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April 15, 2004

Conejo JCC Red Ink to Bring Closure

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/conejo_jcc_red_ink_to_bring_closure_20040416

In a reflection of the continued struggles of the area's Jewish community centers, the Conejo Valley JCC is slated to close its doors forever on June 30, the second announced center closure in recent months.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered Silverlake Independent JCC might survive. The group that operates the center said that keeping it afloat is now a major priority.

Conejo, which serves 57 nursery school students and offers some adult programming, must shut down because of ongoing budget deficits, said Nina Lieberman Giladi, executive director of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), the organization that runs the Southland's centers. Last year, Conejo posted more than a $100,000 loss. Lieberman Giladi attributed the red ink partly to 20 parents pulling their children out of the Conejo JCC following a series of bomb threats that turned out to be hoaxes. The opening of a new preschool at a nearby synagogue also siphoned off support.

The JCCGLA had hoped to save Conejo's early childhood education program by transferring control to Heschel West, but negotiations faltered, she said.

"Conejo Valley has really played a very nice role," Lieberman Giladi said of the 8-year-old JCC in Agoura Hills. "But unfortunately, JCCGLA will no longer be in the business of operating centers after June 30, and the resources [to save Conejo] just aren't there."

As of now, however, the Westside JCC, Shalom Institute in Malibu, Zimmer Children's Discovery Museum and Camp Valley Chai in Granada Hills remain under JCCGLA control. The West Valley JCC gained its independence last year.

The JCCGLA wants to clean up its finances and has decided to sell JCCs to pay off its debt, including $2.2 million it owes to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, $450,000 to banks and $1 million to a special agency fund it tapped during its first systemwide crisis two and a half years ago.

The JCCGLA recently announced plans to shut down Valley Cities JCC in Sherman Oaks, which it values at between $3.2 million and $4 million. Center supporters there have so far unsuccessfully sought extra time to raise money to purchase the facility.

The impending closures of Conejo and Valley Cities come just two years after the demise of Bay Cities JCC and reflect the shaky overall health of Los Angeles' JCC system, experts said. JCCGLA officials said The Federation's reduced financial support for the organization over the past decade has hurt its bottom line.

The troubles at the Southland's Jewish centers come at a time when the national JCC movement has shown robust growth. Close to $500 million in construction is planned, under way or has just been completed at JCCs in the United States, the JCC Association of North America reported.

On a brighter note, JCCGLA said it wants to negotiate a deal with Silverlake supporters, who recently offered $2.1 million for the JCC. JCCGLA, which began showing the property to prospective buyers in January, said it has received offers in the $2.4 million range but is committed to keeping the center in the community.

"We want to resolve this, and the offer [from Silverlake supporters] is a good starting point," JCCGLA President Randy Myer said. "It's always been our hope to encourage and support any community that can successfully have a JCC. It's not all about the money."

JCCGLA is currently negotiating with The Federation to forgive a portion of the debt it owes the Jewish philanthropic group, Lieberman Giladi said. Such a deal would make it easier for JCCGLA to accept a lower bid from Silverlake supporters, she added. Federation officials could not be reached for comment.

The Silverlake Independent JCC, unlike other centers, has expanded student enrollment in recent years. It has also posted a small surplus, despite receiving no funding from The Federation.

Center supporters have shown a willingness to confront JCCGLA and The Federation to get their way. On March 23, 150 Silverlake preschoolers, parents and concerned community members demonstrated in front of The Federation building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. The Los Angeles Times, NBC and Fox News covered the protest, which featured Jewish songs and chants such as, "Let my people stay!"

JCCGLA officials, perhaps in reaction to Silverlake executives' willingness to publicize their grievances, have asked for a nondisclosure agreement as part of the negotiations.

Silverlake supporters are cautiously optimistic about the chances of saving their center, JCC President Janie Schulman said.

"I'm obviously pleased that GLA wants to work with us, negotiate with us and that there are no other competing offers on the table," she said. "But we still don't have a signed contract. The devil's in the details."

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