June 24, 2009
Families Bid Farewell as Valley Cities JCC Closes
“Kids, remember when I told you that your parents were going to act silly — well, here they go. Parents, you’ve got your five minutes!”
A sea of parents flooded a stage filled with 4- and 5-year-old children wearing frilly dresses and striped button-down shirts. Equipped with Nikons and Panasonics, parents used these precious minutes to capture images of the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (VCJCC) nursery school’s final graduating class.
The VCJCC had a preschool, an after-school care program, free adult enrichment classes and was a safe haven for as many as 60 senior citizens a day. Between students, teachers, parents and senior citizens, the VCJCC saw an estimated 1,000 people walk through its doors any given week. Since many families came to the center as unaffiliated members of the community, it served as a de facto house of worship — a sanctuary of rich Jewish culture, family Shabbats, early child development and overall community togetherness.
On Friday, June 19, however, the VCJCC closed its doors for the last time after 56 years of serving the community.
According to Executive Director Marla Minden, the VCJCC has rested on a metaphorical chopping block for the past eight years.
A year of shocking disclosures of financial troubles and fiscal mismanagement within the former JCCs of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) marked 2001. Some centers that had been funded by JCCGLA, including Bay Cities and a Conejo Valley preschool program, were forced to shut down. The North Valley JCC campus was sold to an Orthodox trade school, and the Silver Lake JCC just barely survived after Bishop Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles joined powers with the Silver Lake Group to buy the property.
Instead of waiting for a similar fate, Valley Cities fought for its vitality and raised $120,000 in three months to become an independent institution, much like the Westside JCC.
The center faced more trials in 2007 when JCCGLA, reformed as the JCC Development Corp., sold the Sherman Oaks property to a local school, The Help Group. Jewish philanthropist Hyman Jebb Levy had made an offer to buy the property for $2.7 million prior to the sale, but was turned down. The JCC puts the sale price between its appraised value of $6.7 million and $8.1 million. JCC Development Corp. and the Help Group would not confirm the final number.
Valley Cities found a new location in the eleventh hour and moved to a former church in Van Nuys in July 2008. Minden acknowledges that the move was a “calculated risk.”
“We realized that it wasn’t about the building but about what was inside,” Minden said. “And the dedication and loyalty of the people working there and its members.”
After less than a year at its new location, the economic downturn was the final blow to Valley Cities. With increasing layoffs throughout the community, enrollment had fallen while requests for scholarships and financial aid had increased. Fewer rentals of the center’s facilities and a decline in charitable donations combined with a high mortgage forced the board to announce the closing this past spring.
“This has been almost like saying Kaddish for a friend,” said Minden, who came to the JCC 24 years ago with a 6-month-old child of her own to join a Mommy and Me class.
Minden, along with numerous teachers, will have to look for a job for the first time in many years.
“I just hope and pray that all of the senior citizens will find another organization that is safe,” said Tiffany Salamon, wiping her eyes. Residing in Canada during the year, Salamon has a 4-year-old child that she brings to the JCC every summer “because this is just the best place in the world. The teachers are already like family to her.”
The bittersweet final days at Valley Cities were filled with remembrance and a desire to hold on.
“We don’t want to go! We don’t want to go!” 4-year-olds Lior and Danielle cried to their mothers in a near-abandoned classroom, cluttered with toys and pictures that teachers hesitated to take off of the walls. “They don’t know it’s the last day — they don’t accept that,” said a mother. “It is just so sad.”
While some families were able to join the Milken JCC nursery school in West Hills or those of other Jewish institutions, other parents were not as lucky.
“For many of the parents, they can’t afford another Jewish school,” teacher Bruria Hadad said. “So instead of getting the Jewish education and all of the traditions and the Fridays, the holidays and everything, they’re going to miss all that.”
Etti Ezra is a parent whose financial circumstances have forced her to send her child to a secular school. “It’s hard to be Jewish, especially in America, and this was a safe place,” Ezra lamented. “I sent her out with closed eyes, I don’t need to check, I don’t need to see if she is eating something that is not kosher. I now need to teach her more to know what she has got and not share [food] with friends. It is hard.”
Despite their hardships, families congregated on the final day and parents joked, “We can always meet up in the aisles of Ralphs,” and passed around contact sheets while children passed around coral construction-paper autograph books. In the end, it was clear that this is a community that refuses to be torn apart.