site just north of the bustling intersection of Fairfax Avenue and Beverly Boulevard and more than double the facility’s size to 28,000 square feet, transforming it into the state-of-the-art JFS Lois and Richard Gunther Center deep in the heart of Jewish Los Angeles. 

The lead gift for the campaign came from the local philanthropic couple after whom the new facility will be named. Lois Gunther previously served as JFS board president and is a longtime supporter; her husband is a board member of Americans for Peace Now and New Israel Fund.

“We can’t imagine a more worthwhile organization to support,” said Richard, 90, during a phone interview from the couple’s second home in Santa Barbara. “When we look at this contribution and its historic contribution to the city, we figure this is an important place.”

The Gunthers, who have been married for 67 years and are members of Leo Baeck Temple, declined to disclose how much they donated but said that their gift prompted JFS to begin the campaign. 

“They would not have endeavored to do this without our initial gift, and we gave it with that purpose in mind,” said Lois, 87.

Initially, Lois said, the plan was to purchase a new space as opposed to renovating the Fairfax site, but the decision to renovate instead turned out to be the best move for the organization.

“They thought they were going to buy a building and remodel it. That took a year to decide that it’s not going to work, and now we feel we’re doing exactly the right thing,” she said. “Everyone is enthusiastic. First of all, the building on Fairfax is the right place for Jewish Family Service to be in the city. We’re really recognized there — it’s going to fulfill the needs, and we are going to improve something that has been part of our agency for a long time.”

JFS has raised or secured pledges for just under half of its $36 million target, according to spokesperson David Gershwin.

The nonprofit’s CEO, Paul Castro, expects the renovation to begin in February and last 18 to 24 months, with architect Jay Vanos of Vanos Architects at the helm.

The Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center, built in 1983, offers transportation for JFS clients, home-delivered meals, health care services and more. The center also houses the Eichenbaum Fitness Center, which holds group exercise classes, as well as the Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen, a place for seniors to dine together and socialize. It was named after the agency’s first executive director. Mohr was hired in 1932 and held the position for 34 years. Mohr led the agency into the fields of mental health and older-adult services, the primary recipients of JFS offerings. The organization also serves Holocaust survivors.

The Gunther Center will have many advantages, according to Castro. For one, it will bring together the JFS staff and volunteers from various facilities under one roof. That will include those who currently work out of the organization’s rented headquarters in Koreatown on Wilshire Boulevard.

This will make it easier for visitors to meet with social workers, Castro said, highlighting one of the many reasons he is excited about the change.

“So, this is going to be our anchor place, where we will put down roots. We will be there for generations or more,” he said. “This is a really exciting time for us; this is something we had hoped for, and through the generosity of the Gunthers and others who have stepped forward as a result of this campaign beginning, we’re looking at the realization of this in the next couple of years.” 

The Jewish flavor of the neighborhood — the Freda Mohr building is located at 330 N. Fairfax Ave., near a variety of synagogues, kosher eateries and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust — is part of the appeal of transforming the Fairfax site into an official headquarters, according to Gershwin.

“The JFS building itself is home right in the heart of the Jewish community, Fairfax and Beverly,” Gershwin said in a phone interview. “This represents a new era for JFS, one of the most widely recognized and most philanthropic organizations in Los Angeles here for 160 years … to have a distinct one-stop shop, a readily identifiable home, in the epicenter of the Los Angeles Jewish community, even though we do serve a wider population. 

“It’s a new era for JFS, and it’s going to be better for the agency and it’s going to be better for JFS clients and a beacon of hope for families in need.”

Castro spotlighted plans to construct a three-level underground parking structure, which he said would be available to neighboring operations during the evenings. The site will also house multiple meeting centers that JFS hopes other organizations will use. The second and third floors of the three-story building will feature outdoor terraces, and the building’s aesthetic, based on an illustration provided to the Journal, also includes strong vertical elements and an overhang.

Ultimately, Castro said, the goal is to draw on the Jewish concept of welcoming strangers into one’s home. 

“The idea is to create an atmosphere where visiting people feel that it’s warm, where seniors can come in and wander around,” Castro said. “We will have meeting spaces on all three levels, used by clients and staff, and we want to create a hub of activity and a sense of ownership by all who are coming in to use it.

“Because it’s a community building, we want it not to feel like an office but really to create a feeling that we are part of that neighborhood, part of that community and that everyone who comes in is welcome.”