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Undone by Debt and Negligence

It’s impossible to untangle the demise of the city’s Jewish Community Centers without offending some of the richest and most powerful — and most generous — Jews in Los Angeles. There’s simply more shared responsibility to go around than the key players are willing to acknowledge.

The JCCs’ parent organization virtually collapsed in late 2001, and needed an emergency money infusion from the Jewish Federation to keep the seven JCCs open through the end of that school year in June 2002. Since that time, the parent organization has sold the Bay Cities center in Santa Monica and the North Valley center in Granada Hills, the same center that endured a 1999 shooting spree by white supremacist Buford Furrow. The Conejo Valley center will close for good this summer. The Westside and West Hills centers re-established their footing relatively quickly and will go forward as independent centers with their own boards of directors. But only heroic rallies by communities in Silver Lake and Sherman Oaks have saved those centers. And their survival remains at risk unless and until they can close deals to buy their buildings. Intense negotiations are under way, with the verdict expected within weeks, perhaps within days.

The most frequently offered explanation is, of course, that the centers spent too much and brought in too little. But blame also gets heaped on former chief financial officer Gayle Floyd, who managed JCC accounts for some 20 years before stepping down under pressure in 2001, the year the crisis became full-blown. Floyd is a convenient scapegoat because she has since died. In fact, there’s compelling evidence that the shutdown of the JCCs was at least partly orchestrated well in advance of the financial free fall. Some community leaders didn’t value the JCCs; others wanted proceeds from selling these properties to help fund one or two modern, supersize centers.

The JCCs’ fate may seem of little import within the cultural cacophony of Los Angeles — even for Jews, given the multiplicity of temples. But that misses the point, said Randy Myer, the new president of the JCCs’ parent organization, which is called the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles. "Only JCCs specialize in attracting those Jews who are not yet Jewishly committed," she said in remarks during her February installation. "JCCs create Jews, JCCs create Jewish families, and, sometimes, JCCs even create Jewish leaders . . . I had no intention of raising my children in a Jewish home, having them bar mitzvahed, belonging to a temple, etc. Then one day I wandered into a JCC, and now I have a Jewish family."

The JCCs also have mattered in the larger community. They have been neighborhood ambassadors for Judaism — and a force for neighborhood uplift through civic involvement. The Valley Cities and Silver Lake JCCs have interfaced with non-Jews on a daily basis, because all their offerings are easily accessible to Jews and non-Jews alike. They really have functioned as community centers. Who today would front the millions of dollars necessary to buy large parcels of land, and millions more to construct quality buildings that include classrooms, playgrounds and auditoriums?

L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti has called the Silver Lake JCC an "important educational and cultural institution" and "a real treasure." But to a developer, the Silver Lake center’s primary value is Sunset Boulevard frontage worth $2.5 million. The market value of the Valley Cities property in Sherman Oaks is more than $3 million. The JCC parent organization owes the Jewish Federation about $2.2 million in all and has other debts, making sale of the land irresistible.

Community groups have purchase offers on the table that would preserve Silver Lake and Valley Cities, but they’re less than market value. Both the Jewish Federation and the JCC parent organization would have to accept less lucre than they want — less than they’re legally entitled to — for these JCCs to endure.