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Abandoning the Kids

The region’s highly regarded but financially strapped Jewish Community Centers will shut down most services at the end of the month. The centers closing include the flagship Westside Jewish Community Center and the North Valley Jewish Community Center, which attracted national attention in 1999 when a white supremacist shot and wounded five people, including three children.

Five of the seven centers in the L.A. area will offer only childcare services after December 31, and that too will cease in June -- perhaps forever. Property at these centers may have to be sold to retire debt, according to sources close to the organization. The other centers that will be shuttered are the Valley Cities center in Van Nuys, the Bay Cities center in Santa Monica and the Silverlake Los Feliz center. Two centers will remain open, one in the West Valley and one even farther west, in Conejo Valley.

Jewish community centers are a Los Angeles fixture whose roots extend to the 1870s and the efforts of Emil Harris, the city‘s only Jewish police chief, who organized community events and activities. Independent Jewish neighborhood centers banded together to form an association in the early 1940s, and some current facilities date to the 1950s, according to local Jewish-community historian Stephen Sass. The Westside center, near the Fairfax District, opened in 1954 and includes a pool, health club and gym. Like other centers, it’s long been a focal point for programs that serve Jewish families, recent immigrants and seniors -- and, often, non-Jewish community members.

The bleak future prospects were laid out to members at a series of emergency meetings that began Monday night at the Silverlake Los Feliz JCC. While the centers have struggled financially for years, the extent of the red ink was not known until October, and the full causes remain murky, said Nina Lieberman Giladi, executive vice president for the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles. ”It‘s fair to say we don’t have all the answers. This came as a surprise to the lay leadership and myself,“ said Lieberman Giladi, who became the organization‘s senior administrator in July. ”It became clear that we needed to borrow money just to get through the remainder of the 2001 calendar year.“

The centers, with an annual budget of $16 million, would have run out of money already had it not been for emergency aid from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The federation raises money for an assortment of Jewish community organizations and causes, and was already slated to provide $3 million this year to the Jewish Community Centers. But that wasn’t enough.

”By the end of December, the debt to the Jewish Federation will include an additional $3 million,“ said Lieberman Giladi. Also, the federation this week allocated another $900,000 that will permit childcare services to continue through the end of the traditional school year, a relief to the working parents of some 600 children.

The financial health of the centers has recently been undercut by the recession and possibly by reductions in charitable giving in the aftermath of the September terrorist attacks. The centers also face increased competition from synagogues and Jewish private schools for services the centers used to be relied upon to provide. But management decisions undoubtedly played a role as well: Fund-raising at the center in Silver Lake, for example, dried up after the central organization changed its bylaws in a way that undermined any semblance of control by the local governing board, while installing a director who clashed with the Silver Lake center‘s core of volunteers.

”We didn’t want to write checks into a void,“ said David Feinman, the last president of the local governing board board before it disbanded. ”Our advise-and-consent role had been denied.“ Offerings were then slashed to cut the budget, but what remained could not cover enough programs and activities to attract members. (In all, Jewish Community Centers has 2,500 member households, but its programs benefit thousands more.)

In the wake of the difficulties, Chief Financial Officer Gayle Floyd left Jewish Community Centers on October 15. Lieberman Giladi would not comment on the departure, calling it a ”personnel matter.“

”This is an extremely painful time,“ she added, expressing hope that the system will somehow be saved. ”This community needs Jewish Community Centers. It‘s important that we thrive, that we gather strength and move forward.“