Having staved off the imminent demise of the area's only Jewish preschool, Simi Valley's Congregation B'nai Emet (CBE) is poised to do far more -- trade land donated to CBE to meet the needs and ensure the future of the area's entire Jewish community.
Until 1998, the preschool had been operated by the Jewish Community Center (JCC) at a surplus school site rented from the local public school district. When the Simi Valley preschool learned its lease would end in six months, the JCC decided to close the school. The preschool's director resigned around the same time. The urgent need to save the city's lone Jewish preschool served as the catalyst for an intense rescue effort by both the preschool's parents and CBE.
Nancy Beezy Micon had one child in the preschool and had been in the community for only a year when the crisis arose. "I was concerned about losing this precious preschool, and I was wondering what was going to happen. I was kind of waiting for something to happen and then it dawned on me, if I want to save this preschool, I'd better do something." CBE shared her concern. "There was an immediate reaction that something had to be done," said Michael Hollander, now executive vice president of CBE's board of directors.
CBE adopted the preschool and the school district agreed to a yearly lease. Melinda Schneider, a teacher at the preschool, became its new director and helped streamline the preschool's operation to keep the school from running at a loss. Because the public school district might well retake the preschool site for its own needs, the preschool's future was still uncertain. A permanent solution was needed.
Micon and others had tried to convince developer Kaufman & Broad to donate a 4.74-acre parcel of land as a permanent home for the preschool. About the time CBE stepped in to rescue the school, those efforts paid off, and the land was donated to the congregation. CBE is a largely working-class congregation. Housed in rented industrial space, the land donation finally gave CBE a real chance to build its own permanent home.
Even with the land, however, the congregation soon realized that it could not raise the few million dollars needed to build a modest structure. Ownership of the land was not free -- it carried a combined yearly property tax and improvement bond obligation of nearly $20,000. That's when the debate arose. Should CBE sell and hope that an equally suitable piece of land might become available in the almost fully developed community? Or, should it sell and use the proceeds to reduce dues and offer new programs?
A 1997 survey by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles estimated that there were as many as 8,000 Jews in Simi Valley and neighboring Moorpark. By all accounts, more would come, lured by both low crime rates and low housing costs. How could CBE accommodate their needs? How could a burgeoning Jewish community be served from its rented industrial space?
When the dust settled from the debates, what emerged was a more hopeful solution, one that might benefit not just CBE, but the entire Jewish community for years to come. The Jewish Life Center of Simi Valley (JLC) would be formed and the land would be donated to the new entity. The land would be turned into a community resource, available to all. The planned structure will be open to a variety of Jewish services and organizations, such as Jewish Family Service and Bet Tzedek legal services (both beneficiary agencies of The Federation), vocational services and others. Athletic fields and gathering places are planned. So is a multipurpose room that CBE and others can use.
JLC seated its first board of directors in July, drawing members from throughout the community. These include not just CBE members such as Micon, Hollander and Rabbi Michelle Paskow, but also Glen Becerra, Simi Valley mayor pro tem, and Margy Rosenbluth, president of The Jewish Federation's West Valley Alliance. It also includes Arnold Saltzman, general manager of Mt. Sinai Memorial Parks, which recently opened its newest facility in Simi Valley.
The JLC board's primary task at this point is raising funds to build the center. "We need to make a center for Jewish life and learning that's a part of our lives," Paskow said.