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One of L.A.’s Last JCCs Fights for Its Life

Sherman Oaks, Calif. — In a neighborhood peppered with restaurants with names like Café Eilat and a raft of kosher supermarkets to choose from, the sole Jewish community center here may soon be forced to shutter its doors.

A protracted battle pitting the members of the Valley Cities JCC in Sherman Oaks, Calif., one of two centers that serve the heavily Jewish San Fernando Valley, against the development corporation that owns the actual property appears to be nearing its final stage. With the breakdown of negotiations last spring between a philanthropist, who stepped in to keep the center from being sold out from under it, and the development corporation, which on and off has been considering selling the 27,000-square foot property for the past six years, the center is now facing the prospect of having to relocate by June of next year.

Situated on two acres in the eastern part of the Valley, the 56-year-old Valley Cities JCC is one of only three centers that remain out of an original seven centers that once dotted the Los Angeles map. In Los Angeles, where affiliation rates pale in comparison to those on the East Coast, JCCs have commonly played a critical role in maintaining secular Jews’ ties to their traditions. JCCs host bar and bat mitzvahs, and in many cases they are the only Jewish institutions with which intermarried families and nonreligious Jews — in the case of the Valley, this includes increasing numbers of Israelis — feel comfortable affiliating.

“The Valley Cities JCC lay people originally, and to some degree today, were highly secularized Jews,” explained Gerald Bubis, founding director and professor emeritus at the School of Jewish Communal Service at Los Angeles’s Hebrew Union College. “In a sense, it was the ‘secular synagogue’ for that part of the Valley.”

The Valley Cities JCC serves North Hollywood, Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks, among other communities, while the West Valley JCC in West Hills — situated on a sprawling $15 million complex dubbed the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus — serves the western Valley, including the communities of Northridge, Canoga Park and Granada Hills. Valley Cities JCC tends to serve a more middle-class population, reflecting the socioeconomic makeup of the Valley, which is home to an estimated 250,000 Jews and is inclined to house a less wealthy Jewish population than that of Los Angeles’s Westside.

The center is home to a preschool that has an enrollment of 50 children, an after-school program with 40 children and an active seniors program that provides a host of services, from creative writing to ballroom dancing lessons, for some 75 seniors a day. The center also employs a staff of 28, including 14 teachers. Some members claim that despite the constant flurry of activity at the center — a recent Saturday night play reading drew more than 150 seniors — the development corporation sees it as little more than a preschool.

The board chairman of the JCC Development Corporation, Marvin Gelfand, did not return a phone call or an e-mail message seeking comment. Another board member, Virginia Maas, also did not return an e-mail message seeking comment.

Fissures in L.A.’s JCC system first emerged in 2001, when the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles called the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles — the agency that once administered all the centers and employed a full staff — to pay what amounted to a $2.1 million debt. The federation had been fronting the association cash in order to meet its payroll. The JCCGLA began selling off centers to meet the financial shortfall, and in 2004 the association stopped managing the centers. According to the federation’s president, John Fishel, the JCCGLA’s debt has since been resolved.

The JCCGLA’s successor, the JCC Development Corp., now consists of a nine-member board and wields no administrative authority. The same year that the development corporation was hatched, the Valley Cities JCC became an independent entity. Valley Cities JCC leaders argue that they have successfully run their operation since that time — with the help of a sizable annual allocation from the federation, which they view as an ally in their ongoing dispute with the development corporation. This year, the federation’s allocation accounted for $327,550 of the center’s $1.4 million budget.

The development corporation, however, while no longer in debt to the federation, reportedly has other debts for pensions and has continued with its efforts to sell the Valley Cities JCC. In order to keep the center, established in 1956 after community members raised $58,000 — in part by collecting coins in tin boxes — the current generation of local members has brought to the development corporation two separate potential buyers for the property. The first buyer, who offered $1.8 million, eventually backed off when the development corporation asked for stipulations that were overly stringent, according to Michael Brezner, the center’s board president for the past five years. The second prospective buyer offered $2.7 million, which he later agreed to loan the development corporation in lieu of a sale, but Brezner said that the deal fell apart last spring, when the development corporation again dragged its feet.

A bidding war then ensued, which brought an offer of $8.1 million, according to Brezner. Had the JCC not been there all these years, activists fighting on its behalf say, the value of the property could never have reached so high.

“While we were maintaining this building and keeping it going, the property value quadrupled since 2003,” said Marcia Mirkin, a retired real estate loan officer who serves on the JCC’s board.

According to Mirkin, 73, the development corporation may not, in fact, own the property. Mirkin and center leaders argue that the property is a charitable trust, in which case, they say, it belongs to the community. And short of another philanthropist stepping in with millions to purchase the center, a legal battle over this very issue may be the center’s last hope for survival.

“We’re not ready to give up the ship,” Mirkin said.

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