Jewfro: Our Jewish Community Center: Defining Reality

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By Ben Falik

Oct. 30 will mark 50 years since Jimmy Prentis Morris and three other boys were driving home from a University of Michigan Football game when they were struck by a train at an unguarded railroad crossing. Following that tragedy, the Morris family’s wish was that the gym named for their son at the Oak Park Jewish Community Center would “inspire others to see the needs of the 10 Mile Branch and come forth with gifts that will enable the center to better serve its community.”

The prospect the Oak Park JCC will close is a combination of complicated and complex. The financials — membership revenue, carrying costs, debt, deficits, depreciation, capital improvements, allocations, restricted gifts, as well as the monetary, logistical and human resource implications of dozens of community programs — are complicated. So complicated that Interim CEO Jim Issner said if the JCC were a business, it would be the most complicated $14 million business he’d ever seen.

But, as Jim knows, the JCC isn’t a business — or a social service agency or any singular or traditional thing — and therein lies the complexity. It is a lot of things to a lot of people with very real value and very real existential questions.

As far as what’s complicated, I don’t have any light to shed on the finances other than to say that, as a recent addition to the JCC board, I’ve seen the books and the red ink is real.

What’s so complex is that the Oak Park JCC’s longevity could be its undoing — and could point to its future viability. This is uncharted territory for us. Not financial trouble, which has been part of the JCC for years. Rather, this is the first JCC we’ve had that has lasted more than a generation.

A scene from the 1993 opening after renovations at the Oak Park JCC

The original 1931 JCC on Woodward was less than 20 years old when the Jewish War Veterans Memorial Home Association proceeded with the Dexter Branch (on Davison) in 1949. In 1958, before it opened as the main branch of the JCC, the Health Club at Meyers and Curtis had a 600-person waiting list. The JCC broke ground in West Bloomfield in 1973.

Oak Park’s building dates back to 1956. It gained a pool and health club (at an opening ceremony boasting the “world’s largest challah, baked by Zeman’s”) in 1993. The Oak Park JCC has never been the main branch — always “auxiliary” to spaces first in Detroit and then far from the city limits — but it has lasted decades longer than any of those facilities. Over those years, an area that could have been a temporary stop on the northwesterly Jewish migration to nowhere became durable and dynamic.

So what’s the best analogy for the JCC? A car that may (or may not) be totaled? Northland Mall? The chicken (updated facilities) and the egg (expanded membership)? Cluck if I know.

The biggest risk I see is less that a physical facility will close and more so that the community will lose a “commons” space that is unassuming, accessible and pluralistic. There may be people who consider the kosher Dunkin’ Donuts on Greenfield more Jewish than a nearby Reform temple, and others who think they might get hit by lightning upon entering one of the many bustling Orthodox buildings along 10 Mile. People tend to agree on the JCC. And giving that up would be a blow to Jews of all stripes who have put down deep roots on this side of town.

Jim is fond of the quote, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” He has and I’m grateful. I’m also confident that — as complicated as the past reality is to understand and as complex as the present reality may be — the future reality has not yet been defined.

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