Jewish Journal


April 1, 2004

Trio Spearheads New Bid to Save JCC


At the downtown YMCA on Saturday mornings, parents congregate at poolside tables to gossip, kibitz and trade jokes, while their children take swimming lessons. For the adults, these hour-long sessions represent nothing less than a much-needed respite from the grind of the work week.

Janie Schulman, Jenny Isaacson and Barry Jacobson are not like the other mothers and fathers. While their children learn the breaststroke, the trio -- an attorney, public relations specialist and businessman, respectively -- huddle together at the Y, plotting ways to save the beleaguered Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (JCC). They discuss strategy, talk marketing and try to buoy each other's spirits as the JCC they have worked so hard to rebuild could be sold to an outside party by the property's owner, the financially troubled Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). The threesome fret that Silverlake could one day soon end up as a strip mall or some other soulless venture denuded of any Jewishness if it changes hands.

To prevent that from happening, the Silverlake three have just submitted a $2.1 million offer to purchase the center. JCCGLA, which rejected an earlier $1.8 million offer, will give careful consideration to the new bid, Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi said. JCCGLA officials said they have received several offers in the $2.4 million range, but might accept a discounted offer from Silverlake supporters, provided they offer acceptable terms.

For Silverlake President Schulman and activist board members Isaacson and Jacobson, nothing less is at stake than preserving an important piece of Judaica that has helped create a sense of community among Jews in Silverlake, Echo Park and Los Feliz. That's why from the moment JCCGLA first threatened to shutter Silverlake two and a half years ago amid a budget crisis, they led the movement to stave off the JCC's death sentence.

Not only did they succeed, but Silverlake has seen its preschool enrollment boom. The center is the area's only profitable JCC, despite receiving not a penny from its former biggest benefactor, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

"I am not a religious person, but the Silverlake JCC has helped my family and me stay in touch with our Jewish history, tradition and culture," said Isaacson, whose son just graduated and whose daughter attends the center's preschool. "Silverlake embodies the concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, an important principle I hope to instill in my children."

Silverlake's success notwithstanding, JCCGLA, an organization entrusted with aiding and abetting local JCCs, put the center up for sale in January partly to help pay off the $2.2 million it owes The Federation. The Jewish philanthropic organization has a $550,000 loan on the property.

For its part, Federation officials praise Silverlake for bringing Jewish programs to an underserved community. Still, the organization has so far refused to help save the center by buying it outright and transferring ownership to Silverlake supporters or by forgiving enough JCCGLA debt to make a sale unnecessary. The Federation has also turned down or ignored specific ideas floated by Silverlake supporters, including requests to cosign a loan, Schulman said.

"The Federation and JCCGLA have offered little beyond platitudes and have utterly failed to respond to written and oral requests to commit to our survival," Schulman said.

John Fishel, Federation president, said his organization has helped Silverlake on several occasions, including making $50,000 available two years ago for emergencies. He said he would gladly sit down with JCCGLA and Silverlake executives to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis, adding that The Federation is willing "to be flexible in all sorts of ways."

With time running out, Schulman, Isaacson and Jacobson said they have had to ratchet up the pressure lately to save the center.

On March 23, they organized a demonstration with 150 preschoolers, parents and concerned community members in front of The Federation building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Clad in orange shirts with "Shalom" emblazoned on the front, the group carried signs, sang Jewish songs and chanted slogans such as, "Let my people stay!" Jacobson, who oversees the center's security and keeps the grounds spotless, exhorted protesters to shout louder to make their voices heard by Federation executives upstairs.

Public relations maven Isaacson succeeded in getting the event covered by such mainstream media outlets as NBC, Fox News, KCBS and the Los Angeles Times. Against that backdrop, Schulman succeeded in convincing JCCGLA to hold off selling Silverlake until center supporters could cobble together their own offer by the end of last week (March 26).

"I take my hat off to them for pushing so hard to bring this to a positive solution both for their kids and the other kids at Silverlake," Fishel said.

If nothing else, Schulman, Isaacson and Jacobson have shown pit bull-like tenacity in their efforts. They each devote at least 20 hours a week to the cause, spending much of their time on three-way phone calls and answering one another's e-mails. "I've divorced my family to do this," quipped Schulman, a partner specializing in labor law at Morrison & Foerster LLP.

She has done a lot, JCC supporters said. Schulman helped incorporate Silverlake and has served as the point person in negotiations with The Federation and JCCGLA.

When she heard in October 2001 that Silverlake was going to close in six weeks, she landed a 5 p.m. meeting that same day at Fishel's office. Cradling her 4-month-old son, Max, in her arms, she spoke to him about the center's importance to the community.

The next day, Fishel and JCCGLA executives went to Silverlake to confer with supporters. The Federation and JCCGLA later committed to keeping it open until at least the end of that school year.

"It would have been very difficult to hold things together without Janie's knowledge and leadership," Silverlake board member Shelly Freiberg said.

For Schulman, the child of Holocaust survivors, the JCC has made it easy for her to keep her Jewish heritage alive, despite having married out of the faith, she said. Schulman remembers her parents "kvelling" as they listened to their granddaughter, Emma, recite the Chanukah blessing over the candles two years ago, a prayer she had learned at the JCC.

Like Schulman, Jacobson has made a mark at Silverlake. During hot summer days, he has spearheaded cleanup efforts. In winter, he has braved the pouring rain to patch holes in the aging center's roof. Drawing on his knowledge of business, he renegotiated contracts with security firms, janitorial services and phone providers after Silverlake became independent, saving the center thousands, Schulman said.

The 48-year-old entrepreneur said the center has served as more than a place where his son and daughter received a strong Jewish education. It has strengthened his family's connection to Judaism. Jacobson said he attributed his two children's strong Jewish identity and his son's desire to have a bar mitzvah to their positive experiences at Silverlake.

"Without JCCs, there will be a generation lost to their own Jewish culture and heritage," he said. "This is what shortsighted [leaders] at JCCGLA and The Federation miss. You can't make business-only decisions when it comes to culture and community."  

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