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Jewish Journal

Members Rally to Save Centers

by Marc Ballon

March 25, 2004 | 7:00 pm

A protestor's sign objects to JCCGLA's proposed sale of the Silverlake JCC. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

A protestor's sign objects to JCCGLA's proposed sale of the Silverlake JCC. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

In a forceful display of support for the beleaguered Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (JCC), an estimated 150 preschoolers, teachers and parents rallied March 23 in front of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to protest the possible closure of their thriving JCC.

Protestors, many clad in orange T-shirts stamped with the word "Shalom," cheered speakers who alternately pled for the center's survival and criticized The Federation and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) for failing to do more to save it. Holding placards that read "Save Our Center," and "They Don't Sing Shabbat Songs at Strip Malls," JCC members chanted, "Let my people stay!" Passing cars honked in support.

"If we don't speak now, we'll be gone," said Nelson Handel, a 44-year-old freelance journalist who attended the march with his 3-year-old son, Charlie. "We've become a real estate Ping-Pong ball. When [The Federation and JCCGLA] look at our building, they see dollar signs, not the faces of our children."

The clock is ticking.

JCCGLA has received several offers of $2.4 million or more for the Silverlake property, organization President Randy Myer said. Silverlake supporters, whose $1.8 million bid JCCGLA recently rejected, have until March 26 to submit another offer.

Some JCCGLA board members have said they would accept $2.1 to save the center. However, if the JCC eventually went under, JCCGLA would want any profits from the sale of the property, JCCGLA executives said.

The two-hour rally at The Federation came less than a week after an emergency meeting at the Valley Cities JCC, which is scheduled to shut down in late June. JCCGLA, which owns Silverlake and Valley Cities, said it must sell the JCCs to pay off its debts, including $2.2 million to The Federation, $450,000 to banks and $1 million to a special agency fund it tapped during the systemwide crisis two and a half years ago.

Critics blame JCCGLA for financial mismanagement and the declining health of the city's community centers. They are equally upset with The Federation for failing to forgive JCCGLA's debts and deeding the properties to JCC supporters.

Federation Chair Harriet Hochman said The Federation could do only so much given the demand on its resources.

"We've got people living below the poverty line, people not getting the proper food," she said. "We are up to our necks in needy Jews here. They're our first responsibility."

She said The Federation has discussed forgiving a portion of JCCGLA's debt so that the group will have resources to support the operations that remain under its control. However, Hochman said she expected JCCGLA to sell both Silverlake and Valley Cities because of that agency's shaky financial condition.

In related news, JCCGLA directors voted March 23 to create separate, independent boards for the Westside JCC, the Zimmer Children's Museum and the Shalom Institute. The future of the Conejo Valley JCC is still under discussion with center leaders.

Silverlake members said they feel especially frustrated because their center has grown enrollment and makes a small surplus, despite receiving no Federation funding. By contrast, The Federation gave the West Valley JCC $1.3 million last year. That center is located on Federation's Milken campus in West Hills.

The demonstration at 6505 Wilshire marks a shift in tactics by Silverlake leaders from behind-the-scenes accommodation to in-your-face confrontation. They recently ran a full-page ad in this paper asking The Federation and JCCGLA to work with them to save the center.

"Mommy and Daddy say you are fighting about money," a caption beneath a picture of a little girl read. "When we disagree at school, we use our words and talk about it. Why can't you?"

Federation President John Fishel said he doubted the Tuesday morning demonstration would be the "silver bullet" that would help the Silverlake group buy the property or continue offering services there. JCCGLA President Myer echoed Fishel's sentiments.

"I don't think it helps the board to feel warm and fuzzy toward that community when we're being accused on all sorts of negativity," she said, adding that JCCGLA directors wouldn't allow emotions to color any decisions.

Neither Fishel nor JCCGLA officials accepted invitations to address marchers.

Valley Cities supporters gathered March 17 to buoy their spirits and come up with ideas to save the money-losing center, which is scheduled to shut down June 30. Children spoke of the JCC's importance, center veterans spoke about its history and Valley Cities officials assessed blame and offered a mixed picture of the center's prospects.

"The JCC is kind of like my second home," said 12-year-old Jeffrey Bejian, who attends Valley Cities along with his two sisters. "If it closed, I don't know what I'd do. I'd lose [almost] every single one of my friends."

The gathering had been billed as an emergency town hall meeting to demonstrate the community's support for Valley Cities. A large banner hanging from the JCC read, "Our Community Center Is Not for Sale." Envelopes soliciting donations to buy the center blanketed every chair in the cavernous auditorium.

In a potentially ominous sign, only about 150 people showed up to the event. That compared to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 who turned out 2 1/2 years ago when JCCGLA first threatened to shutter the JCC amid its crisis. JCCGLA later rescinded the threat after coming under intense pressure.

Valley Cities leaders have asked JCCGLA for an extension to give them time to raise money to purchase the JCC, and, in the meantime, continue to operate the center. Center supporters received a dose of bad news recently when JCCGLA's real estate appraiser valued the property between $3.2 million and $4 million, well above the $2.5 million estimate. That higher price tag makes it that much more difficult to raise money to buy the center.

Also, JCCGLA's continued ownership might scare away potential contributors, said Miry Rabinovitch, a former Valley Cities board member whose three children attended the JCC. She said JCCGLA's inability to right its finances since the last crisis made her and others reluctant to donate money, lest JCCGLA waste it.

"I refuse to give anything, much as I'd like to," she said.

Former Valley Cities President Tom Herman thinks both JCCGLA and The Federation bear equal responsibility for the center's plight. In his opinion, the organizations have long favored two "super centers" on the Westside and West Valley rather than several smaller and older ones.

Federation President Fishel disputed that characterization. As a reflection of The Federation's support for area JCCs, he said his group allocated $220,000 late last year for Valley Cities. At the time, he added, The Federation was not aware of the depth of the center's financial problems.

Fishel said The Federation would not single-handedly prop up the center, although it would work with Valley Cities' leadership to come up with a plan to save it or provide like services elsewhere.

JCCGLA, like The Federation, has allocated thousands of dollars to troubled Valley Cities over the past year. In 2003, the agency earmarked $300,000 to fund operations, cover the deficit and for such capital improvements as repainting the JCCs auditorium and replacing its 400 chairs. Lieberman Giladi said JCCGLA had not made a mistake by pouring money into Valley Cities, even though board members have worried about its financial stability since last spring.

"I absolutely believe they should have been given an opportunity to give it a go," she said. "You have to take that risk to see if they had the chance at viability."

Michael Brezner, Valley Cities board president, thought supporters might yet keep the JCC open. Still, he admitted it won't be easy.

"In any business, you need money in the bank to operate, and Valley Cities doesn't have any money in the bank," he said. "JCCGLA was the bank."

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