Financial Pressure

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Jewish community centers in North America are facing financial pressures that have forced more than a few to shut their doors — or take out loans to survive.Like other other Jewish institutions, attracting and retaining members is a challenge in an era when American Jews feel at ease anywhere and choose to spend their dollars elsewhere.

Detroit’s JCC among others facing chronic debt across the country.

Welcoming intermarried couples is a strategy many synagogues have adopted to stay relevant and financially solvent in the 21st century and, in the case of most JCCs in North America, opening membership to non-Jews (who make up, on average, one-quarter to one-third of the membership of JCCs nationwide) does the same.

Yet, an open-door policy hasn’t been a magic bullet. Many, like Detroit’s JCC, are facing serious financial pressures. Several have closed – the Los Angeles and Bay Area in California are notable examples – while others struggle with chronic deficits.

The collapse of the housing market in 2008 and the economic downturn that followed hurt nonprofits especially, says Jordan Shenker, senior vice president of community services at eh JCC Association (JCCA), the umbrella organization of some 350 JCCs in North America, or about 95 percent of all JCCs.

“2008 and 2009 were very difficult years for nonprofits. We had the Madoff issue that hit Jewish nonprofits. Funding was decreased,” he says. “We had extensive expansion 10 years prior, so when revenues constricted, communities couldn’t finish building. Today, those that didn’t have capital projects are in terrific shape.”
Detroit’s JCC is apparently an anomaly.

It has not embarked on a major capital project in the last 10 years, but it is facing $8 million in short- and long-term debt. In January, leaders said they were blindsided by the scope of the problem, which led to the departure of former executive director Mark Lit and the JCC’s controller and the hiring of interim director James Issner to work to turn around the center’s fortunes. Earlier this year, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit/United Jewish Foundation provided a stopgap $950,000 to the JCC so it could cover payroll and other expenses. Board President Florine Mark is optimistic.

“We now have James Issner, who will help us out of the difficulties we’ve unfortunately gotten into. It’ll be over in a minute; it’s been blown out of proportion,” she says of revelations of a so-called “legacy debt” that has been growing for years. “I would not have taken this presidency if I didn’t have passion for this Center.”

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Still, an audit of JCC finances for the past three years, expected to be completed by the end of this month, should reveal exactly where the JCC stands financially.

JCCA President and CEO Allan Finkelstein would not comment directly about the Detroit JCC’s financial woes, saying only that “any business can have financial challenges. I don’t think they’re relevant to all JCCs.”

JCCA’s Role
While the JCCA offers on-site consulting services to its constituent members, it is there not to save struggling JCCs but to lay out an overall strategy for success.

In this century, that has meant getting JCCs to think more about innovative, engaging programming and less about dues. In fact, programming brings in more revenue than membership, annual reports show.

“Membership is a funny word; we don’t use it anymore,” Finkelstein says. “We talk about Jewish engagement. That’s what the Pew study is about. The conversation is: How are we going to create activities you’re going to want to participate in?”

The 2013 Pew study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” showed Jewish organizations what they already knew — American Jews are largely secular and unaffiliated, and depending on the generation, intermarried. The key is that they identify as Jews.

A quarter of all JCC members in North America fit that profile, Shenker says. They don’t affiliate with a synagogue or send their children to yeshivahs or day schools, but they will use a Jewish community center to work out and to care for their children.

If a JCC can connect those people with each other, they’re doing something right.

“I may run a great fitness center or a great preschool; it may be that I run a great camp program and have a robust performing arts series,” Shenker says. “But the JCCs that connect people to others have the greatest impact. JCCs are in the business of building relationships. They’re the vehicles.”

Providing people with a sense of community is what the JCC of Metropolitan Detroit does, and it does it well, says Assistant Executive Director Dave Stone.

“We’re so much more than a fitness center; we’re about building a community,” he says. “That’s what the Maccabi Games are all about — bringing people into the fold.”

The 2014 JCC Maccabi Games & ArtsFest, which Detroit’s JCC is hosting for the fifth time (in August), brings 1,500 teen athletes and artists to town and engages about 1,000 volunteers locally. It is a revenue generator, although the success of the event also depends upon sponsors and donations.

Programming within Detroit’s JCC has been recognized for excellence by the JCCA, including the Kindness Project run by Rabbi Zvi Muller and Shalom Street in West Bloomfield.

Creating and sustaining programs that appeal to a wide demographic is an ongoing challenge, says Leslee Magidson, executive director of the Jimmy Prentis Morris JCC in Oak Park.

“Can you meet everyone’s needs? The answer is no, you can’t meet everyone’s needs,” she says. “But we’re having conversations of how we can reach out. We have to be realistic about the fact that our community is the oldest Jewish community outside of Florida. And, if that’s who our demographic is, are we meeting their needs? On the other hand, are we meeting the interests of a younger community? I think it’s complex.”

Benchmarking

Detroit is in the midst of benchmarking, a process by which it surveys staff and members about overall satisfaction and looks at financial sustainability, member/user engagement and programmatic success. It serves as an “early warning system” to detect problems before they become crises, and it is one of the most valuable services the JCCA provides, Finkelstein says. This is the second time Detroit has undergone the process since 2007. Results will be presented to the board in May, Stone says.

“Benchmarking is good, especially if you do it a number of years in a row, and especially when you benchmark against yourself,” he says. “You see how your agency has grown and improved, and you get to see how JCCs around the country of like size are doing.”

Detroit’s JCC has about 8,000 members, a number that has remained steady for a while, Stone says. The Greater Washington, Kansas City, Denver and Cincinnati JCCs are considered of like size, he says.

Data gathered in the last 10 years show that the most successful JCCs offer members multiple opportunities while they’re in the building, that they successfully sign up people who use the JCC for preschool into year-round membership, with the first six months being the most critical for getting people to sign up, Shenker says.

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Benchmarking is useful “if you use it,” says Marc Fisher, CEO of the Mayerson JCC in Cincinnati, which went through the process during the last two years. Cincinnati’s JCC has about 8,400 members and an annual operating budget of $9 million, in contrast to Detroit’s $13 million budget.

Some of the programming that has been successful is communal; it involves projects that engage Jews and non-Jews, such as its “Under One Roof” program in which arts organizations and other secular agencies, along with synagogues, created panels for a communal sukkah in the building’s courtyard.

“We changed up some of our programming to be more communal-based,” Fisher says. “We partner with schools from the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. We are not organizing these programs with an eye on making money, but because they fit our mission of being a community neighborhood.”

The Mayerson runs an annual operating deficit of $300,000, Fisher says, but in order to eliminate it, the center would have to cut programs and services. If the community wants to continue serving seniors, children and families and assisting those with financial need, it needs to financially support the JCC.

“I don’t think it’s so bad that a nonprofit runs deficits,” he says. “It means we have to raise money. We’re a social service agency. People don’t think of a JCC as a social service agency but as a fitness center. We would prefer that along with being a fitness center, we are also seen as a social service organization.”

The Way Forward

The JCC’s debt problem is something its leaders don’t talk about publicly. But, if Florine Mark is correct, it is a mere blip in the center’s history.

What she sees is a JCC abuzz with conversation and cultural and athletic opportunities — the film festival, music fest and book fair, entertainment at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts, top-notch senior facilities, the day care center and inline hockey.

“Everything we do is first-class. We are the heart of the Jewish community,” she says. ■

Julie Edgar | Special to the Jewish News

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