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The Race for Resolution

by Michael Aushenker

December 20, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Jewish Federation President John Fishel listens to comments during the Dec. 20 protest.

Jewish Federation President John Fishel listens to comments during the Dec. 20 protest.

The Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) on Monday announced an emergency plan to restructure their organization in an attempt to keep an uninterrupted JCC presence in Los Angeles.

While Bay Cities JCC, Valley Cities JCC, North Valley JCC and Silverlake JCC are still scheduled to close by June 30, part of JCCGLA's new plan will involve supporting Westside JCC members' efforts to save and renovate their center, andfind other partners in the Federation system and the community to take over various JCC programs.

The Federation and JCCGLA have made no guarantees about retaining the Westside center. However, JCCGLA and Federation officials said they are now working closely together to determine fiscally viable options for keeping some Westside JCC services and programs beyond childcare open in the short term, and fulfilling a long-term plan of rennovating the Westside JCC.

The West Valley JCC, which is owned by The Federation, is the only existing center whose future is guaranteed.

The JCCGLA annual board meeting on Dec. 17 was held at the 6505 Wilshire Blvd. headquarters of the nonprofit's prime benefactor, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which has come under much community pressure since the closings were announced on Dec. 3.

At Monday's meeting, incoming JCCGLA President Marty Janoll outlined five committees that have been formed to help JCCGLA through what its executives referred to as a "transition phase."

It is not yet clear what power the committees will have. They will report to Janoll and JCCGLA Executive Director Nina Lieberman Giladi, and consult with the community to find ways to maintain JCC services even without the centers.

A Restructuring Committee, chaired by Jan Gerringer, is forming five ad hoc committees to address the current rebuilding process, each committee comprised of both JCCGLA board members and other qualified lay leaders; and each reporting to the Board of Directors. The Financial Committee will maintain finances, monitor budgets, review financial and management systems, explore audit procedures and funding vehicles.

A Community Relations Committee chaired by Randy Myer. "The current outcry from the community validates our poor record in this area," Janoll commented. A Web site - www.jccinfo.org - has been established to keep people informed on developments within JCCGLA, and solicit community feedback.

A Transition Committee, chaired by Marvin Gelfand, will complete negotiations with the Federation to deal with issues that include debt repayment, property sales (where appropriate), rentals, and all other options.

A Think Tank Committee, chaired by Virgnia Maas, will develop recommendations for future programs and opportunities.

A Legal Committee chaired by Adam Grant to deal with pending legal issues.

For Gelfand and his Transition Committee, the immediate goals are to "make sure that the children that have been participants in these programs have some replacement programs or a place to go. And to find potentially creative partnerships to provide these services. There's been the discussion about storefront early childhood education programs on leased property similar to Conejo to create a presence and that's something to be explored."

On Dec. 18, JCCGLA met with Rabbi Mark Diamond and members of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, a Federation beneficiary agency, at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino to discuss possible solutions to this end.

At a closed meeting following the annual meeting, three resolutions were passed by the JCCGLA board: JCCGLA will support the Westside JCC's capital campaign; JCCGLA will support keeping Westside JCC open at some level of service to the extent that there is two months worth of limited operating capital raised by members, upon which a decision will be made to go forward providing that the efforts are budget neutral; JCCGLA is supportive with regard to any of the closing centers that would like to move services, such as early childhood education, to smaller facilities, to the extent that those efforts are budget neutral.

At the Dec. 17 meeting, news of the centers facing closure did not sit well with members trying to save those JCCs.

Bay Cities members Daniel Grossman and Jim Barner, who wore T-shirts with "Oy, Vey! We Want To Stay!" slogans to the JCCGLA meeting, say they intend to continue working on solutions to rescue Bay Cities JCC. They are currently talking to community leaders in Santa Monica and, after the meeting, Grossman approached Janoll, who assured Grossman that they would be meeting soon to discuss the matter.

"They're using our center as a sacrifice," Grossman said.

David Feinman, one of the members leading the fight to save the Los Feliz-Silverlake JCC, told The Journal, "The Silverlake Los Feliz story is just beginning.... Our community has the talent and the desire to emerge as the voice of Jewish life in metropolitan Los Angeles."

Westside JCC members say they are pleased that JCCGLA's won't prevent its constituents from trying to save the center. Yet they are dismayed over the facts on the ground: JCCGLA will not rescind the 50 pink slips sent to Center staff earlier this month, and Westside will be devoid of staff and programming (outside of the children's services) as of Dec. 31.

"We're very pleased that JCCGLA has agreed to keep Westside open," said Westside JCC Advisory Board leader Paula Pearlman. She has a Dec. 21 meeting with JCCGLA's financial administrators scheduled to sort out strategies on saving the center. "But the staff have received the layoff notices with the exception of early childhood education and child care. All rentals and programming at Westside JCC are terminated. So while we're delighted by the support, there's no commitment. We want a written agreement from JCCGLA and the Federation that Westside won't be sold."

Giladi said reports that the Westside JCC is part of a current $1.1 million loan collateral agreement are innacurate, though she did not rule out the possibility that the Westside JCC and other Center properties may be collateralized as part of a larger future loan. "The process is not completed," said Giladi. "The Jewish Federation is working very closely with us," she added.

While officials determine a course of action, no allocations beyond childcare services toward Westside have been promised from Federation or JCCGLA.

"We do not have staff and operating money other than what the community has raised," Pearlman said. "We have been notified that if we can keep $100,000 on a rolling basis, they will talk to us. The community support is there. One hundred and seventy nine Russians signed a petition to keep the center open. People are willing to give money to the center. It's been pretty clear. But we also have to be realistic about what we can accomplish."

The JCCGLA meeting came just days after a community demonstration on the morning of Dec. 13, when some 300 JCC supporters -- predominantly Westside JCC members -- gathered in front of the Federation building.

A day after the protest, Fishel met with The Journal and expressed dismay to what he felt was a gross misunderstanding of The Federation's role in the current JCC situation.

While the Federation receives regular audit reports from JCCGLA, Fishel said, and while JCCGLA and The Federation share the same auditor, PricewaterhouseCooper, The Federation, as with other Federation agencies, has never directly overseen JCCGLA's day-to-day finances.

"We're a Federation," Fishel said. "If it were a unitary decision making system, each of the agencies would operate as if it were a department of The Federation, the books would be kept here, the staff would be managed by us, etc. but they're all independent with independent management and boards, and that's where you get into what is probably the most perplexing and interesting dynamic in trying to run a Jewish Federation or a large umbrella agency, which is how much autonomy versus how much control, what's the proper checks and balances, who makes decisions relative to priorities."

The Federation will not waver in its commitment to JCCGLA during its time of need, Fishel said. However, he added, changes need to be made.

"There may have to be difficult decisions that are made, but it's been presented as absolutes, and I believe that there are no absolutes in community work. You work to find a consensus and solutions. We have multiple constituencies who all have desirable things they want to do but can't necessarily all be acceded to."

"We're going to put millions of dollars into center services in 2002 like we have every year," Fishel continued. " The issue becomes one of structure: What's the most effective way to offer those services? What's the definition of a JCC? Is it different in the year 2002 than it was in 1982?"

At the Monday JCCGLA meeting, Fishel reiterated his confidence in finding a solution. He expressed his confidence in Janoll.

Janoll's used his first address as JCCGLA president to recap the details of the crisis for his audience of 60 people, including Fishel, Alan Mann, senior vice president for JCC and community services at the JCC Association of North America, visiting from New York on a consultation basis; and Pini Herman, who, with his Web site, savethejcc.org, has been among the citizens at the forefront of Westside's fight to stay open.

Without pointing fingers, Janoll expressed admissions of long-term managerial missteps and shortcomings in the course of his speech.

"Our financial crisis did not simply arise in October," Janoll said. " It began earlier in the year and has been building for decades. One only needs to look at the condition of our facilities, recall the numerous staff retrenchments, the failure to grow membership, along with decreased enrollment in our schools and other activities.

"Further, when over the years, all of the indicators pointed to closing centers, modifying programming and relocating, we lacked the courage to make the hard decisions proactively, and even when we tried, we failed to offer reasonable alternatives ... in effect dooming our future."

Janoll was optimistic that, under his leadership, JCCGLA would regain its footing as a valued community institution. " It is not time to say 'Kaddish' for the JCC's in Los Angeles," he said. " We will be anchored by two full-service centers," Janoll said, "a renovated Westside center, and our West Valley JCC, both featuring state-of-the-art health and physical education services, camps, children's programming, rental space for other organizations, and new and innovative programming that will keep our JCCs relevant to the lives of a wide spectrum of our community. Importantly, both of these facilities will be directed towards operating in the black."

Another JCCGLA goal, Janoll said, will be "to replicate our experience at the Conejo Valley Early Childhood Education Center" in " certain of the areas affected by the closures by trying to establish rented facilities designed specifically for this type of programming."

Janoll cited, as systemic to JCCGLA's financial ruin, a roster of factors: long-term financial mismanagement; an inability to meet budget projections; a decline of revenues accompanied by an almost one-third drop in membership this year; a failure to maintain fundraising commitments and the post-Sept. 11 hike in "extraordinary costs" of workers compensation, liability insurance premiums and retirement premiums.

"Presently," Janoll said, "we're awaiting appraisals on our real property so that we can then go ahead and complete our negotiation for a larger loan that will help fund the one time reorganization expenses to be incurred during 2002. This loan, which is being facilitated by The Federation, will likely be in excess of $6 million and will be collateralized by all of our real property. Without this loan, we will have to shut down the entire system, which nobody wants."

"It is vital for all of us to recognize that the money we owe is community money above and beyond our allocation," Janoll continued. "Monies that were never budgeted for us. And notwithstanding any statements made to the community to the contrary, it is going to involve the sales of some or all of our real property.

"This will undoubtedly be hotly debated and not unanimously supported, but it will be necessary in order to pay the Agency's obligations. Unless, of course, funds to repay the loan rapidly materialize from some source as yet unidentified."

JCC members such as Pearlman expressed cautious optimism that a community solution can be found. "We're willing to work with the Federation and JCCGLA to rebuild the center," she said. "We think that's our obligation, because we think the center and its services are indispensable."

" In terms of business, it's one of the toughest things I've ever experienced," said, of the JCC crisis. "It's not a question of money, it's a question of priorities and how we use the money. And it's a vital investment. I feel very strongly that the JCCs are our investment to the future of L.A.'s Jewish community,"Gelfand said.

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