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Episcopal 'Angel' Helps Save a Jewish Center

Hoping to 'bridge gaps,' a bishop finds a way to work with community activists to keep a longtime Silver Lake program operating. Shared events may be next.

May 03, 2005|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

He's a hulking, silver-haired man, still close to his weight when he signed a contract with the Denver Broncos all those years ago.

He was once a Burbank cop who killed another man in the line of duty but is now Southern California's Episcopal bishop.

He's also a homeboy who, when he heard that the Silver Lake Jewish Community Center, where he played hoops as a kid, was about to go on the selling block, ponied up more than $300,000 to save it.

What the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno found in doing so was a group of tenacious community activists who had spent thousands of hours and raised several hundred thousand dollars trying to save the center, which otherwise would have been sold to a developer. Besides that, it revealed a small insight into how various Jewish organizations operate, with some saying there can be bias in the doling out of assistance.

"Maybe we can be an example of how we can bridge gaps," said Bruno, who only recently had a foot amputated because of complications from a staph infection.

The red brick set of buildings, just off Sunset Boulevard, has been around for more than half a century. Built in 1951, it was one of a string of community centers that have been a hub of Jewish life in Los Angeles. Among its services was early child care for members and nonmembers alike.

All that changed in 2001, when the parent organization, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, decided to sell several of its properties to cover an unexpected budget gap of more than $2 million. The cause of the deficit remains unclear, but it inspired activists in Silver Lake to launch a campaign to save their center. And then along came Bruno.

"He's been an angel for us," said Janie Schulman, a lawyer who led the fight to save the center.

By almost any measure, Bruno does not fit the standard mold of a cleric. Elected in 1999 to lead the 85,000 Episcopalians in six Southern California counties, Bruno was raised a Roman Catholic and married twice.

He has a degree in criminology from Cal State L.A. and a master of divinity degree from Virginia Theological Seminary.

He also spent several years helping manage a French restaurant after a brief pro football career that ended in 1966 because of injuries.

And he was a cop who spent 5 1/2 years on the beat until he killed a kidnapping suspect who was firing at his partner. A plaque given him by the Optimist Club for valor still hangs on his wall as a reminder of where he has been.

As a pastor, he managed to convince the diocese to move its headquarters to what was at the time one of Los Angeles' poorest areas, Echo Park, where he grew up.

And therein is the confluence of two different religions, as Bruno, in his earliest sermons as bishop, called for the church to be an "agent of healing and reconciliation" in such a diverse region.

Saving the community center has not been done without rancor. Some members of the center are perplexed that someone from another religion had to bail them out.

And perhaps the sorest point is that the center had to be bought back at all: The local Jewish community built it in the first place, after raising $50,000 to do so, then gave it to the parent organization.

Some of the anger has been focused on the parent JCC group, but some is aimed at the Jewish Federation, a philanthropic organization that each year raises at least $50 million for causes within the Los Angeles community.

"I think it's a very complicated history," said Deborah Dragon, a spokeswoman for the federation.

"My sense is that we sat down with all the parties and tried to facilitate solutions," she said. "There's only so much that can be done."

The road to saving the center was not an easy one. In the summer of 2002, facing a shutdown, members of the community center turned it into a nonprofit organization. Student enrollment increased, as did the waiting list. New classes, including ballet, flamenco dancing and martial arts, were added. But in the end, the center could not generate enough revenue.

Schulman, who was on maternity leave, volunteered to head the drive to save the center.

"There were a number of false starts along the way, but our community really pulled together," she said.

Among those who heard about the plight of the community center was City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents the district and who attended the JCC as a child. He and his staffers formed a negotiating team that engaged in shuttle diplomacy among the various parties.

Schulman, meanwhile, convinced lawyers in her firm to work pro bono, sometimes to a point -- as she jokingly puts it -- that they would duck out of sight when they saw her coming. The Far East National Bank came through with some financial help.

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