January 16, 2019

Growing Apart

A rift between the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) and its primary benefactor, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, over the direction of Los Angeles’ JCCs has prompted JCCGLA to sever its ties with The Federation.

Each party claims that the other has not fulfilled obligations agreed upon earlier. The conflict, which may be headed for arbitration, has both pitted the organizations against each other and created dissension within the JCCGLA system. Although it is subject to debate as to which organization is at fault, the clear loser in the matter appears to be members and parents who rely on JCCs and their services, as three centers have been slated for closure come July.

JCCGLA reacted to The Federation’s retraction of a budget allocation by announcing that it will downsize, and close three centers — Silver Lake-Los Feliz, Bay Cities in Santa Monica and North Valley in Granada Hills — come June 30, in order to sell off the properties, repay a Federation loan and absolve itself financially from its primary financial provider. By mid-April, JCCGLA plans to move its offices out of The Federation’s headquarters and into Valley Cities JCC in Van Nuys. JCCGLA also informed West Valley Jewish Community Center that it will terminate gym programs on May 1. The agency will continue its early childhood education and day-care services at all JCCs as planned through June 30, and will maintain its commitment to JCCGLA entities, such as the Zimmer Children’s Museum, Shalom Institute and Conejo Valley JCC.

JCCGLA’s decision came in the aftermath of The Federation’s move to block JCCGLA’s March allocation, part of an overall $508,000 reserved by The Federation for JCCGLA.

JCCGLA believes that The Federation has begun to retract its 2002 $508,000 JCCGLA allocation, which would leave the agency with an overall operating budget of $329,415 for the year (excluding a one-time $901,000 emergency grant approved late last year). The Federation contends that the $508,000 remains earmarked for JCCGLA, although the March portion was withheld pending JCCGLA’s submission of the appropriate paperwork, which the outreach organization said that JCCGLA has failed to provide.

The JCCGLA accuses The Federation of purposefully complicating the allocation request process, of breaking financial commitments and expressing an overeager desire to recoup on millions in JCCGLA bail-out loans. The Federation, according to JCCGLA, has increasingly become a hindrance — rather than a supportive partner — in helping the agency overcome ruin and chart a feasible future.

There is yet another side to the story — the individual JCCs themselves. Board members at various sites have become frustrated with the executive decisions and bureaucracy exercised by their central overseer, JCCGLA. Centers such as West Valley and Silver Lake-Los Feliz are eager to pursue autonomy.

The chasm between JCCGLA and The Federation intensified following a March 6 letter, in which Federation Chairman Jake Farber notified JCCGLA about The Federation’s allocation adjustment. The action stunned JCCGLA executives, who claim that they were already promised the full allocation by Federation President John Fishel. JCCGLA President Marty Jannol and JCCGLA Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi sent an emotionally charged letter on March 15 to the Federation’s board of directors accusing them of forcing JCCGLA’s demise.

"This creates a local tragedy and a scandal of national import," wrote the JCCGLA executives, concluding: "What the Federation has said belies its actions. We were wrong to believe that we had a partner interested in rebuilding JCCs for the future of Jewish Los Angeles, and it was our mistake to consistently convey that to our constituency. Your letter speaks loudly and clearly: If JCCs are to have a future in Los Angeles, it will be without this Jewish Federation."

Fishel said JCCGLA is trying to scapegoat the Federation for its own failings. "This is a way to crank people up and raise anger." Fishel contended that his board never disguised the fact that all JCCGLA allocation requests were subject to certain criteria based on fiscal responsibility and effective short-term and long-term business plans.

JCCGLA executives say they feel betrayed by The Federation. They insist that, despite limited resources, their agency has been staying on budget, ahead on cash flow, and is slowly reversing its dire financial straits.

"A lot of people have been working tirelessly around the clock in good faith to keep the JCCs open," Lieberman Giladi told The Journal.

"We believed that their role was to raise funds for agencies and we realized that’s not their interest," said Randy Myer, vice president of the JCCGLA board.

The Federation has been working closely and prudently to meet JCCGLA needs, according to Fishel, who characterized the past two weeks as a breakdown in communications where JCCGLA has failed to respond to The Federation’s financial inquiries.

Lieberman Giladi disputed that claim.

"Our books are open," she said. "Business plans of five centers in minute detail are available if anyone wants to look at it."

"There really is an insensitivity to the fact that we don’t have a lot of resources to get caught up in a funding process that’s Byzantine," said JCCGLA’s Marvin Gelfand, a former Federation board member.

The Federation has a different view of the situation. Fishel believed that JCCGLA has been dogged by a long history of financial problems, which came to a head in October when JCCGLA turned to The Federation for a multimillion-dollar bailout.

"The problem is [that increasing allocations] doesn’t solve the problem," Fishel said. "It has to move forward."

He added that JCCGLA does not seem capable of overcoming problems that are systemic, such as returning a citywide JCC membership of 2,200 to its once robust 10,000 member body.

"I think they’ve done a commendable job," Fishel said of Lieberman Giladi and Jannol, both of whom inherited years of mismanagement when they arrived at their posts last year. "But the situation is overwhelming. It’s sad because I don’t think they have the wherewithal to sustain themselves. They never have."

Anticipating a JCCGLA meltdown, Fishel said "we are prepared to talk to individual branches [and enter into] creative collaborative partnerships."

However, Fishel said he has had conversations with individual JCCs, such as West Valley. JCCGLA officials believe those conversations include offers of fiduciary support — money that Jannol and Lieberman Giladi feel should go to JCCGLA’s operating budget.

"The Federation is interested in the JCCs, not JCCGLA," Lieberman Giladi said. "John Fishel has decided to go into direct competition with one of his beneficiary agencies."

At a March 18 Federation board meeting, Federation board member Ron Leibow proposed that both organizations resolve their differences via mediated discussion. The Federation board passed a resolution to keep talks alive. Lieberman Giladi told The Journal that JCCGLA is open to the proposal.

Fallout from the dispute between The Federation and JCCGLA has already produced repercussions. When JCCGLA decided to close down West Valley JCC’s gym, the center’s board held a March 17 emergency meeting and decided to form a separate 501(C)(3) nonprofit and split from JCCGLA.

"We’re a fully operational center," said Tsilah Burman, West Valley board president. "Our after-school is almost full. There is so much demand for our health and PE basketball leagues, we opened up on Sunday night. [JCCGLA] wants to close all of that down. It’s a game that’s being played and we’re the pawns."

Her board’s decision, she said, was already set for summer. However, JCCGLA’s actions swayed them to "move sooner rather than later."

"Ever since they’ve centralized," Burman continued, "they’ve been making decisions detrimental to our center. We’ve worked really hard to work at our health and physical education programming, and to have doubt put in people’s minds because of this, it hurts us. We are staying open. We think we can run it more effectively without the overhead, the management and the problems. I think that each center has different needs, and central has not accommodated for that."

Jannol countered, "They think they will be able to operate cheaper and have a better ability to direct their specific needs. The latter may be true, but as for the former, experience in other cities tells us that when the JCCs break up, aggregate expenses go up."

JCCGLA officials insist that their agency has struggled in the face of Federation allocations that have drastically shrunk from year to year. But JCCGLA’s critics believe that the agency’s predicament is its own doing. Betty Rosenthal, the Federation’s budget chair, has been on both sides of the equation. For the past 22 years, she has headed and belonged to various Federation and JCCGLA boards.

"Federation is stuck between a rock and a hard place," Rosenthal said. "I’ve spent 12-and-a-half hours sitting on Super Sunday. I want that money to be used well."

The real problems, she said, arose in recent years when JCCGLA centralized its governing powers.

"We’ve come to the point that centralization is not the answer," said Rosenthal, who added that what she called JCCGLA’s overhead and its encumbering bureaucracy is dragging down Los Angeles’ JCCs. "None of these places need a central. West Valley has had it with this. We can survive as a center, we can grow by ourselves. We want to be our own entity."

"They’re not building new programming, they’re not fundraising. They haven’t raised one cent," continued Rosenthal, echoing Fishel’s sentiments.

This year, The Federation waived its rule regarding primacy — Federation’s prime fundraising season (February-May) — and assisted JCCGLA in a direct-mail campaign, which netted the ailing organization about $80,000.

"In the next two weeks, we’re going to develop an emergency appeal to the community in the area of $4 million," Jannol said.

The Federation and JCCGLA may meet to discuss their issues, but JCCGLA leaders are leery.

"It isn’t about reconciliation as The Federation is putting forth," Jannol said. "And I think that’s the confusion. For us, we have a direction and that’s what we’re going to do. They’re saying we can not survive without Federation funding. That remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: We weren’t surviving with the Federation. If the main funding source is not funding you, you have to look elsewhere."

"This city can survive with individual JCCs," Rosenthal said. "That’s what they did in San Francisco, in Boston. People who want to save the centers must understand that they have to save them individually."

"I wish The Federation good things and I hope they succeed," Jannol said. "There’s plenty of room for both for us. We’re being portrayed as the loser. We want to build ourselves into winners. That’s our plan. We’re going to be a winner agency."