Donor steps up to ensure a Jewish communal center continues in Oak Park.

JPMThe Jimmy Prentis Morris Jewish Community Center in Oak Park will close on Monday, Aug. 31, just as officials from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit told hundreds of disappointed and upset stakeholders during two community meetings at the building in January.

But all is not lost.

Just in time to make the Jewish New Year even happier, a deep-pocketed, white knight has surfaced. The anonymous donor’s generosity will ensure that a Jewish communal center is based in Oak Park for many years to come.

“This is good, good news,” said Federation President Larry Wolfe about the recent development. He appeared at the JPM Aug. 24 alongside Federation CEO Scott Kaufman. They were guests at the Monday night meeting of the Save the Oak Park JCC Committee, organized and led by Ron Aronson of Huntington Woods. The meeting attracted about 250 attendees.

Offering praise to Oak Park Mayor Marian McClellan for helping to broker a deal, Wolfe said, “We’re fortunate that a donor stepped forward last week to make an agreement.”

“I’m waiting for the details,” said Esther Posner of Southfield.

The donor, described as someone “with a deep love for the community,” will make a multimillion-dollar investment in JPM, the facility that McClellan called “the very heart of Jewish life in this area” because of its proximity and friendliness.

Wolfe told the Jewish News they were eager to come right away to share the new development with the JPM community, even if the deal involving Federation and its real estate partner, the United Jewish Foundation, is only “99 percent finalized.” Wolfe called it “a firm agreement, subject to approval later this week by Federation’s Board of Governors.”

Those gathered at JPM collectively gasped as Kaufman and Wolfe told about the donor and a plan to preserve the swimming pool while tearing down the rest of the 59-year-old building. Excitement grew with talk of replacing the structure with a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility.

Marilyn Lessem and Phyllis Aronson, both of Huntington Woods. “I was surprised and very happy. It restored my faith,” Lessem said.

The JPM Building, as it will be called, will be energy-efficient, largely due to a 20 percent reduction in its square footage. In addition to the pool, the building will offer a fitness area, classrooms and meeting space.

Kaufman said the donor has committed to paying for all aspects of the project, including teardown, engineering and architectural plans, construction and allied costs, such as landscaping. The demolition is anticipated to begin in April and take 15-20 months to complete.

“The United Jewish Foundation will own the building; it will not belong to the donor,” Howard Neistein, Federation’s chief operating officer, told the Jewish News. Another new donor has pledged $50,000 annually to help with operations.

The major anonymous donor will have input on the design of the new building but not how it is run. UJF will hire operators to manage the building, Neistein said. JPM will no longer offer an executive club with lockers and showers. However, separate swim periods will continue for men and women.

Since Federation announced the closing of the JPM building because of its annual $1 million deficit, Kaufman said, “It has been a high priority for us to come up with a solution.”

Finding the right plan for the building was “challenging and stressful because it was so emotionally important to people in our community,” he said.

“I think it’s a great thing. Everyone worked so hard. It’s like a miracle,” said David Oliwek of Franklin.

Several proposals for JPM were presented and rejected before the one that got the nod. Kaufman said proposals for the building had to meet three set criteria: offer programming to the community; stay under Jewish auspices; and be financially sustainable. The expectation is for the new JPM building to break even financially.

On this evening of seeming resolution to the JPM crisis, McClellan recalled how “people were devastated and furious when they heard about the closure” of the JPM building. She and Federation leaders praised the Save the Oak Park JCC Committee for making a difference in the community.

Aronson and other committee leaders met as often as possible with Federation leaders to discuss sparing the JCC in Oak Park. The group raised money to award several JPM memberships to young individuals and families. It hosted Professor Howard Lupovitch, director of Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University, for a lecture on Jewish community centers.

“We’ve had the Program for Holocaust Survivors at the Oak Park JCC for the past 22 years. The survivors are very rooted here and we hope to return,” said Dr. Charles Silow of Huntington Woods.

Kaufman said results of the committee’s original survey of what community members most desired in a JCC helped to determine what the new JPM entity should include. The pool, for example, is a much-utilized feature.

Even without all the details nailed down, most of those commenting after the meeting indicated they felt assured their beloved communal center would continue.

“The seniors, the Russian community, our Orthodox members, the pool users, those who meet in this building and love it so, will soon have a modern, energy-efficient new building,” McClellan said. 

By Esther Allweiss Ingber, Contributing Writer