Community Crowds Together To Save Oak Park Jewish Community Center
(Cheryl Weiss, Jan. 13, 2015)
Approximately 800 people filled the gymnasium of the Jewish Community Center in Oak Park, and many more were turned away due to space limitations, at the Town Hall Forum Monday night. Community members gathered together to voice their objections to the potential closure of the JCC, and to offer solutions. The recommendation to close the Oak Park JCC, and leave the West Bloomfield JCC open, was made by leadership of the JCC and the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit due to continued financial losses which they called “unsustainable”.
At the beginning of the meeting, Dr. Conrad Giles, moderator, stated “We are here to listen to you.” For the next three hours, they did listen as over 30 speakers from the audience expressed the passion, the emotions, and the connections they have with the JCC . Some shared that the Oak Park JCC has been a part of their lives for generations; areas such as the gym and the social hall have been named for relatives. Another issue discussed was that there are members of the community who walk to the JCC every day because they do not drive. Some members have disabilities. Without the JCC in Oak Park, they don’t know what they would do; it’s a very important part of their community and their daily lives. For the Orthodox Jewish community, the Oak Park JCC is unique as is the only place that provides separate swim times for males and females.
Florine Mark, Presient of Jewish Community Center, said at the beginning of her opening remarks, “I know that many of you feel abandoned and betrayed…we are not abandoning this community.” She stated that everyone is here to work together as one community to solve the problems we are facing, but then went on to say that the Oak Park JCC is “ just a building,” which angered many members of the audience who strongly disagreed with that statement.
Brian Siegel, Chair, Executive Committee, Jewish Community Center explained the timeline of the financial crisis, beginning in 2013. Now, in early 2015, “Closing the Oak Park Jewish Community Center, or both, is the only way to reduce the budget shortfall.”
Scott Kaufman, CEO of Jewish Federation Metro Detroit said he is fully committed to keeping this neighborhood Jewish. “This is a growing community. It is not in decline.”
Marian McClellan, Mayor of Oak Park, has been a part of the Oak Park JCC community since she was a teenager, and shared her sadness and disappointment at the news of the JCC’s potential closing. “This sudden closing came as a shock to us. We would have loved to be a part of the dialogue, and would still love to…the City of Oak Park stands ready to do whatever we can to help this beloved place. We stand ready to help in any way that we can.”
Alan Hitsky, the first audience member to speak, said, “I’d be more encouraged if closing West Bloomfield was also being considered. JPM (Jimmy Prentis Morris/Oak Park JCC) is a sacrificial lamb? Jewish Family Services also moved to West Bloomfield (from Southfield), but serves this population. We care about the country club setting.” He suggested housing the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit at the Oak Park JCC building and closing the the building Federation has now.
In response to Hitsky, Brian Siegel stated, “In all the meetings I have attended, I’ve never noticed a bias for West Bloomfield.” The audience groaned loudly in strong disagreement at that remark.
Phyllis Aronson declared, “This IS the JCC! WE are the JCC!”
An email sent to JCC members last week stated leadership felt the Oak Park JCC is underutilized. Speakers took issue with that statement, saying that the JCC parking lot is full every day. If it was truly underutilized, why would the parking lot consistently be full? This is a growing, thriving community, residents insisted.
Larry Horowitz asked leadership to keep the building open for a year, which will give the community time to work on plans and raise money. He, along with others complained that they did not ask the community for support before strongly considering closing the JCC.
Other suggestions from members of the audience tonight included asking local synagogues to add a surcharge to membership dues which would go to the JCC. That would bring in additional money, and if synagogue members were required to contribute toward the JCC, they might be more likely to join the JCC as well. Also, it was suggested that the JCC join forces with other religious nonprofit organizations who are also struggling. Marv Berman, a JCC member for 45 years, asked leadership to consider combining with the Chaldean community, who wants a community center. He also asked them to consider reallocating funds from the Federation, sending less to Israel and spending more in our local community.
Ron Aronson turned the discussion from anger and sadness to empowerment, energy, and action through a grassroots movement. “What you’ve left out is us,” he said. “This may be unsustainable to you, but it’s irreplaceable for us! Let’s work together so that WE save our center, not YOU!” With that, he brought out two clipboards and suggested forming committees now so that the community can work together to save the JCC. The clipboards circulated with residents adding their names and contact information, then passing it around the room for the rest of the meeting, and some attendees didn’t even have a chance to sign yet. As the clipboards passed from person to person, Conrad Giles assured the audience that a decision has not been made yet regarding the JCC, and praised them for being respectful during this forum.
Lenny Newman echoed these sentiments. “I question why you waited until tonight to let us know about the dire straits this center was in. We need to know. You need to share. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. You haven’t asked. Let us work together.”
Ruth Williams, a JCC staff member, added to the energy of the grassroots movement beginning. “We need many people to be little angels,” she declared. She then held up a check that she was donating tonight, and challenged the audience to add 99 more contributions tonight; regardless of how small the amount. In addition, she suggested that Federation match these donations, and give the community time to save their JCC. After Williams spoke, a number of checks were brought to the leadership team at the front of the room. One man donated all the money he had in his pocket. Florine Mark had tears in her eyes as she announced that she had a $1,000 check from one attendee. A total amount raised by these donations was not available immediately following the meeting.
Brian Hamburger lives in Huntington Woods and comes to the Oak Park JCC for community. He sees this community growing; his friends are moving here. He insisted it would be a mistake to close this JCC. However, he emphasized the need for advertising and marketing. There has been little effort to grow leadership, especially in the health club. He received many flyers from other fitness centers in the area, but not from the JCC. If they want membership to grow, they need to advertise what they have to offer.
Jim Issner, Interim CEO of the JCC responded that they will spend $400,000-$450,000 on marketing both the West Bloomfield and Oak Park facilities. He also explained that the aquatics center/pool in Oak Park operates at a deficit of $500,000. In West Bloomfield, the aquatics center/pool breaks even, although West Bloomfield also has a day camp and a preschool that brings in revenue. He said that at least $1 million needs to be raised; they really need $15 million, due to the extensive repairs that need to be made to the Oak Park building.
Scott Cooper was the last speaker from the audience. He has been a Health Club member at the JCC for 15-20 years. He reminded the leadership team that “You don’t build by cutting. We all have to work together to build. We need you to guide us; you need to partner with us. You are the leaders; we need you to lead us.” Many speakers throughout the evening echoed the need for time to raise enough money to save the Oak Park JCC.
A decision will not be made immediately, and a second meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, January 13, 2015 at 7:00pm at the Oak Park Jewish Community Center to accommodate the interested community members who were not able to attend Monday night’s meeting.
Cheryl Weiss is a freelance writer and a lifelong resident of Oak Park.
Community Crowds Together To Save Oak Park Jewish Community Center