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In the Center of Controversy

September 21, 2000 | 7:59 pm

Some have criticized The Westside JCC for perceived security lapses and physical deterioration, while defenders cite its importance to the community and its forward-looking new leadership.

Some have criticized The Westside JCC for perceived security lapses and physical deterioration, while defenders cite its importance to the community and its forward-looking new leadership.

Since 1954, the Westside Jewish Community Center (WJCC) has served as a destination for neighborhood Jews. Near the intersection of Olympic and San Vicente boulevards with Fairfax Avenue, the venerable institution - a branch of the Jewish Com-munity Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) and the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, which is a national beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles - offers an array of educational and recreational outlets, including a preschool, a senior center and physical fitness facilities. Centrally located near the Fairfax district, the WJCC is also central to local Jewish history, the haimish cultural nexus where young and old alike can learn about their heritage and from one another, passing on tradition and deepening community ties.

But lately, things have not been as ideal as this picture. The new director of WJCC, Michelle Labgold, has inherited a center that, in recent months, has been subject to media scrutiny and internal friction. This summer, a Los Angeles Times article marked last August's North Valley JCC shooting by focusing on security concerns at WJCC. Although some WJCC members and Federation leaders have strongly disputed the Times' findings, others have wondered aloud what happened to a facility renovation plan proposed several years back. And some WJCC members have voiced a litany of problems:

breaches in security - frequent car break-ins in the parking garage; unprotected doorways; understaffed security; gaping holes in a fence adjacent to a poorly lit alley.

worn-out facilities - broken water faucets; unkempt locker rooms; chlorine odor from the indoor pool wafting into the classrooms.

poor communication from administration - thick bureaucracy; unreturned phone calls; vague responses to member queries; lax attitude regarding problems.

In short, conditions not normally associated with a complex within minutes of some of the world's most affluent communities.

This is not the first time that WJCC's constituents have confronted JCC officials. Two years ago, the JCCGLA Executive Committee decided, behind closed doors, to entertain a $4-million-plus purchase offer proposed by neighboring modern Orthodox high school Shalhevet. When word of this leaked, it was met with great disapproval by WJCC members who felt slighted that they were not consulted. A community outcry directed at the JCCGLA and Federation ultimately pressured the JCC board to abandon the idea.Shortly after, then-JCCGLA President David Aaronson proposed a complete reconstruction of the center at a cost of about $4.5 million. A Sept. 1998 Jewish Journal article reported that a $1-million matching grant from the Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation was made toward renovations, which were to include a teen center, a communications academy, a performing/fine arts facility and an expansion to the senior center. This was beside the $1.5 million already secured. Hillary Selvin, then senior assistant executive director of JCCGLA and WJCC director, said, "The renova-tion and expansion is expected to begin this fall and take place over the next 24 to 36 months."

Nearly two years later, a vocal contingent of WJCC members is now asking what happened to those renovation plans. They are indignant over the current state of the center, deeming WJCC - the largest of the area centers with nearly 1,350 member units represent-ing about 2,800 people - a symbol of atrophy among L.A.'s seven JCCs, with facilities that have barely changed in five decades, a deterioration even upper-echelon JCC executives cop to. One high-ranking official, in an e-mail correspondence between board members, admitted that some of L.A.'s JCCs are in severe disrepair, "viewed nationally as a joke." Some members say they are frustrated with WJCC's politics, accusing administrators of stonewalling, mismanagement, even failing to provide a safe environment. JCC top brass insist that improvements to the center are on the way. Yet people are upset with the lackadaisical pace of the long-promised renovations, and they can not fathom why the WJCC - which receives about $700,000 each year from Federation and has supposedly raised millions toward refurbishing - hasn't yet begun the process.

Karen Benjamin says she pays $8,000 to send her daughter to the preschool. "That's a lot of money for a place that's rough around the edges," Benjamin says. "That's not counting the $432 for a basic membership to send your kid there."

The general impression that parent Amy Raff gets at the WJCC is that "nobody is running the ship. The place is incredibly horrible and suffering from neglect. The facilities are really junk."

Members also feel that the center could be more user-friendly, particularly to senior citizens. Some have pointed out that if a functioning elevator were installed in the obsolete elevator shaft on the premises, it would benefit senior citizens, who must climb up flights of stairs to get to the center's largely vacant upper levels.

"We could have 50 to 60 persons occupying that area a day," says Naomi Axelrod, who serves on WJCC's committee for senior citizens program planning. Another longtime member wonders why WJCC is not on a DASH bus route to assist seniors better.

Safety, especially in the aftermath of the North Valley JCC shooting, also has been a prime concern."There's one security man for the whole facility," says Raff. "What kind of security is that?"

That's security for the entire center, including a multitiered garage structure.

"Obviously one guard is not doing the job," says Benjamin. "Friday, my purse was stolen out of my car on the upper level. I'm not that paranoid of a person, but I will tell you that after the North Valley incident, people were checking bags and lunch boxes.

Axelrod says that her car was also broken into a few years ago. She echoes the security concerns from a senior's perspective, reporting that "accessibility is very, very poor. There is no parking at night, and people are afraid to walk a block or two because the neighborhood is not safe." Without direct access into the building from the parking area, senior citizens have no choice but to traverse the poorly lit alley, which is riddled with bumps that might cause seniors to trip.

Some feel the safety factor has been overblown.

"I don't consider cars being broken into in the garage lapses in security," says preschool parent Maggie Scott. "They're not the same people who are responsible for the tragedy at the North Valley JCC last year. I don't think they're the same thing. One is petty crime, the other totally irrational violence. It's a very big leap to our children being unsafe on the premises."

"Clearly car break-ins are very frustrating and upsetting," admits Labgold. "We've taken steps to address it. There are signs posted in the parking garage warning parents. There haven't been any violent acts, just people being opportunistic and seeing a purse lying in a car and taking it. They are not security concerns regarding people."

Labgold insists that measures have been taken all along and that the school's security advisor has advised her not to discuss them in great detail.

However, parents were upset to learn about the break-ins through word of mouth or firsthand experiences instead of from the school. They insist that the garage signs are recent and the center never issued a bulletin regarding the wave of break-ins. It was only in the aftermath of August's Times article that children at the center's Camp Chai summer program were sent home with a memo notifying parents and prescrib-ing precautions; around the same time, the center also threw a tarp over a hole-ridden fence. Some parents see these moves as further proof of the WJCC's culpability: a face-saving gesture provoked by embarrassment.But Michael Kaminsky has a different perspective. A JCCGLA Committee member and vice president of the WJCC board, Kaminsky slams the L.A. Times article as "irresponsible journalism." "I'm sorry we've not been more effective in communicating with our members. We clearly have not done a good enough job of explaining what we've done and where we're going," he admits.

Poor communication might be the reason why some members feel that the renovation plan has dragged for too long, but Kaminsky, who has seen the evolution of the overhaul project, believes that a lot has been accomplished during the past two years. In late 1998, following the announcement of the undertaking, the WJCC enlisted Building Technics - whose principals include Rodney Freedman, who spear-headed Federation's 6505 Wilshire headquarters rebuild - and the Albert Group to assess the WJCC campus. On April 14, 1999, the firm delivered what Kaminsky calls a "4-inch thick building assessment," as well as detailed drawings of the site, stored on computer for refer-ence. By summer 1999, the WJCC board had hired Betsy Zeidman to help the center's Program and Design Committee to evaluate programming. That research was completed this spring. Kaminsky observes that making matters worse was last summer's departure of Selvin, the center's director of 15 years. It took six months to find an adequate replacement in Labgold.

Both administrators and members are looking forward to the next few months, which should herald a rosier future for the WJCC. Labgold confirms that the WJCC board has already secured $4.2 million in pledges from various sources - the Weinberg Foundation, the Zimmer Family Foundation and other contributors. The board has received financial proposals from several architectural firms.

"Within the next month or two, we will probably select an architect to take on that next phase," says Kaminsky.

As for the overhaul's final tally, Labgold says that "con-struction costs have skyrocketed" since the announcement to redo the center, and she adds, "My best guesstimate is that it will be closer to $6 million." The cost will depend upon the architectural firm chosen and the direction taken.

Some have criticized The Westside JCC for perceived security lapses and physical deterioration, while defenders cite its importance to the community and its forward-looking new leadership.

"I was very active with the 'Save the Center' program," says parent Mark Rothman, referring to the Shalhevet situation. "I'm thrilled with how much money they've raised in a relatively short time. Two years ago, when we picketed on Olympic Boulevard, I didn't think anyone would contribute a dollar. And now they're approaching 100 percent of their goal."

WJCC officials can not speculate on the date for completion of the project, but an optimistic Paula Pearlman, president of the WJCC board, hopes to see groundbreaking take place on Tu B'Shevat - Feb. 8, 2001. The current plan is to keep WJCC open as it renovates one section at a time.

In the meantime, Pearlman believes the center remains in capable hands.

"I work very closely with Michelle Labgold, and I've been pleased with her," says Pearlman. "She has a vision on how to carry on the mission. I found her very sensitive to the needs of the organization. I feel the same way about [JCCGLA Assistant Executive Vice President] Nina Lieberman Giladi."

Ultimately, administrators and members are united in their concern for the WJCC's future.

"I think that this place has so much potential," says one longtime member and preschool parent. "It could be dynamite. It could have an art series, programs with LACMA, and be this thriving, incredibly cultural place for all parts of the community. I would love to see that happen."

Those on the WJCC board can relate to membership frustration.

"We all use the facilities. It isn't like we're on some far-off island," says Kaminsky, whose daughter attended the nursery. "At the same time we need to proceed correctly, not quickly, because that would be just throwing good money away."

Labgold notes, "Doing a project of this scope and size, if we didn't do our homework, then it wouldn't be the best possible outcome. It does take time. It's a community project with community money, and we have to be sensitive that we're building in the most efficient way, in such a way that it will be with us for the next 50 years."

Labgold, Kaminsky and Pearlman are emboldened by the fact that the WJCC building fund has already raised a core amount before its official fundraising push.

"The WJCC is an incredibly important institution in our society," says Kaminsky. "It does seem that there are a number of questions about the individual JCCs and the JCC network as a whole. People want the system and Westside JCC in particular to thrive."

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