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Jewish Journal

Saying Uncle?

by Rob Eshman

December 13, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Let's not kid ourselves: Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) has been hurting for a long, long time. If some part of the system of centers and services are to be saved, as hundreds if not thousands of Jews are now trying to do, it will take surgery, not first aid.

The current crisis may be the most severe, but it didn't arrive without warning: there have been years of public struggle over center programs and policies, a general dilapidation of many center properties, and a steady drop in overall center membership.

Now, in what only seems like a flash, the JCCGLA's largest single benefactor, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has refused to give the flailing system a penny more to keep it afloat beyond June. What's more, it wants JCCGLA to sell its properties in order to pay off a commercial bank loan The Federation is guaranteeing. Five of seven centers face complete closure and likely sale.

The Federation is not a bank, its leaders point out, the JCCGLA has no money, and at the end of the day, this is a money problem.

Or is it?

I'm realistic enough to know that behind every visionary plan there's the problem of money, and I'm idealistic enough to believe that behind most money problems there's a crisis of vision.

There is certainly enough money in this town to solve the JCC's money woes. Depending on who tells more of the financial truth better (more on that later), the sums are not huge. Organizers out to save the Westside JCC say their deficit is $200,000. Even if they're wrong by a factor of five, you're still in the ballpark of affordable philanthropy. Last Sunday morning, a handful of organizers enabled 12,000 people committed to helping victims of Palestinian terror raise $500,000 -- before lunch.

If money is not the problem, vision is. Those who believe in the utter necessity of a JCC system to attract future generations of committed Jews of all beliefs, of all backgrounds, of all income levels into Jewish life, have simply not been successful at making that case to people with money.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the JCCs epitomized the aggregation of both vision and money. The membership rolls of the JCC in its heyday boasted the movers and shakers of L.A. Jewry. Lou Warschaw was JCC president in the 1950s when the organization decided it was time to close the Michigan Soto Center, as Jews had mostly moved west. That decision also caused an uproar, but Warschaw and his board did it as they bolstered the system elsewhere. But let the system collapse? They built it. They believed in it.

Most communities still do. They depend on JCCs to reach out to Jews who are on the margins of Jewish life. In New York City, New Orleans, Orange County, Newton, Mass., Toronto and Silicon Valley, communities have spent millions on saving and revitalizing their JCCs.

JCCs in these cities face the same pressures those in Los Angeles do: limited resources, competition from synagogues and health clubs, changing demographics, aging structures. Their leaders saw these obstacles as challenges, not excuses. The same week the JCCGLA here announced its closures, The Forward newspaper in New York reported that the city's preeminent JCC, the 92nd Street Y, had entered into an arrangement to offer salon and aromatherapy services, in order to attract a new generation of upscale Jews. The idea is to change with the times, not just give up.

As intermarriage and assimilation become greater challenges to creating a strong community, JCCs are ideally suited to draw in families who would never think -- or who could never afford -- to join a synagogue. The Silverlake-Los Feliz JCC serves an area thirsty for Jewish life: Temple Israel of Hollywood has grown 20 percent over the past five years. The Westside JCC still sits in the midst of numerous Jewish neighborhoods -- The Federation paid for a demography study that proves it. Bay Cities, North Valley and West Valley JCCs also serve eager, diverse Jewish populations. If certain JCCs refuse to change and adapt to meet current Jewish needs, goodbye and good luck. But are we ready to let the whole system go down with no replacement?

Traditionally, JCCs have funneled their users into greater Jewish involvement. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders need to weigh in on behalf of one of the few Jewish institutions in this town that can reach across boundaries and bring our disparate Jewish communities together.

So why are so many people so willing to write this crisis off? For one, those responsible for the JCC system screwed up big time. Over the years, the level of mismanagement, miscommunication and neglect would be laughable if the results were not so bitter for thousands of JCC users and laid-off employees. The Journal is not ready to point fingers (yet), but activists and potential donors would be wise to demand a full accounting of what went wrong, and a concrete plan to prevent such a thing from happening again.

In this regard, it is not just the reputation of the JCCs at stake.

JCCs must understand that they have been, as Federation President John Fishel said at one public meeting, "hemorrhaging money." But Federation board members must understand that thousands of JCC supporters are still turning to The Federation for answers and guidance. It is commendable that Fishel met publicly with JCC parents and supporters across the city to present his board's views of the crisis. In doing so he weathered a verbal barrage that makes "The McLaughlin Group" look like "Blue's Clues."

But people still want to know more: If the mission of the centers was worth supporting with millions of donor dollars over the years, how can it suddenly be worth nothing?

How did The Federation, which oversaw JCCGLA books and demanded the JCCGLA use The Federation's own outside auditor, plead ignorance of the extent of JCCGLA mismanagement?

Why do Federation leaders keep changing the degree of their own fundraising problems? Fishel told an audience at the West Valley JCC that a crisis in Federation's own ability to raise funds was apparent in January. But in May, William S. Bernstein, Federation's executive vice president for financial resource development, told the Journal that fundraising is "off to its best start in seven years." If we're all in this together -- and we are -- we all need to work off the same numbers.

Whether Los Angeles' own JCCs are in the throes of death or painful rebirth depends on how honestly, and how creatively, this community faces these very difficult issues. We believe outgoing Federation President CEO Todd Morgan when he says that the concern across the community is real, and a search for solutions is at hand. It certainly goes against the grain to destroy the fruits of 50 years of Jewish communal vision without putting forward one of our own. In his interview last May with The Journal, Bernstein went on to say, "The accumulated wealth of the community ... still leaves contributors with significant flexibility in terms of how they wish to spend their charitable dollars."

So which is it? Are we short on cash, or bereft of vision?

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