May 13, 2004
Buy It Now
It continues to baffle me why anybody who cares about the future of Jewish communal life in Los Angeles would seriously contemplate closing the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC).
Here is a vibrant center, serving about 1,000 people each week, in the midst of a large and growing Jewish population eager for center services, on a piece of highly desirable real estate that has been bought and paid for. We should be arguing over how much to expand Valley Cities JCC, not whether to close it.
The center is slated to be shut and sold by June 30 so that its owner, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), can get its financial house in order. The organization owes The Jewish Federation $2.2 million, and the agency must make good on $1 million in its special fund and owes banks $450,000.
JCCGLA already sold off Bay Cities JCC, holds the ax over the head of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center and is itself facing dissolution.
From the very beginning of the centers crisis, the debate has never veered far from the bottom line. I understand the logic. I've heard eloquent voices argue the case for fiscal responsibility, but precious few powerful voices argue the case for more communal generosity on the JCC's behalf.
One can argue that the Jewish community is moving west, and that it is time to abandon the old neighborhoods and cut our institutional losses. Such steps were necessary in the past. The shuttering of the Menorah Center near Boyle Heights in 1953 provoked outrage over an action that, in retrospect, looks visionary.
But East San Fernando Valley isn't dying. Driving along Burbank you pass busy kosher markets and Israeli-owned restaurants, and run into the massive campus of Adat Ari El synagogue and the thriving Orthodox neighborhoods of North Hollywood.
A needs and assessment priority report prepared for Valley Cities JCC determined that the center sits amid a Jewish population of 30,000-40,000 people. It is made up of American as well as Israeli, Russian and Persian Jews, many of whom are recent immigrants. About 60 percent of the children enrolled at Valley Cities are Israeli American. They are eager for a Jewish home away for home, a way to integrate into the larger Jewish community, a Jewish place for their children and seniors to play and learn.
I've never been convinced that the philanthropists who raise and allocate the bulk of the Jewish communal charitable dollars in this city, and the leadership they speak with, truly believe in the future of the JCC movement. They, along with a few rabbis and others, have told me they believe centers are over -- although many of these people themselves usually came to Jewish life through involvement in a JCC.
The evidence contradicts the naysayers.
Across the country JCCs are booming, even in cities where they face competition from mega-synagogues, health clubs and public after-school programs. JCCs reach 1.7 million Jews, 28 percent of the entire U.S. Jewish population, according to a new report for the JCC Association of North America. That's more than the Reform movement itself can claim. Are L.A. Jews that different? Of course not. A successful Jewish community has many doors of entry.
The JCC Association, which is on the cusp of a major national ad campaign to strengthen the centers, also found that successful communities teamed JCCs with other organizations -- federations, synagogues, agencies -- to collaborate on programming and services. Closing the actual JCC buildings then renting other facilities to deliver JCC-ish services seems ingenious and synergistic now, but would inevitably weaken the sense of a Jewish "home away from home" that is at the heart of the center movement's appeal. Better all parties synergize now to work hard with potential donors, bankruptcy attorneys, bankers and agencies to figure out a way to buy Valley Cities from JCCGLA.
I spent last Tuesday morning at Valley Cities, saw its classrooms and playgrounds filled with children, its auditorium the site of a large gathering of local seniors debating anti-Semitism in Europe.The local demand for center services, despite repeated threats of imminent closure, has actually increased. Members have raised $30,000 in mostly small donations since the troubles began -- Valley Cities Director Marla Minden won't cash the checks until the center's survival is assured -- and have organized bake sales, carnivals and letter-writing campaigns (including to The Journal).
More importantly, a younger and more astute leadership has come on board, and shows the kind of acumen that given a chance could turn the place around.
The folks at Valley Cities are not sophisticated fundraisers. Not one of their members sits on the board of The Federation, and none of them are lunching or golfing where the big money is raised. (They hadn't even thought to turn to the Jewish Community Foundation, with its $470 million in assets.) This particular JCC serves a less-affluent Jewish population, many of whom are among the 16-20 percent of Los Angeles' poor Jews. Last year Valley Cities gave out a good chunk of its budget in scholarships.
"Just because Jews don't have money doesn't mean they don't deserve these services," Valley Cities President Michael Brezner said. "There will be a huge void in this community if and when this center disappears."
A member of the center sent me a postcard that echoes Brezner's feelings.
"The Jewish Center gave me a very good childhood. And they also helped my family pay to send me and my brother to camp while my mother was in the hospital," the 14-year-old boy wrote me. "It would be very sad if the JCC closed."
Sad, yes, and short-sighted.