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CRISIS FOR SOCIAL SERVICES

Jewish Centers' Financial Woes Anger Community

December 05, 2001|BOB POOL and ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Confusion and anger swirled through the Los Angeles Jewish community Tuesday as two major groups disclosed plans to cut back cultural and social services because of financial problems.

The venerable Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, an umbrella group for 18 Jewish agencies, announced that it has laid off 40 employees amid warnings that it is nearly $5 million short of its fund-raising goal.

The popular Jewish Community Centers of Los Angeles, one of the federation's primary beneficiaries, said it is firing 50 workers and is prepared to close five of its seven sites where educational and recreational programs have been conducted for generations.

Top federation leaders blame the recession and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for the drop in contributions. They said they are taking steps to keep the community centers' children's programs going at least through the end of the school year next spring.

But some assert that the federation's annual fund-raising drive has not been heavily affected by the economic slowdown or the aftermath of the East Coast terrorism. And others suggest that the shutdown threat may be part of a ploy by some to shutter community centers that are thought to be outmoded or too isolated from newly emerging Jewish neighborhoods.

Leaders of one site that in the past has been earmarked for closure--the 46-year-old Westside Jewish Community Center in the Fairfax area--said they were ordered by the federation three months ago not to hire their own outside fund-raiser to help boost contributions to their center.

Instead, federation officials promised to provide an emergency allocation to the centers to keep their doors at least temporarily open. A few days ago, it was revealed that the cash would be a federation loan secured by the Jewish Community Centers-owned properties themselves.

That means officials will have the authority to sell off the community center sites if necessary to repay the loan.

Federation President John Fishel said the financial emergency is real. He said his organization has reduced its staff from 150 to 110 and has closed an office in West Los Angeles.

The federation's 2001 fund-raising target is $44 million. So far, $39.2 million has been raised.

"It's much more of a challenge this year because of the economy and the impact of the campaigns subject to the events of Sept. 11," he said.

A federation spokeswoman, Tzvia Schwartz-Getzug, characterized things differently, however.

"We are on pace for our campaign. Our goal for the year is $44 million. We are on pace to reach that goal," she said. "December is traditionally the month where we bring in a good percentage of our campaign."

Schwartz-Getzug said costs for such things as security have increased over the past year, though. And that has helped create what "we think will be a shortfall at the end of the year."

In a letter sent to members of the seven Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, group Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi and President Lee S. Smith attributed the problems to "difficult economic times and changing community needs."

The pair said community center and federation officials "are collaborating to develop a continuity plan" for children and families that participate in nursery school and after-school programs.

On Monday night Giladi told about 150 people at the Silver Lake community center that the collaboration--which resulted in the $3-million loan secured by the centers' buildings and land--have kept preschools and after-school programs alive through June for 900 children.

But the center in Silver Lake, along with the one in the Fairfax district and others in Santa Monica, Sherman Oaks and Granada Hills, face uncertain futures, she said. Sites used for centers in West Hills and Agoura Hills are owned by the federation and are not being used as collateral for the loan.

Added Fishel, who attended the meeting: "I can't give you any great expectation for the future beyond June 30. I think we all realize this is a very sad situation."

On Tuesday, some were calling it an unnecessary situation.

Critics of the proposed closures questioned whether the financial situation is as dire as federation officials suggest, or whether the shutdown threat was a fund-raising ploy. Others criticized the community centers' bookkeeping system.

"It's disgraceful. I think there's a hidden agenda here. They want a new Jewish Community Center at a different place on the Westside," said Amy Roth, parent of a preschooler who attends the Fairfax district center with 120 children.

"Supposedly our center is only $200,000 in debt. You don't go from a $200,000 deficit to closure. But our preschool is self-sustaining," she said.

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