The news stunned John Fishel. In the fall of 2001, the L.A. Federation president learned that the city's Jewish community centers were in crisis. If The Federation didn't act quickly, some or all of the JCCs would have to shut down.
Fishel had every right to feel upset. He and other Federation leaders had allocated millions to support the JCCs over the years, with the expectation that the money was well spent, with proper oversight. In the late 1990s, for instance, The Federation had forgiven $1 million in loans to the parent organization running the centers.
Now, not only were the Jewish centers' futures at stake, but also nearly $3 million in additional loans advanced by The Federation.
The financial troubles at the local JCCs were by no means unprecedented. Years earlier, difficulties flared up in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. In those instances, the local federations acted quickly to bail out troubled centers. They forgave loans, made emergency cash infusions and hammered out long-term strategic plans.
Other cities saved their JCCs because they saw them as invaluable community resources. They not only provided valuable services to Jewish families but also strengthened or even established connections between individual Jews and the Jewish community. In Los Angeles, JCCs also were known for serving the larger non-Jewish community.
But Fishel did not act as though preserving the centers was a community necessity. His approach to the problem was markedly different than in other cities.
"It all became: How are you going to pay back the money? When are you going to pay back the money? What interest rate will there be for this accrued debt?" said Nina Lieberman Giladi, former executive vice president of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). "I would have expected The Federation, as leader of the organized local Jewish community, to have taken a different, more collaborative tone."
A former Federation executive close to the parent organization corroborated her account, as does documentation. The Federation brought an attorney to the first post-crisis meeting between group executives and representatives of the centers' parent organization. Many in the community began to see Fishel as intent on liquidating the centers to get the Federation's money back. Fishel did little to dispel that perception by opining that perhaps the JCC model was antiquated and megasynagogues, day schools and other Jewish institutions might fill the void.
Eventually, The Federation restructured the debt and agreed to some loan forgiveness. But Fishel created no special fundraising campaign. He didn't hold a fundraiser dinner. And the repayment terms virtually guaranteed that most of the JCCs would be shuttered, with their land sold to repay The Federation.
His actions suggested that he had lost faith in the mission and relevance of some of the city's JCCs, especially the smaller ones.
Within three years, the venerable Bay Cities JCC in Santa Monica went out of business; the small Conejo Valley JCC shut down, and the JCCs' parent organization sold the North Valley JCC. Although the property's new owner has permitted North Valley members to continue operating on the site, the number of families participating at the center is off nearly 80 percent from the late 1980s.
And in Silver Lake, it was a Christian cleric -- not The Federation -- who partnered with the local community to purchase the land under the Silverlake Independent JCC. Otherwise, that profitable center would have closed because of a debt that it did not create. Most of the proceeds went to The Federation to repay a secured loan.
All this occurred against the backdrop of a JCC movement that is booming nationally. Close to $700 million in construction is planned, under way or has recently been completed, said Allan Finkelstein, president of the JCC Association of North America, the umbrella organization for the nation's 200 full-service JCCs and other community properties, including Jewish camps. In coming years, Las Vegas; Boulder, Colo., and Naples, Fla., are expected to have new state-of-the-art facilities.
So what happened in Los Angeles, a city with such an affluent Jewish community? For one thing, the JCC parent organization mismanaged its finances and never raised enough money to maintain and improve the centers as Federation funding began declining in the 1990s, said attorney Ron Leibow, a vice chair of the national JCC Association. Leibow ultimately helped negotiate a final settlement between The Federation and the JCC parent organization, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles.
The local Jewish community, unlike those in other cities, neither supported most existing centers nor clamored for the types of state-of-the-art facilities that have proven so successful elsewhere, he added. As for Fishel, Leibow said, he erred in initially taking an intransigent stance.
"There's lot of blame to go around," Leibow said. "I blame The Federation. I blame the JCC system. And I blame the community."
Fishel, supporters argue, did much more for the local JCCs than he's given credit for. In 2001, at the height of the crisis, Federation grants, loans and advances to the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles totaled $3.3 million, or nearly one-quarter of its $14 million budget, according to The Federation. (That figure included a $1.1 million emergency loan, with interest.)
"I can assure you John did all he could," said Harriet Hochman, a former Federation chair who worked closely with Fishel on the JCC issue. "This caused him a great deal of pain and agony."
The Federation, Hochman added, has increasing demands on its finite resources and simply lacked the money to prop up the entire system.
Given the mismanagement at the JCC parent organization, Fishel could be excused for not rushing to throw new money at the problem.
But to critics, Fishel and The Federation seemed to be choosing with their funding which Jewish communities were worth fighting for.
In the end, those JCCs considered worthy were the state-of-the-art New JCC at Milken in the West Valley; the Westside JCC (near the Fairfax district), which has raised millions for a planned renovation, and the often-struggling Valley Cities JCC. They have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Federation support.
"Without John Fishel and all the lay and professional support we've gotten from The Federation, we wouldn't be here -- period," said Mike Brezner, president of Friends of Valley Cities JCC, which operates the center. "They got us over the hump."
Fishel's unwavering support, Brezner added, allowed Valley Cities to rebuild programs, attract new members and gave it time to find an anonymous donor who paid off the Valley Cities outstanding debt. More than 1,000 visitors per week now come to the center.
No such luck with Fishel for the Silverlake Independent JCC, which arguably was more successful than Valley Cities. The Federation, in recent years, gave nearly nothing to Silverlake.
A boisterous 2004 protest held by Silverlake supporters at Federation headquarters brought out television crews and put Fishel and The Federation in a negative glare. Afterward, when Silverlake formally requested a grant, Federation officials asked for audited financial statements. Silverlake executives said they couldn't afford to pay the audit fee.
"In my estimation, [the Silverlake leadership] chose not to go through the route we recommended," Fishel said curtly.
In April 2005, just as Silverlake appeared on the verge of closing, Bishop J. Jon Bruno, head of Los Angeles' Episcopal Diocese, stepped in to assume a 49 percent ownership stake on behalf of the local Episcopalian diocese. The Silverlake group retained 51 percent control. The center, which operates in the black, now offers ballet, gymnastics, yoga and other classes. Its preschool has a waiting list.
"I was stunned when we ultimately received no help from the organized Jewish community," said Janie F. Schulman, president of the Silverlake Independent JCC. "I kept thinking that at the end of the day, they would come through for us."
For a city its size, Los Angeles now has a relatively weak JCC system. Whereas metro New York has 26 full- or part-service JCCs and Chicago has seven, Los Angeles has five.
"I don't feel the JCC model is necessarily outmoded," Fishel said, "but we have a different community today than we did 10 or 20 years ago."