Entrepreneurial Spirit Helps Revive Center

By Nathaniel Popper

Published October 21, 2005, issue of October 21, 2005.

LOS ANGELES — Four-time Olympic gold-medal winner Lenny Krayzelburg now works in an office one floor down from the Los Angeles offices of American for Peace Now and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

Krayzelburg opened his swim school in the new Westside Jewish Community Center. The building is not new — it is actually a dilapidated 50-year-old structure in one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in L.A., between the Fairfax and Pico-Robertson areas. But after the collapse four years ago of L.A.’s central JCC system, the Westside center started over again with a new model for JCCs: inviting in tenants rather than chasing after membership.

More than a new economic model, the Westside JCC has become a standard bearer for a Jewish community that often remains invisible to L.A.’s wider organized Jewish community. The building’s programs are being run by immigrants such as Krayzelburg and left-wing groups such as Peace Now — and the center is finding economic success. It has been in the black for eight straight quarters and is being looked to as a flagship for a new JCC system in L.A.

“It was a matter of taking something on its last breath and getting it going again,” said Brian Greene, the center’s new executive director. Greene is overseeing a $14 million capital campaign and is a main reason that the JCC is staying in the black.

L.A.’s Westside is not the neighborhood most Jewish Angelinos would first think of as leading any kind of charge for renewal. The Fairfax and Pico-Robertson areas were the center of L.A.’s Jewish community in the 1960s, but more recently many young wealthy Jewish families have moved to the suburbs in the San Fernando Valley. The Jewish federation built new headquarters there in the ’90s.

But when the wealthy families left, the immigrants and the elderly and the young stayed, and the JCC is aiming to provide a center for them. The renovation began with the political organizations that moved in. The space that used to be the administrative offices for the old JCC has become a hub for progressive, community-oriented Jewish organizations. (Because of the tenant model, the new JCC needs a much smaller staff — and this opens up space.)

The first and largest such organization was the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which moved into the JCC in 2000 soon after disgruntled employees from the old local chapter of the American Jewish Congress founded it. The executive director of the alliance, Daniel Sokatch, said that the reason center was so attractive is that it is near the Latino, black and Korean populations with which the Progressive Jewish Alliance works on labor and political campaigns. The alliance’s six employees find their offices on a narrow hallway stacked with old file cabinets and paperwork.

“PJA did not belong in a beautiful, sleek high-rise office,” Sokatch said. “We belonged in the place of a living Jewish community, and not a wealthy one.”

Just down the hall from Sokatch and Peace Now, a new religious congregation called Ikar has found its offices. Rabbi Sharon Brous founded the congregation in 2004, and she has designed it as a rebuttal to the establishment synagogues. Its emphasis is on political programming and activism. Brous leads services in the old ballroom/theater, where 1970s disco balls still hang from the ceiling.

“The space was so undefined and, frankly, so unappealing,” Brous said. “For us to come in and be able to turn it into a davening space has been really inspiring. We basically said, ‘It’s not about what the building looks like from the outside, but what we can build in the inside.’”

Now that these disparate organizations are all crammed together, a cross fertilization among the groups has taken place quickly. The Peace Now folks asked Brous to draft the organization’s annual Passover letter. And when Ikar has questions about political organizing, its leaders walk down the hall to Sokatch’s offices. The head of the Reconstructionist offices is a swim teacher at Krayzelburg’s school, where Brous takes her 2-year-old daughter for lessons.

The fitness facilities also have been taken over by young, creative immigrants who are establishing sports programs. In the gym, Yelena Shukareva has set up a gymnastics school. Where the fitness center used to be, another young Russian immigrant has set up a table-tennis training center.

The highest-profile newcomer is Krayzelburg. He won medals at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics after growing up in the neighborhood and swimming in the JCC pool. Krayzelburg moved to L.A. from Odessa when he was 13. Earlier this summer he paid $100,000 to refit and open the pool, which had closed in 2001 during the JCC network’s financial crisis. It was a donation, but it also was an investment in a business. Krayzelburg now gets the pool 16 hours a week for his swim school.

“I’m here on a daily basis,” Krayzelburg said, while walking out of his office for the 2 p.m. lessons. “It is absolutely a full-blown business.”

Like the other tenants, Krayzelburg works on a profit-sharing agreement. He doesn’t pay rent, but he shares his risk — and his profit — with the center.

While the political organizations are left wing, the tie that really binds together all the programs is an entrepreneurial spirit that would make any capitalist proud. Now, rather than relying on membership, the JCC relies on the success of its individual programs. This is a direction in which many JCCs across the country are heading.

JCCs nationwide are doing well financially, but membership levels are dropping. Alan Mann, executive vice president of JCC and community services at the JCC Association, said that many users want a more personalized, pay-as-you-go approach like that at the Westside JCC.

At the Westside JCC, the new tenants-based model has not cut down on the sense of community at the center. Sokatch’s group and Ikar held a joint Purim carnival this past spring under the disco balls. According to Brous, this reflected an important convergence.

“This place,” Ikar’s rabbi said, “has become a real intersection of the political and spiritual.”

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