March 21, 2002
A national poll released this week revealed that after months of ongoing Mideast conflict, most Americans think Israel and Palestinians share responsibility for the lack of solution to their common problem.
In other words, outside observers, instead of choosing sides, simply shrug and say, a pox on both your houses.
Now let's apply this theory to Los Angeles.
As we report inside on page 14, relations between the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), the agency that oversees seven centers, and its main benefactor, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, broke down last Friday following a dispute over thousands of dollars in allocations. In response, JCCGLA decided to sever its ties with The Federation. In response to that, The Federation announced it would be open to funding individual centers, outside their parent body.
The obvious response of those of us who support JCCs, support The Federation and support the hard work and dedication that leaders and members of both JCCGLA and The Federation have put into this crisis is this: What a sad, sorry mess.
The danger both parties face is that the Jews of Los Angeles will turn away from this rancor and declare a pox on both houses.
The bottom line here is control. The Federation believes in the JCCs, but says it can do a better job of controlling the far-flung fiscal and social enterprise than JCCGLA. Based on JCCGLA's track record over the past decade, that conclusion is hardly far-fetched.
The JCCGLA believes it best understands the mission and purpose of the centers and, once it gets its house in order, can again be the central organizing body of the centers. Based on the tremendous amount of hard work, openness and dedication that the new JCCGLA leadership has shown since this crisis erupted -- work that Federation leaders were lauding as recently as February in these pages -- that conclusion, too, is hardly far-fetched.
Looking 10 years down the road, I don't know whose control will yield the brighter future for the centers themselves and their current and future clients. Both organizations have promise and problems.
Federation funding and fundraising responsibilities are severe even now. Should it really be in the business of overseeing a system of centers? A Federation-run JCC system will still need a centralized management system that may end up looking not a little like -- surprise --JCCGLA.
A JCCGLA-run centers system may still want to turn for funds and technical advice to a central communal body such as -- surprise -- The Federation.
Some individual JCCs are eager to break from their parent agency, JCCGLA, and seek direct funding from The Federation and other sources. This solution has worked in other cities, but it carries its own set of risks, not the least of which is leaving the fold of an institution whose sole mission is supporting and improving centers.
I do know this: a vibrant, widespread JCC system is critical to the health of this vibrant, widespread community. Synagogues, as much as they expand member services, are no substitute. Neither, of course, are country clubs. Throughout North America, JCCs provide the lowest-cost, lowest-obligation access to Jewish communal life, especially for the middle class. JCCs help nurture the next generation of involved Jews from all backgrounds. They work -- that's why other communities have worked hard to resolve their JCC crises and rebuild broken systems.
In many of these communities, that work has taken years of sustained, ongoing commitment and cooperation between JCCs and local federations. Is it realistic to expect a crisis that has been brewing for years to resolve itself in five months?
JCCGLA Executive Director Nina Lieberman Giladi and Federation President John Fishel have, in separate conversations with me, expressed essentially the same desires: They each want strong JCCs. They each would prefer (or would have prefered) a close and supportive working relationship between The Federation and JCCGLA. They each want mutual accountability and mutual responsiveness. Taking both of these community leaders at their word, it seems that staff and lay leadership on all sides must go the extra distance to put the spitting-match aspects of this conflict to an end.
One solution that both parties have put forward is to take the debate to arbitration, either under rabbinic supervision or through another sort of third-party mediator.
That's a step any community could embrace, and that Federation donors and JCC activists and users deserve.