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JewishJournal.com

January 23, 2003

Redefining Its Role

JCCGLA moves to reinvent itself as the centers struggle for independence.

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/redefining_its_role_20030124

For the past 60 years, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) has been the glue which, until recently, has kept area Jewish community centers largely flourishing. As the organization struggles to reinvent itself as a consulting business, some in the Jewish community said they have little intention of tapping the group for its services and wonder whether it should even continue to exist.

If the JCCGLA were to disband, supporters worry JCCs would lose their biggest support system and could eventually close their doors.

Critics of JCCGLA, which nearly sunk little more than a year ago during a financial crisis, question whether it has the expertise and credibility to provide the accounting, fundraising, human resources and other assistance it plans to make available. Organizers at Westside JCC in Los Angeles, Valley Cities JCC in Van Nuys and West Valley JCC in West Hills, the three centers slated later this year to sever formal links with JCCGLA, said they would be better served by going it alone.

JCCGLA executives said they have brought financial discipline to their organization by balancing the budget, replacing key personnel and beginning the process of healing the wounds brought on by its recent financial crisis. With a new emphasis on fundraising, a more active board and decades of experience, JCCGLA has positioned itself to be an advocate for and partner of the trio of centers.

"We have a knowledge base that allows us to help JCCs grow and to provide the best possible services to their constituencies," said Nina Lieberman Giladi, executive vice president of JCCGLA. "In addition, we will provide services at a reduced cost, a substantial benefit to the JCCs."

JCCGLA President Marty Jannol said the group is "finally getting to take a moment to look ahead rather than take a broom and clean up the mess from the past."

However, the past still haunts JCCGLA, and, to some observers, disqualifies it from playing a meaningful role at the Jewish centers going forward.

JCCGLA is saddled with about $5 million in debt, Lieberman Giladi said, and might have to sell centers or other holdings if a cash crunch developed.

That figure includes $2.8 million owed to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, an $800,000 bank loan -- secured by the North Valley JCC property -- and $1.2 million to $1.4 million in "special funds" JCCGLA spent on operations during its crisis but must return to its coffers, she said.

JCCGLA has assets worth more than $16 million, Lieberman Giladi said. However, at the behest of The Federation, JCCGLA has put a lien on two properties worth an estimated $1.1 million, including the site of the Silver Lake Independent JCC. That means The Federation would receive the proceeds from any sale.

Detractors said JCCGLA's top two executives are overpaid in light of its recent troubles. Both Lieberman Giladi and Associate Executive Vice President Rafe Pery will earn $100,000 or more this year, excluding benefits. The organization has laid off 150 employees since October 2001 and now employs 220.

Lieberman Giladi said those salaries are in line with leaders at other JCCs across the country. She added that she personally contributed $10,000 last year to JCCGLA's renewal campaign and works tirelessly on behalf of the centers.

"I'm proud to say we've budgeted increases for all our staff this year, but I've declined mine," she said.

Not all JCCGLA workers appear to have received the same generous offer.

In an attempt to slash costs to remain in business, JCCGLA has unilaterally frozen salaries, cut sick days and eliminated the health benefits of some unionized teachers at local JCCs under its control, according to union officials.

Jon Lepie, a consultant to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 800, said JCCGLA's move could force teachers, who earn an average of $22,000 annually, to abandon Jewish centers for higher-paying jobs. Union officials also challenge the legality of JCCGLA imposing a settlement on employees while they say negotiations are taking place.

Another issue of concern to JCCGLA's critics is the future role it will play at the local centers.

"I believe, and I think many of the other board members at Valley Cities would agree, that at this point we could probably handle the functions [JCCGLA is proposing to offer] on our own," said Art Verity, a former Valley Cities JCC president and current advisory board member. "We feel we have the leadership, staff and resources to do it ourselves."

Bill Kabaker, a former advisory board member at Valley Cities JCC who resigned in August, said he has little faith in JCCGLA because of its inability to raise enough money, increase its membership and significantly expand programs over the past year.

"I think the incompetence that has gone on is jeopardizing the centers," he said.

Lieberman Giladi countered that JCCGLA raised $900,000 in operating and capital funds from donors last year, including a record $250,000 from JCCGLA's 22-member board. JCCGLA plans soon to hire a full-time development director to keep the money flowing and is sponsoring a fundraising seminar for directors in early February, she said.

The state of Los Angeles' Jewish centers also irks critics, who blame JCCGLA for JCC's problems.

For instance, Bay Cities JCC was the only Jewish Community Center in the United States to have closed in the past two years, the JCC Association of North America said.

Meanwhile, the JCC in Long Beach moved four years ago into a new $14.5 million center that includes an indoor basketball court and 25-yard outdoor pool. In Orange County, construction is slated to begin within three months on a $20 million JCC complex in Irvine that will include an on-site library, a 50,000-square-foot health and fitness facility, a state-of-the-art theater and an indoor cafe.

Elsewhere, a new JCC has just opened in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a center in Salt Lake City was renovated and expanded.

"L.A.'s Jewish community centers are a joke compared to the rest of the country," said a former JCC program director in Los Angeles. "We have the second largest Jewish community in the United States, and this is what we've got to show for it?"

By contrast, metropolitan New York, the country's biggest Jewish community, has 27 JCCs, according to the JCC Association.

Lieberman Giladi said JCCGLA has taken important steps toward rebuilding trust and positioning the organization for the future.

At least one center that has already gained independence appears healthier now than before it severed cut ties with JCCGLA.

When North Valley JCC in Granada Hills reopened its doors in July 2002 after JCCGLA briefly shut it down for budgetary reasons, the center had 84 paying members and only a small early childhood education summer camp program, said Elaine Fox, president of North Valley JCC Inc. Now, it has 122 members and offers senior activities, early childhood education and after-school childcare and enrichment, among other programs.

North Valley JCC has raised more than $90,000 in the past year and is negotiating with JCCGLA to take ownership of the center, a purchase that would be funded by private donations, government grants and investors, Fox said. North Valley JCC has no plans to tap JCCGLA for future services, she added.

JCCGLA has allowed North Valley JCC to use its facility rent-free since September and has given center executives extra time to come up with a plan for purchasing the property, Lieberman Giladi said.

JCCGLA will continue to operate the Zimmer Children's Museum, the Shalom Institute in Malibu and the Conejo Valley JCC after the Westside, Valley Cities and West Valley JCCs become independent.

Criticisms notwithstanding, JCCGLA has some strong supporters.

Michael Brezner, chairman of the Valley Cities JCC advisory board, said JCCGLA has been a valued partner as the center readies itself for independence. A JCCGLA executive, for instance, helped the advisory board put together a proposal asking The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for a $237,000 grant.

Brezner, unlike fellow Valley Cities board member Verity, said that most of the board wouldn't hesitate turning to JCCGLA for accounting and other services, especially if the price is right.

"I have no ax to grind with JCCGLA. The agency in the past year has done everything in its power to keep us open," Brezner said. "Everybody wants to keep digging up the dirt from the past, and it gets very annoying. It's not productive."

However, he said several issues remained to be hammered out with JCCGLA, including whether Valley Cities and other centers would be saddled with the agency's debt.

Federation President John Fishel said he sees JCCGLA playing a role at the centers once they become independent.

"I think like any other organization, [JCCGLA] needs stability, credibility and the support of the groups that it is proposing to work with," he said. "Then, I think anything is possible."

Over the past 10 months, JCCGLA and Federation, its biggest benefactor, have negotiated on debt repayment and a host of other issues. Fishel said recent talks between the two groups have been constructive.

In 2002, The Federation earmarked $2.9 million for JCCGLA. That figure excludes $600,000 The Federation spends on programs shed by JCCGLA during its financial crisis and taken over by Jewish Family Service, including SOVA, the Israel Levin Senior Center and Westside Adult Day Care.

As JCCGLA fights for relevance, it finds itself on the defensive in increasingly acrimonious negotiations with its unionized JCC employees.

Under JCCGLA's proposal, which it believes is binding, teachers working less than 271¼2 hours a week will lose medical and dental benefits and all vacation and sick leave. Veteran teachers with more than two years JCC experience will see their sick days shrink from 18 to six, which JCCGLA said is the norm in the nonprofit world. The number of paid holidays will remain unchanged.

Lieberman Giladi said JCCGLA has taken the action to keep its budget balanced and avoid layoffs.

About 12 out of the centers' 70 teachers and other employees stand to lose their benefits, the union said.

Lepie said JCCGLA's actions have devastated teacher morale and could lead to an exodus of staff. If that happens, parents might pull their children from classrooms, taking membership fees with them.

The union has filed a claim with the National Labor Relations Board, charging unfair labor practices. JCCGLA attorney Frederic Richman said his organization has the legal right to pursue the course it has chosen. Negotiations are still ongoing.

Richard Rosett, a JCCGLA board member who also sits on the Valley Cities advisory board, said he is confident JCCGLA can lead the area's centers to long-term success and stability.

"JCCGLA has developed a strategy and approach to its existence that will permit both it and individual centers to function effectively and efficiently," he said.

"We have a lot of work to do," Rosett added.  

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