If anyone doubts the popularity of the new Fern Milken Sports & Youth Complex at the West Valley Jewish Community Center, just show up on any given weekday. The center, which used to attract primarily seniors, is now a hangout for youth of all ages, especially those with a love of shooting hoop.
It is a sight Eli Sherman, health and physical education director for the West Valley JCC, had dreamed of for years. He said the $4.5-million facility has increased participation in all areas, especially basketball. The 12,000-square foot auditorium is the setting for not only camp but ongoing classes, adult and youth leagues and open play times throughout the year. The Rita Room multipurpose room has given the center space to offer classes in fencing and table tennis. The interior lobby of the gleaming facility is home to the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame with tributes to Jewish athletes, coaches and sports writers. Although not new, the pool and fitness areas continue to attract a daily round of regulars, mostly older adults, while high school students enjoy playing air hockey in the new teen lounge.
"We now have something for everybody," Sherman said. "For a long time the center had the reputation of attracting either the very young or the older population. What has been missing is the young adults and the young families which are now coming in much greater numbers because of the variety programs we're able to offer. It's very exciting for us because the young families represent the future of the Jewish Community Centers in Los Angeles."
According to West Valley JCC officials, the community center has experienced a 28 percent increase in the number of "member units" or paying members since the Sports & Youth Complex opened in December. Currently about 1,500 adults pay the additional fees on top of their JCC membership to belong to the Fitness Center; an estimated 200 children are signed up to take classes and participate in camping programs this summer.
The expansion of the JCC's summer program is one of the biggest changes brought about by the new facility. This year the WVJCC will launch an ambitious program of specialty sports camps in five categories: basketball, gymnastics, soccer, tennis and dance. The dance camp will be taught by Laker girl Hope Wood and the basketball camp by former Harlem Globetrotter Sterling "Smooth" Forbes and Kelvin "Special K" Hildreth.
Another area the center staff hopes to promote with the new space is gymnastics. The WVJCC recently received a $25,000 grant from the Amateur Athletic Foundation - the folks behind the Olympics - to purchase equipment. Sherman said he has already hired three gymnastic instructors and on Sunday, July 9, at 10 a.m. the center will host a gymnastics demonstration to showcase the new equipment which includes balance beams, tumbling mats and uneven parallel bars.
As participation in the center continues to grow, so does the need for services. Additional adult classes being offered this summer for the first time include Israeli folk dancing and Krav Maga. Center officials also plan to offer babysitting services for infants and children up to age 3, so parents of young children can swim or participate in classes and league activities. "We are able to offer a lot of new activities, a lot of nice things that could never have been possible without the new Fern Milken Sports & Youth Center," Sherman said.
Sherman should know - he has been with the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles for 45 years. Some of the kids he coached on his first job at the Westside JCC are now middle-aged men with children of their own. He has seen many changes over the years in the Jewish community's attitude toward fitness, the most dramatic concerning women and sports. As Sherman recalls, in the 1950s girls might participate in one of the popular swimming programs at the "J" or take gymnastics, but never team sports."The girls back then were the cheerleaders," he said. "Now as many girls as boys participate in sports. It's partly a change in attitude, but I think it's mostly because of television. Unless you've been living in a cave for the past four decades, it's hard not to be affected by the marketing push to get sports into everybody's life."
Sherman said that talking about a sports hero in years past was like discussing "some biblical figure as far removed as Samson from real life."
"Now every kid can talk about Kobe Bryant or the women of the WNBA," he said.Although pleased with the new facility, Sherman said he wishes the center had the space to match some of the more impressive Jewish community centers in other parts of the country, such as the one in Cleveland that boasts running tracks, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and baseball fields."Sadly, in Los Angeles, where we have the second largest Jewish community in the nation, we have never come near having the recreational facilities like you have back East or in the Midwest," Sherman laments. "Plus in L.A. there's a bank, a gas station and a fitness center on every corner, so we are in constant competition with the commercial clubs."
The WVJCC is a part of the Bernard Milken Community Campus in West Hills, which also houses the Jewish Federation/ Valley Alliance. The new Sports & Youth Center was a collaboration of the two entities, which joined forces to raise the money necessary to finish the project, although fundraising will continue, according to Rhonda Wilkens, director of the West Valley JCC.
"We are continuing the campaign as an endowment fund so that any time the center needs something, the money is there," Wilkens said, adding that building maintenance is a high priority. "We want the center to continue to look and feel as beautiful, with state-of-the-art equipment, 20 years from now as it does today."