September 18, 2019

The ‘heart and soul’ of Silver Lake JCC moves on

Dozens of families packed the courtyard of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC) on the morning of June 5, to give the center’s co-executive director, Ruthie Shavit, a celebratory farewell after 28 years as director and 43 years on staff. Some of her former preschool students, now teens or even older, came with their parents to join in the Shabbat songs they’d sung as toddlers and to thank Shavit for her role in saving the center from near-closure a dozen years ago.

“Ruthie’s the heart and soul and spirit of the JCC,” said Mike Abrams, a former preschool parent and former board president. “This is a community that’s growing and thriving and morphing into something really special, and there wouldn’t have been a community to grow and thrive without Ruthie.”

Shavit, 68, wearing a stylish, Asian-inspired outfit (she’s regularly praised for her fashion sense), led the crowd in song and prayer, accompanied by a band of about 15 parents playing guitars, trumpets and other instruments behind her. One teacher, Cheryl Williams, fought tears as she sang “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” causing a few parents to get choked up.

“We came to the Jewish community center with a bunch of other misfits from the neighborhood who couldn’t get onto waitlists in time for other things,” said Curt Anderson, whose daughter Zola attended preschool there 15 years ago. “They took us in, and we formed this wonderful community here with Ruthie leading the way.” 

Parents praised Shavit’s outspokenness, her no-nonsense Israeli toughness and her ability to discipline misbehaving students without upsetting parents.

“What you see is what you get. She’s fierce, she’s opinionated, she’s funny, and this place has her personality stamped on it,” said Barry Isaacson, another parent.

The SIJCC was built in 1951 as the Hollywood/Los Feliz JCC, and was owned by the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). But in 2001, as the JCCGLA struggled with financial mismanagement and debt, it threatened to cut off funding to the center, as well as other JCCs locally. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles held a $550,000 lien on the Silver Lake property.

Tanya Peacock, a former board member, had a 2-year-old son at the JCC when it was threatened with closure. Wearing bright orange T-shirts, she and a handful of other parents staged protests in front of Federation’s offices on Wilshire Boulevard.

“We said, ‘Absolutely not. This is our center. We’re going to get together and figure out how to make it work.’ And we did,” Peacock said.

Ruthie Shavit (center), the SIJCC’s outgoing director, and Lihi Shadmi, the center’s assistant preschool director, lead the crowd in Shabbat prayers and children’s songs. 

The savior of the Jewish preschool came in the form of an unlikely benefactor: Bishop J. Jon Bruno, head of Los Angeles’ Episcopal Diocese. In his youth, Bruno had played basketball at the center’s gym. Under his leadership, the diocese joined with the Jewish community group operating the center to purchase the property for $2.1 million, and a loan from Far East National Bank made the deal possible. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who represented the district as city councilman at the time and had attended the JCC as a child, helped facilitate the negotiations. The diocese got a 49 percent ownership stake in exchange for being able to conduct its own services and other programs there, and the JCC supporters got 51 percent. Federation, long criticized for refusing to forgive the debt the JCC had inherited from JCCGLA, offered no financial support. Thus, the newly independent Silver Lake center was born.

“It was quite a community-building experience, because we’d have bottles of wine, and we’d sit around and argue, ‘What do we need to do?’ But miraculously it all came together,” Peacock said. “The teachers stayed with us, and I think that’s really a testament to Ruthie.”

Peacock also praised Shavit’s personal style. She remembered how, one time, Shavit handed Peacock a jacket and told her to keep it. She still wears it.

“She’s so beautiful and so stylish and always looks amazing. You would never think a director of a preschool would be such a fashion plate,” Peacock said.

Shavit had loved reading fashion magazines as a child on a kibbutz in Israel. But because all the clothes there were shared communally, she didn’t get to choose what she wore. “I thought that was really cruel and unusual punishment,” she said, laughing. “So I was very happy to come to America, to be able to wear these gorgeous clothes I saw in the magazines.”

Born in 1946 on Kibbutz Hefzi-ba in the Jezreel Valley of northern Israel, Shavit arrived in the U.S. in 1970 with her husband, Jacob, to attend the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University). She studied Jewish history, even though she hadn’t had much exposure to religious life. “I’d never been to a synagogue in my life until I came to the United States,” she said.

Shavit joined the JCC preschool teaching staff in 1972. In 1987, she became the preschool director for the center. In 2002, she rose to become director of the SIJCC and helped form its board, leading the purchase of the center’s property in 2005. Preschool classes have essentially doubled under Shavit’s leadership and are now at capacity, with 110 students.

Former SIJCC board member and preschool parent Sarah Finn joked that her job as a Hollywood casting director isn’t so different from Shavit’s role at the center. “It’s all about bringing the right people together. I do it in the movies; Ruthie does it in real life,” Finn said.

With Shavit’s departure, current co-executive director Ayana Morse will take over as head of the SIJCC, and Elizabeth Schwandt has been hired as the preschool director. The center’s programming has expanded significantly beyond the preschool. It now houses the Jewish Learning Center, a Hebrew school with 90 families that teaches children until their bar or bat mitzvah; East Side Jews, an irreverent, nondenominational social community; Culture Lab, a project that gathers artists to create work around Jewish-related themes; and other cultural and educational activities. Morse said there are ambitious plans for the center’s physical upgrade and expansion, but that replacing Shavit would be impossible.

“She is in the center. She is in the walls; she is in the bricks. It’s her place. So I think, hopefully, we can retain that. And no one will replace her. She is such a unique spirit,” Morse said.

As for Shavit’s future plans, she is simply looking forward to retirement.

“I’ll go to yoga every day,” Shavit said, “and I’ll go to tai chi. In tai chi you learn to let go and move on.”

Shavit’s not worried about the future of the SIJCC without her.

“My experience as a teacher here taught me that this is a very organic place. It’s a river. And, you know, a river knows how to flow.”