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JCC Branches Go Separate Ways

June 18, 2009 By:
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Kids at the Kaiserman JCC's summer camp prep for a kickball game.

The Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia, a venerable institution that has played a key role in the lives of generations of Philadelphians, is in the final stages of splitting up, leaving each branch in business for itself.

Last week, the decentralization process cleared a key legal hurdle when the Pennsylvania state attorney general, who oversees the breakup of charitable nonprofits, gave its seal of approval.

Unbeknownst to many, for nearly a year, the three branches -- the Gershman Y, the Kaiserman JCC, the Klein and Stiffel JCCs -- have acted in a quasi-independent manner, making their own decisions on budgets, programming and personnel. They are also now responsible for their own fundraising.

Yet branch directors said the programs, services and activities have hardly been affected.

Only time will tell what it all means: Is it that the Jewish Community Centers are entering a new phase, with less bureaucracy? Or does it reflect a community that is becoming increasingly dispersed and decentralized?

Ironically, the split comes at a time when Jewish groups are merging to become more economical and efficient. But the JCC leadership has argued that in this case, it's more cost-effective for the branches to part ways.

"There is no demonstrative need for the central office, but there is a continued need for the branches -- and that's what we are trying to achieve," said Ernest Kahn, a retired senior official with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia who is overseeing the legal, fiscal and logistical issues involved in the decentralization.

For some with a long history of involvement with the JCCs, the breakup of an agency formed in 1965 brings mixed emotions.

"I have a lot of sadness. There is a lot of history there," said Philip Shiekman, who from 1979 to 1981 served as president of the agency then known as the Jewish Y's and Centers of Greater Philadelphia. It took its current name several years later.

The primary reason driving the breakup is the fact that the branches -- with a combined budget of more than $9 million -- have become so divergent that it no longer makes sense for them to continue operating under one central budget, according to Kahn and others.

Kaiserman, for instance, is situated on the Main Line and adheres most closely to the traditional JCC model, featuring a summer camp, preschool, athletic facilities and Jewish programming. The branch employs about 125 people, and has an overall budget of about $4 million -- more than 90 percent of which now comes from dues, tuition and donations.

Center City's Gershman Y, which nine years ago closed its athletic facilities and sold its building to the University of the Arts, has evolved into a cultural institution, with an annual budget of about $800,000. Its leadership hopes the Y will become a focal point for Center City's re-emerging Jewish community, bolstered by an influx of retirees and young professionals.

The Klein and Stiffel JCCs, which are located in the Northeast and South Philadelphia, respectively, have actually been joined as a single entity for more than a year. They both concentrate on meeting the social-service needs of an underprivileged and elderly population.

With a staff numbering between 125 and 150, Klein's budget tops $4.5 million, half of which comes from program-targeted grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and from the government.

"I realized that we weren't talking the same language anymore," Andre Krug, executive director of the Klein and Stiffel JCCs, said of his meetings with colleagues from other branches.

Even something as simple as summer camp means vastly different things for Klein and for Kaiserman, with Klein staff often watching over kids from troubled or economically disadvantaged homes, said Krug.

Another key impetus behind the move is that, for at least the past half-decade, the central office was increasingly viewed by the branch directors as ineffective and inefficient.

"It added a layer of cost that was perhaps avoidable," said Louis Coffee, president of the Gershman Y's board of directors. The branches have long had independent boards, but until now, they have acted primarily in advisory capacity.

Farrell Borine, executive director of the Kaiserman JCC, agreed: "For the last 10 or 15 years, they haven't put money into the building, they didn't fix roof leaks. Nothing was done. We put Band-Aids on, and Band-Aids only last for so long."

Over the past year, Borine has relished the chance to decide on his own, for example, to replace both the pool filter and the gymnasium floor.

A Failing Model

The decentralization process began in November 2007 with a vote by the JCCs central board.

Ben Goldman, the board's president, said that a Federation task force had previously recommended such action. He said the fact that Federation had been steadily providing less money to the central agency played a part in the decision.

Ira M. Schwartz, Federation's CEO, said that ultimately, it was the failing model of a unified agency that led to the changes.

To help ensure the fiscal survival of the branches, Federation last August gave the JCC's $1.5 million to help cover the costs of the breakup, said Schwartz.

"We also felt that this was the right direction to go," he added.

As much as any local Jewish institution, the JCCs have been forced to deal with the dispersion of the Jewish community.

The move enables the branches to be more responsive to the needs of their surrounding communities, as opposed to a central board, said Goldman.

That 2007 decision to decentralize proved to be just the start of a long, complicated process.

"You can't simply dissolve a nonprofit corporation," said Kahn, who was brought into the process about a year ago.

The central branch's main office, located at the Gershman, slowly ground to a halt, with staff members relocating to other branches or leaving.

Kahn said that whenever a charitable nonprofit in effect goes out of business in the state, legal approval must be sought, in part to ensure that donations are used for their proper purpose and in part to ensure that an organization pays its outstanding debts.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett needed to give that go ahead, as well as approve the JCCs' fiscal arrangement to pay off nearly $1 million in debt.

For a time, there was concern that the attorney general might not sign off, said Kahn, potentially putting the entire agency into bankruptcy.

But on June 12, the JCC received a letter of approval from the attorney general's office. The Philadelphia Orphan's Court must still sign off on the plan. The court deal with minors, but also handles cases related to estates, trusts and nonprofit groups.

Some Unofficial Grumblings

At the branches, few members seem to be aware that anything has changed.

"I didn't know it was going on," Alan Kravetz, a sports therapist, said Tuesday morning as he was leaving Kaiserman after a regular swim. "I come in, I use the pool, I take a shower, I go home."

Fitness buff Andee Dubin also hadn't heard about the decentralization. After leaving her morning workout at the Kaiserman, she said that she hopes independence will help the branch raise more money to put back into the building, especially the gym.

"I think it needs to be fixed up a bit," she said.

Dropping her 5-year-old son off at Kaiserman's preschool, Emma Keeler said all she had heard were some rumblings that less scholarship money was now available for tuition.

Borine, the Kaiserman director, said that while it's not a secret, members had not yet been officially informed about the administrative changes since the breakup was not yet official.

He said that membership dues have not increased, but that camp and after-school programs fees have been raised from 3 percent to 5 percent, which is a similar increase to previous summers.

Scholarship money, he added, has dipped only slightly.

A History of the JCCs

The Jewish Community Centers in Philadelphia began with the Gershman Y. According to Philadelphia Jewish Life 1940-1985, the Young Man's Hebrew Association was opened in 1875 by well-to-do German Jews who sought to create an alternative to the YMCA's missionary activities; it served to help acculturate a generation of new immigrants to America. The current building at Broad and Pine streets opened in 1924.

The seminal 1934 work Judaism as a Civilization by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, further enhanced the status of Ys and community centers as being a focal point for Jewish culture, as much or perhaps even more than synagogues. For a time, synagogues tried to compete by building swimming pools and basketball courts of their own.

In 1965, the Y merged with the Neighborhood Centers, an organization that ran a number of sites with after-school recreation programs, clinics and theater groups. The new Jewish Y's and Centers oversaw an expansion with the construction of both the Klein and Kaiserman branches in the early 1970s.

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