Every Friday morning, the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center’s preschoolers, along with their parents and teachers, celebrate Shabbat. This Friday morning, the SIJCC is set to honor its most generous — and probably most unexpected — benefactor, the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles, J. Jon Bruno. In recognition of his two remarkably generous acts that helped save and strengthen the center, the SIJCC will officially rename a prominent space on the building’s upper floor the J. Jon Bruno Community Room.
Bruno first came to the rescue in 2005 when, after a few tumultuous years, the SIJCC faced imminent closure. The Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles was ready to sell the SIJCC leadership the 50-year-old building for $2.1 million but hadn’t been able to raise enough for the down payment.
Using $335,000 from his discretionary fund, Bruno partnered with the community and became a co-owner of the SIJCC. The Episcopal Diocese owned 49 percent of the building, which left the Silverlake community in charge of its operation and allowed the center to continue serving the approximately 50 toddlers enrolled in its early childhood education program.
Keeping that program running was the bishop’s priority. “He was — and I presume still is — a firm believer in faith-based education, and he didn’t particularly care what faith it was,” said Janie Schulman, who was president of the SIJCC board at the time. “He said he didn’t want to see a good faith-based educational program harmed or die off.”
Fast forward to late 2009: Preschool enrollment was at an all-time high of 100 children, and the SIJCC had just launched the Jewish Learning Center, a cultural Jewish education program for older students, with 30 families participating. “We thought maybe we’d get 10,” said Jenny Gomez, the current SIJCC board president.
With the building bursting at the seams, the community interested in expanding its programmatic offerings and the original mortgage about to mature, Gomez phoned the bishop. “I said, ‘What’s going on? What’s the story? Do you guys want to have classes here? What’s going on with the future of our relationship?’ ”
“The diocese had all kinds of rights and privileges through their 49 percent ownership of the building that they were never exercising,” explained the SIJCC Board’s treasurer, Mike Abrams. “We were co-owners of the building, and nobody was acting like it.”
For the bishop, that was a conscious decision. “Bishop Bruno is very respectful of the ongoing services provided by the Silverlake JCC,” said the diocese’s Canon for Community Relations Robert Williams. “He did not want to impose in any way on the ongoing programs. He just found that he could be a good neighbor and wanted to do so.”
The bishop’s terrifically charitable act was inspired by Hands in Healing, an ongoing “humanitarian teaching initiative led by Bishop Bruno and the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles,” Canon Williams said. One of the initiative’s aims is “building cooperation among the historic Abrahamic faiths.”
But what happened next went beyond any usual definition of neighborliness or interfaith cooperation. In that same telephone conversation, Bruno told Gomez that the diocese would be happy to sell back its share of the building to the JCC — with no interest. “I was flabbergasted,” Gomez recalled, “because that’s just an amazing gift to give us.”
When the diocese made the offer official in February, the SIJCC board unanimously voted to proceed with the buyout, even though they were “not exactly sure how that would happen,” Abrams said.
“We were being offered an amazing opportunity,” he said, but they didn’t have an extra $335,000 lying around. Still, the SIJCC was able to quickly buy back the bishop’s share without doing any fundraising by “taking some money out of the reserves” and adding “a couple hundred thousand dollars” to its new mortgage.
This was possible, Abrams said, because the building is worth “over $4 million” today. “It’s a combination of the building having gone up in value and of us having gotten a sweetheart deal when we originally bought the building,” said Abrams, who will succeed Gomez as the SIJCC board president in September. “The building didn’t double in value over five years.”
Abrams’ pointing out Federation’s generosity to the Silverlake community shows just how far the SIJCC has come in the last five years. All parties — the SIJCC, the JCC Development Corp. and Federation — want to put the public disagreement of five years ago behind them. And as of June 1, the SIJCC is once again affiliated with the JCC Association, whose Vice President of Community Services Janet S. Elam said she was “enthusiastic” about their working together.
The story of the SIJCC and Bishop Bruno feels made for Hollywood, even down to its details. The bishop — who played basketball in the gym as a youth, whose diocese once owned half the building and whose name will remain attached to the institution’s central communal space — has one more connection to the SIJCC. His grandson, Evan Bruno, started as a student there in January. (Both of Evan’s parents are Jewish; the bishop’s son converted a few years ago.)
“The only thing we don’t have to make a great movie is that we don’t have a villain,” said Abrams, a talent agent who knows a good story when he hears one.