Can one Jewish Community Center (JCC) serve a population as vast as that of the San Fernando Valley?
That is the question facing Jewish communities from Burbank to Calabasas, and so far, the answer is a resounding no -- even from some of the people who launched the idea in the first place.
"I don't think the goal is to have one site for the entire Valley, nor do I think Westside can serve all of the city," said Nina Lieberman-Giladi, executive director of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). "But we can't do a good job [anywhere] until we can do so in [a] fiscally responsible manner."
Granted, the JCC singled out for this honor is not your typical center. Dubbed the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, better known as the West Valley JCC, the facility houses the Ferne Milken Sports and Youth Complex, completed in 1999.
The sports complex includes a teen center (unstaffed because of recent cutbacks), two workout rooms and a 12,000-square-foot auditorium/basketball court. The $4.5 million sports complex was built with separate funds raised by The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance.
The Milken Campus is also home to the offices of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, as well as the Valley offices of the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Family Service and a host of other agencies, thus making it the hub for the organized Jewish community in the Valley.
The idea of one center is supported by some statistics: namely, membership numbers from the centers. The number of household units, which comprises both individual members and family memberships, has declined.
At North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, membership units dropped from 275 to 200. At Valley Cities in Van Nuys, membership dropped from 200 to 170 units. Although the West Valley JCC also experienced a precipitous drop of approximately 500, at 1,000 household units, it still outdistances the other centers.
Yet proponents of keeping the other two Valley centers open argue that there are equally solid reasons why the Milken Campus cannot substitute for locally grown centers.
According to Pini Herman, former Federation planning and allocations research coordinator and currently with Phillips and Herman Demographic Research, a 1997 survey performed for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles revealed that of the 248,000 Jewish families living in the San Fernando Valley area, about half had at least one member who visited or participated in a program at their local Jewish community center in the prior year.
"That's about 120,000 people ... who used the centers. Of course, not everybody uses [the Milken Campus] at the same time, but what if there's a special event? It's an inadequate facility when you're talking about a midsize city showing up for even one day of the year," Herman said.
Herman noted that the San Fernando Valley area also contains more Jews of middle and lower incomes than elsewhere in Los Angeles.
"What we found in the survey is the Valley was the only area where the median income did not increase but remained stagnant or even below every other area of the city of Los Angeles [compared with prior surveys]," he said.
"Jewish community centers provide middle-income families, the predominant families in the Valley, with affordable Jewish services like camp and preschool they may not be able to afford otherwise," Herman said. "That's why the Valley has been disproportionately hit" by the centers' impending closures, he said.
There is also the simple problem of geography. On the best day with no traffic, it takes 20 minutes to get from Van Nuys (home of Valley Cities JCC) to West Hills, where the Milken Campus is located, and 35-40 minutes from the North Valley JCC in Granada Hills.
Even that assumes people are only driving from center to center. It does not take into account the people already commuting to North Valley or Valley Cities from areas like Santa Clarita.
The situation is especially tough on working parents who rely on the JCC for their preschoolers and to provide after-school care for children of all ages.
"I live in Northridge and work in Studio City, yet they want me to take my kids to [school] in Woodland Hills? It just wouldn't work," said Andrea Goodstein, a television news producer and an active North Valley JCC member.
Goodstein is the leader of the movement in the North Valley to retain the site and its services. A mother of two children under the age of 6, she said that the JCC holds a unique position: "Where else would I send my daughter to camp? There are no camps for 2-year-olds."
A Valley Cities parent, Nelly Neben, echoed Goodstein's sentiments: "So many Jews and non-Jews come to the center for after-school care because it is safe and wholesome. The children take on a sense of community and belonging, and there are no other places that provide that. For the growth of the children, they need a place like the center."
Even if the West Valley JCC was conveniently located for the entire Valley, there is the issue of capacity: the preschool is full and the after-school program is close to full, according Ronda Wilkin, outgoing center director.
So what is the solution? According to Marty Jannol, JCCGLA president, the time has come for "thinking outside the box" and looking at alternatives.
"Across the country Jewish community centers have operated from a central location and served the community in 'centers without walls,'" Jannol said. "Who's to say we can't rent space for a preschool and run it so Jewish parents who want to send their children to a Jewish nursery school can do so?
"One of the resistance points in the community is that we're wedded to a way of doing business that may not be effective. It's our desire to provide more programming, not less, but if we've learned anything it's that the community doesn't want to be tied to a facility that is undermanaged and in poor condition," she said.
Jannol also said that in the future, centers will need to take a different approach in order to attract more members.
"For example, Valley Cities is located in a very stable Jewish population," she said. "There are large Israeli and Orthodox communities in the area, and neither are being sufficiently served. If research supported it and if we rebuilt the building on that piece of real estate, we could have a very viable center, a two-story building with perhaps separate facilities for men and women."
Supporters of the two centers facing closure say they will not give up without a fight. North Valley JCC members have formed an advisory board and are discussing their options. Valley Cities' advisory board will hold a fundraiser Jan. 9. Each group hopes for a reprieve similar to that granted the Westside JCC.
Richard Rosett, a past president of the Valley Cities board, said he hopes the effort does not come too late.
"For years we heard from The Jewish Federation that is was not for the centers to go out and do major fundraising," Rosett lamented. "I'm not here to go to battle with The Federation; we want to be able to work together.
"For whatever reasons, this difficulty is happening, and now the centers need to go out and start getting the ... Michael Eisners to make annual donations to the centers. We have to get the people within our community in Los Angeles to step up and assist."
Here is what is happening at the four JCCs in the San Fernando and Conejo valleys:
The Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus will remain open. Teen services at the Milken Campus are suspended indefinitely. Ellen Glutner, chief operating officer of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, moved her offices to the West Valley JCC on Jan. 2 to help oversee the Milken site.
The preschool at the Conejo Valley JCC will remain open.
Supporters of the Valley Cities JCC will hold a "Save the Center" rally on Wednesday, Jan. 9, from 5:30-7 p.m. at the center, 13164 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys. Entertainment and child care will be provided. For more information call (818) 786-6310.
The North Valley JCC has formed an advisory board that hopes to develop a plan to save the center. For future updates, check the Web site: www.savethejcc.org.