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Jewish Journal

Flourish, Not Fail

by Rob Eshman

November 29, 2001 | 7:00 pm

The financial crisis facing Jewish Community Center (JCC) programs and locations this week will come as an awful shock to tens of thousands of area Jews, and it should (see story, page 14).

JCC officials and Federation lay leaders and staff stress there is no cause for panic. They believe they can work out a way to save the majority of JCC programs and locations. (The Federation is the largest donor to the JCC system.) But there is no question that without immediate community response, the JCC system faces severe cutbacks.

Other organizations have already offered to step in and help those immigrants, seniors, children and others who would be most affected by cutbacks. And JCC supporters are working to make sure that what looked like inevitable closure last week can be avoidable by next.

The writing has been on the wall for some time now: years of accumulating deficits have led to a series of controversies over JCC closures of centers and services from Santa Monica to mid-Wilshire. "Maybe they should have sold the Westside J," an insider told me. "Maybe they should have sold Silverlake. But they always deferred the tough decisions."

What seems clear even now is that the JCC's present executive director, Nina Lieberman-Giladi, has done a magnificent and largely thankless job since taking over the helm last year. Giladi inherited the accumulated financial woes -- and errors -- going back a dozen or more years. The hot potato of debt landed in her lap. Credit her with at least not passing it on.

That the JCCs of the second largest Jewish population in the Diaspora face this crisis raises serious questions about this community's present priorities and future possibilities.

The centers were incorporated in Los Angeles in 1932. After World War II, Judge Irvin Stalmaster provided the lay leadership to establish the centers as a strong, autonomous institution.

"My dad cared so much about the centers," the judge's son, Lynn Stalmaster, told me from his home in Santa Fe, N.M. Stalmaster, who went on to create a premiere film industry casting agency, remembered how his father devoted almost every evening to nurturing the center. "He felt the community needed places to parti-cipate in Jewish life other than the synagogue," said Stalmaster.

Stalmaster and the activists, staff workers and donors who followed him shared a vision of JCCs as a place where Jewish Americans could be Americanized, and, later, where American Jews could be Judaized. That is, the centers provided generations of immigrants with a familiar foothold in American society. These days, they provide generations of Americans with a way to reconnect with their Jewishness.

JCCs are as important and as effective today as they ever were. In San Jose, Boston, New Orleans, Orange County and elsewhere, communities are spending millions investing in state-of-the-art Jewish center facilities.

What about in Los Angeles? A Federation-funded study based on the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Study revealed that, while only 11 percent of households belong to a Jewish Community Center, an estimated 133,000 households reported contact with a Jewish Center in the course of a year.

Visiting the Westside JCC -- as I do about twice each week -- provides a clue as to why centers work, even if the system that supports them is broken. On a given afternoon, moms and dads are picking up kids from swim practice, seniors are kibitzing in the activities room, men wearing kippot are playing basketball alongside men whose only connection to Jewish life is the weekly pick-up game. Centers are the gathering place of the great swath of Jewry, religious and nonreligious, male and female, young, old, somewhat wealthy and downright poor. How can we call for Jewish unity but not support the system that physically makes it possible?

Do we really want our children and grandchildren to grow up in an L.A. Jewish community that has more Holocaust museums and memorials than Jewish Community Centers?

This crisis need not leave the JCC in ruins. As the L.A. Jewish community has shifted and changed, centers have changed with it. In 1952, there was a bitter fight over closing a JCC in the West Adams section near downtown, as most Jews had moved west. But the JCC moved west, and grew as L.A. Jewry did.

This crisis too is an opportunity for more growth and change. But for that to happen, JCC and Federation leaders have got to show creativity and leadership. Centers provide a spawning ground for Jewish identity, which in turn strengthens every Jewish institution here. "This is a time to get everyone around the table -- Marvin Hier, Uri Herscher, every rabbi, everyone -- and figure out how to save the centers. Are those calls even going out?" said someone close to the process.

On Tuesday, I called Herscher, founder and president of the Skirball Cultural Center, and told him what was happening at the JCCs. "I feel like I've just been told someone has died when I wasn't even told he was sick," he told me. "Are we so divided as a community we can't ask one another for help? I wouldn't say no."

When he immigrated to America, Herscher had relied on the centers in Cincinnati and San Jose. "They embrace a lot of people," he said of JCC.

We should extend that embrace into the future: a vision of a new, state-of-the-art center, such as the one outgoing Federation Chairman Todd Morgan has promoted, is a place to start. Add to it the brilliant redesign of the Westside JCC that members there have been struggling to bring into fruition. Add to that other visions, along with better financial oversight and better outreach, and there can be a renewed dedication to a system that deserves to flourish, not fail.

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