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Jewish Journal

Transition to New Center Under Way

by Andrea Adelson

March 4, 2004 | 7:00 pm

The transition by Orange County's Jewish Community Center (JCC) to an expansive $20 million facility in Irvine this summer is already underway with the hiring, effective March 1, of an expanded management team.

On the job only a few months, Dan M. Bernstein, the JCC's executive director, is also moving swiftly to tidy up a homegrown, informal culture and instill more professionalism in the organization. Besides reassigning staff and making new hires, Bernstein is pushing to establish more rigorous policies about membership and community use at the new facility.

At least Bernstein can avoid wrestling with the threat of court-imposed restrictions on hours of operation, as neighboring homeowners in January dropped a lawsuit seeking such limits. To allay noise concerns by residents, both sides agreed to restrict usage in the gymnasium to 10 p.m., said James W. Kauker, a board member of the Sierra Bonita Homeowners Association and president of Irvine Residents for Responsible Growth, which helped pay for the litigation. The gym is closest to the Turtle Rock neighborhood.

Still unresolved is paying for landscaping to obscure the multistory building, uphill from homes on Sierra Lago Road. The forest of mature trees on the homeowners' wish list would cost $700,000, Kauker said, while the JCC has agreed to an additional $100,000 worth of plantings. Residents intend to ask city government to fund the difference.

"We're hoping the city will do the right thing," Kauker said, because city officials failed to adhere to development notification rules when issuing permits for the campus.

The facility still under construction in Irvine is expansive and includes an infant-care facility, preschool, fitness center and gymnasium large enough to accommodate two basketball games. There are areas designated for workout classes, adult education and massage. When completed, there will be lockers for swimmers, space for an art exhibit, playground and Holocaust memorial.

In addition, the JCC will have a cafe, poolside snack bar and kosher kitchen to prepare hot food, which is partially for the use of high school students on the neighboring campus of Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School. The center's multipurpose theater will seat 500.

Typically, the fitness center and athletic facilities are what 70 percent of JCC members seek, Bernstein said, noting that the current 30,000-square-foot JCC in Costa Mesa was inadequate to offer more typical amenities.

"A normal JCC has teen activities, a parenting center, athletic activities," he said. "Outside of preschool and camp, we didn't have 90 percent of what a normal JCC does." The director predicted that the new 120,000-square-foot JCC will support a program guide an inch thick.

"We have to change the way we do business," Bernstein said. "I know what it takes to open this building. It's going to be very expensive to run this building."

A new emphasis will be placed on boosting JCC membership, which had not previously been mandatory, even for board members. Contracts are under review, too, with independent contractors, such as those who for years have offered Krav Maga self-defense classes and Israeli folk dancing on JCC premises.

"They will be our programs, on our terms," Bernstein said.

His goal is to increase a current membership of 900 units to 1,000 in a year and to double that in three years. In addition, he hopes to standardize fees, which now vary by category.

Among the new staff starting this month are some familiar faces in unfamiliar roles. The current 12-member staff is expected to more than double -- up to 30 -- when the new facility opens, now expected in September.

Sean Eviston, hired as director of health, recreation and physical education, worked as fitness coordinator at the Westside JCC in Los Angeles.

Sheila Witzling, who volunteered her marketing skills to JCC projects, such as the "Three Tenors" concert, accepted a staff position as director of marketing and membership. Witzling most recently worked for the Identity Group, an Irvine marketing firm. She is also president of Tustin's Congregation B'nai Israel.

Wendy Miller of Aliso Viejo will return to the JCC as special events and fundraising coordinator. Jason Meyers, who developed the JCC's after-school sports program and Sunday leagues, was named director of a new JCC sports camp.

Bernstein also mined his former employer in Sarasota, Fla., hiring two former employees to serve as the JCC's camp director and teen coordinator. Wendy Fogel will succeed outgoing camp director Sari Poremba. Audra Martin will take on the new position of teen and tween program supervisor, charged with developing after-school, weekend and summer youth programs.

Bernstein believes JCCs play a vital role in maintaining Jewish identity and solidifying the Jewish community. His 84-year-old father is still a dues-paying JCC member. When Bernstein asked why, his father told him, "Because my picture is on the wall," referring to a dated team photograph.

"I want everyone who comes through the door to see their face [on the wall]," Bernstein said.

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