Sol Marshall looked at the aging Westside Jewish Community Center and smiled.
"I think it looks great," he said.
Marshall, 92, served as the center's first public relations director five decades ago. For an instant, he allowed himself to become lost in remembrance of things past.
"There was always so much going on back then," he said. "Never a dull moment."
And so it was on Sunday, Dec. 12, when the Westside JCC threw a 50th anniversary party for itself, and 250 of its friends came. Septuagenarians and octogenarians who hadn't seen each other for years reminisced about the good old days, when the Westside JCC was considered one of the country's state-of-the-art Jewish community centers.
Preschoolers and kindergarteners ate ice cream, hot dogs and jumped around on an enormous moon bounce. Fathers and sons in kippot engaged in fiercely contested table tennis games, playing alongside secular Jews in T-shirts and jeans.
"I think this is a new and exciting time for this important communal institution," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "There's a nice feeling here, a lot of energy."
That the Westside JCC is still standing is itself a minor miracle. When the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) experienced a major crisis a few years back because of financial mismanagement, the organization threatened to shutter all nine local JCCs. A public outcry forced a reversal.
Although since then, the Southland has seen more centers permanently close than any other part of the country. The Bay Cities JCC no longer exists. Earlier this year, Conejo Valley's center also disappeared. Valley Cities JCC, which JCCGLA had planned to shut down earlier this year, is actively trying to raise money or find a buyer to purchase the center. Its fate remains unclear.
JCCGLA's problems spilled over into the Westside JCC, which found its funding slashed. Concerned about the center's prospects, donors reduced contributions or held back altogether.
Over the past two and a half years, the Westside executives had to make some painful decisions to keep the center in business. They closed the unprofitable health and fitness center, the swimming pool where Olympian Lenny Krayzelburg once trained and cut staff by 50 percent.
Those hard choices staved off disaster, Westside JCC President Michael Kaminsky said. Now, the Westside JCC is in expansion mode, having recently hired a highly regarded executive director -- Brian Greene, former executive director of Camp Ramah in California -- and reopened some classrooms to accommodate the surging demand for its preschool and kindergarten programs. To generate income, empty spaces have been rented to several nonprofit and academic institutions, including the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Most important, the center has raised nearly half the $14 million needed for an ambitious renovation that Westside JCC leaders hope to begin within two years.
"When this center is outfitted with a brand-new swimming pool and health and fitness center, it's going to bring in adults," Kaminsky said. "So when a mother drops her kids off, she'll go to the new gym."
"Or, when a new person moves into the neighborhood and says he's looking for place to workout, people will tell him there's a real haimish center here," he continued. "And then he'll check out the adult programming. That's how it all starts."
The center appears in need of a facelift. Some shutters around the windows in the basketball arena are broken. The facility's tile floor looks like something out of a 1950s hospital. The plumbing, heating and air conditioning are in dire need of upgrades.
But none of that seemed to matter to the revelers, who lent the occasion a levity and lightness.
For many, the highlight of the three-hour soiree occurred when children commandeered the stage and sang Chanukah songs in their high-pitched voices. First up was a group of 20 2- to 3-year-olds. Wearing paper hats decorated with Chanukah candles, they sang the "Dreidel Song" and the "Macabee March."
Lest their parents miss anything, the sound of camcorders and digital cameras began before a single note was sung. A group of 3- and 4-year-olds and finally 5-year-olds followed.
David Berke and his wife, Wende, beamed as they watched their sons, Isaiah, 3 1/2, and Elijah, 5, perform. David Berke said Isaiah -- whom he calls "our little cantor" -- had gained such an appreciation of Hebrew songs at the Westside JCC that he recently broke out in a rendition of the Shema at a neighborhood Target.
"It's important for us to have Jewish identity reinforced not just at home and at temple but also in their education, as well," said Berke, adding that his boys might not get such an appreciation of Judaism at a public school.
American gold medalist Krayzelburg said he appreciated the Westside JCC for an entirely different reason. The four-time Olympic champion said he had fond memories of the three years in the early 1990s when he worked as a lifeguard at the center and was on the swim team.
At the center, Krayzelburg, then a new Ukrainian Jewish immigrant with a poor command of English, said he forged strong friendships and reveled in the center's "family-like atmosphere." Now a much-in-demand product endorser, the 29-year-old former Olympian said he attended the anniversary party to raise money for a place that "touches so many lives."
Los Angeles Councilman Martin Ludlow presented Westside executives with a plaque commemorating the center's 50 years. After a menorah-lighting ceremony, the African American politician said the Westside JCC's revival mirrored another positive trend in his district, which includes the center's greater Fairfax home.
"The [facility's] renovation is a symbol of the renewal of the area and of its openness and diversity," the councilman said. "Just a few miles east of here, you felt a dearth of energy. Now, businesses are moving back. Families are moving back in."
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