Let It Ride!
Above: JCC executive team members CFO Larry Poupard, Assistant Directors Judy Loebl and Heidi Budaj, COO Jeff Lasday and CEO Brian Siegel with JCC senior directors in the windows.
Reimagined JCC is on the road with programming, collaborations outside its walls.
Major changes have been afoot for nearly a year at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit, but most Jewish Detroiters are unaware of them. And that’s partly by design.
“The revisioning, rebranding and repositioning of the JCC is a process most consumers are blind to,” said JCC CEO Brian Siegel, who has been shepherding this reimagining of the organization according to a comprehensive plan that ranges from right-sizing the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Building to fixing the JCC’s balance sheet
Siegel cites these accomplishments and goals:
- Federation’s 15-person Education Department moved to the JCC last June, along with all its programs for adults, teens, families and children with special needs.
- In December 2017, the JCC signed an agreement with Tamarack Camps to manage its day camps starting this summer, and discussions have begun with donors about developing a “world-class” day camp on the northwest portion of the JCC campus. While the JCC will not confirm this amount, the JN has been told the camp project is estimated to be around $5-$6 million.
Also, new partnerships this summer with Hillel Day School and Repair the World Detroit will expand options for day campers enrolled in specialty camps.
- JCC Without Walls has been offering classes and programs throughout the community.
- Plans call for transforming Shalom Street into a family and parenting center that will include the PJ Library, a popular program for families with young children that will be connected to the JCC’s relocated children’s library.
- A new team of professionals is sitting in the “right seats on the bus,” Siegel said.
- The JCC has been showing operational profit for two years and its longstanding deficit of $6.5 million on its balance sheet is down to $2.5 million and expected to be under $2 million by the end of next month. (See accompanying story.)
- The JCC has gained its first Federation Centennial Campaign donor, hoping to spur others to invest in the JCC’s future. (See accompanying story.)
- And a plan is being studied to right-size and renovate the 340,000-square-foot JCC.
At the heart of the overall plan is for the JCC to depart from its traditional model and focus on reaching out to Jewish Detroiters — members or not — with programs they want at locations convenient to them in all parts of the community.
Siegel sees this as a paradigm shift from the historic way JCCs operate.
“The JCC is moving toward a vision of itself that is not bounded by a building or memberships,” he said. “The new vision of the JCC is more agile; it’s more customer-centric and it’s moving toward where the customers are. The JCC has to deliver programs outside the building.”
JCC membership is around 3,000, with 60 percent Jewish, Siegel said. “Now, membership matters a lot because it’s one of our core functions, but it’s a fitness-related membership and fitness-related revenue. It’s not a JCC membership,” he said. “We don’t want to communicate to people that you have to be a member. We’re not a place you have to join to gain value. We’re serving thousands of people who aren’t members and they are just as important.
“It’s an outreaching, intaking concept. Our vision is to provide world-class education and engagement programming — sometimes providing it, sometimes facilitating it, sometimes promoting it, sometimes sponsoring it.”
Already the JCC has amassed program offerings in various places around town and has collaborated, co-sponsored or publicized other organizations’ programs as an active partner.
“Our new vision for the JCC is to create an organization that views collaboration as central to its core mission,” explained Jeff Lasday, former head of Federation’s Education Department, most recently Federation’s senior director of community development and now JCC chief operating officer.
“This year, the JCC will partner with and collaborate with more than 80 different organizations, including Federation, congregations, day schools, early childhood programs, foundations and agencies within the Jewish community as well as like-minded organizations, agencies and foundations from outside the Jewish community.”
For example, the JCC has lent support to Hazon’s Jewish Food Festival, The Well’s Taslich on the River and the Metro Detroit Board of Jewish Educators SEED conference for teachers, among others. And it will be the lead agency with Federation in presenting the community’s Israel@70 celebration at Detroit’s riverfront June 20, a partnership that will involve more than 40 Jewish organizations.
As the JCC and its team move forward with this new vision, they know people may be skeptical.
“People are concerned that by closing the JCC in Oak Park, it reflects a leaning in to the West Bloomfield campus,” Siegel said. “We are saying that’s not the case, and we have to prove it. That is a fair way to hold us accountable.”
The closing of the Oak Park JCC on Aug. 31, 2015, remains a festering wound for many in the communities surrounding the A. Alfred Taubman Campus. It was made worse when Federation proposed building a new multi-purpose building but could not deliver a sustainable model, even though a major donor was on board. Federation demolished the building this January. The empty site is a reminder of that unfulfilled plan and of the JCC that once served the area.
Siegel, JCC CEO since March 2016, and a longtime JCC volunteer, board member and twice its president, says he attended all the meetings regarding the Oak Park JCC, which essentially was closed because it was losing $800,000 annually (out of an overall $1 million annual loss). The JCC was already dealing with a $6.5 million deficit on its balance sheet.
“We lost some of our heart and I’m the first person to say it, but it was not motivated by bias toward one part of town,” Siegel said. “To me, the JCC is a trust issue. For reasons both fair and some unfair, the trust has been lost. How do we rebuild that trust? We have to prove it on the ground.”
One way is to continue acting on his staunch belief that the JCC is a “critical engine for building meaningful connections between Jewish people and non-Jewish people in the larger community that, in turn, creates a more dynamic Jewish community in Detroit.”
Siegel added, “Jeff and I both believe that Jewish people don’t live in a vacuum and that our Jewish community as a whole is enriched by its interactions with the larger community.”
A New Vision
Siegel, an entrepreneur and strategic thinker at heart, began working on a new plan for the JCC in fall 2016. One wall in his office is covered in white boards, forming a major staging area for ideas, organizational charts and more.
Currently, a new mission statement, tweaked and nearly finalized, is scrawled on one board: “We exist to build Jewish community by collaborating to create world-class education and engagement opportunities for the mind, body and soul throughout Metropolitan Detroit.”
Input into the comprehensive plan came from co-author Jeff Lasday, while he was still at Federation.
“It was a pie-in-the-sky plan,” Siegel said in retrospect.
After sanctioned by the JCC board, the goal of moving the Education Department to the JCC was initially approved in January 2017 by the Federation board, which then appointed a task force to explore the challenges and opportunities created by the move. Its findings were presented in spring 2017. Federation board final approval came at its April 2017 meeting.
A few months later, on June 1, the Education Department became part of the JCC, along with its programs like JFamily, Opening the Doors (special needs education), FedEd, and early childhood, congregational school and day school programs, and more.
The Federation transfer of the Education Department was made in its entirety and included a $2.5 million budget that contains approximately $964,000 of Annual Campaign allocation with the remainder supported by grants, endowment income, user fees and contributions. This amount is in addition to the JCC’s own Annual Campaign allocation of approximately $1.54 million (creating a new total JCC allocation of approximately $2.5 million), including challenge grants, scholarships and other historical allotments. The JCC’s annual budget is $15.8 million.
The transition of the Education Department staff was paid for, in part, by a special grant from the Kahn Foundation, which, “along with Federation, the JCC board and donors supported the JCC in its darkest hours and gave us the chance to get this right,” Siegel said.
In addition to Lasday’s new title, Education Department staffers Judy Loebl became a JCC assistant executive director and Shelly Chanis became director of adult Jewish education.
“The JCC is moving toward a vision of itself that is not bounded by a building or memberships. The new vision of the JCC is more customer-centric and it’s moving toward where the customers are.”
— Brian Siegel
Other hires include Wren Hack as film festival, book fair and SAJE director, and Heidi Budaj as director of community relations. Larry Poupard, who works for Financial One, an outside accounting firm that helped the JCC put its books back in shape in 2013 after accounting errors were discovered, remains as chief financial officer.
“Our greatest accomplishment is the assembly of an extraordinary team of professionals to deliver on our promise of excellence in education and engagement programming,” Siegel said.
Budaj left her job as director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Michigan Region to return to the JCC, where she was program director from 2006-2012.
“I could not sit on the sidelines and watch my beloved JCC rise to great heights without being a part of it,” she said.
Her job will be “to share the story of the renaissance of the agency” and its new offerings to donors, partners, members and the community at large. She also will direct internal relations and ensure the JCC has meaningful impact on its lay leaders and volunteers.
As progress is made on the seven-point plan, some JCC staffers no longer are there.
“We have rebuilt a new team prepared to move the organization forward,” Siegel said. “Our current culture demands an entrepreneurial mindset that wasn’t right for everyone. We are leaning in to people who take ownership of their departments and are willing to take chances to move the needle.”
Moving the Education Department to the JCC also has had an impact on Federation.
“The move allows Federation and the JCC to focus on what they do best, with Federation’s prime function being to grow resources and plan for the long-term future of the community, and the JCC now has a deeper pool of talent to enhance its core role of providing quality Jewish educational programs and experiences to our community,” said Scott Kaufman, Federation CEO.
Kaufman sees synergies emanating from the move, like having all adult education programs under one umbrella and all programs dealing with special needs children together as well.
“Federation’s vision for the future is to have a more closely knit collaborative Jewish community,” he said. “Transitioning the Education Department to the JCC is one step toward this future.”
Currently in progress is the creation of “JLife,” a new brand/portal for the community’s education and engagement programs that will allow consumers to easily find and pay for programs online. The idea was initiated in the JCC plan and now is in Federation’s wheelhouse.
The historic elephant in the room remains the mammoth Kahn building. At 340,000 square feet, it is among the largest JCCs in the world. The 43-year-old building is very expensive to operate and maintain. According to Siegel, the operating cost per square foot is $8; that’s a total of $2.7 million annually.
Like many buildings owned by the United Jewish Foundation, Federation’s real estate arm, the Kahn building is aging. Its last major renovation was about 27 years ago, Siegel said.
“We’ve had the luxury and the burden of an extraordinary amount of space,” he said.
But problems persist and need to be addressed, Siegel says, including improving handicap accessibility and creating parking closer to the building.
A committee is currently looking at finances and feasibility and Siegel cannot give specific details, yet he says “the JCC is going to get smaller and there will be a lot of reorganization with the building. The JCC will be operating out of a smaller footprint.”
“We exist to build Jewish community
by collaborating to create
world-class education and engagement opportunities for the mind, body and soul throughout
— New JCC mission statement
Enter a concept in Siegel and Lasday’s plan known as tzimtzum, meaning “to contract to grow” in Hebrew. Applied to the JCC building, it means that tzitzum will come from renting space to full-paying tenants, eliminating sections of the building and using the remaining space in a more effective way, Siegel explained.
“When the JCC tackles the building-related issues, its operating statement will vastly improve,” he said, adding that reducing the footprint could save up to $500,000 a year.
“The renewal of the Frankel Jewish Academy lease and the expansion of the academy into more space in the building is a critically important and major first step in this portion of the plan.” (See a related story about JET’s move from the JCC, page 56.)
Other plans include creating an Adult Center for Education Engagement with the adult section of the JCC library, a conference room and office space for related professionals; the reception area at the entrance will be repositioned; Shalom Street will be transformed into a family and parenting center for children ages 6 months to about age 8, again with offices for related professionals; and a grab-and-go café will be added.
Siegel expects some of this work on the main floor will be ready by the end of the summer. He was unwilling to divulge the cost of the total reduction of the building’s footprint and renovations, but the JN has heard from other sources that the estimate is $7-$8 million.
“I believe the JCC has made tremendous progress over the past couple years in righting the ship, so to speak, and becoming relevant again in the Jewish community,” said Rick Zussman, JCC president.
“I look forward to our continued partnership with the Kahn Foundation and others who have supported our cause, as well as creating new relationships with others as they regain their confidence in the JCC and its vital role in our community.”
In reimagining the JCC, Siegel says he feels some of the hard decisions that had been put off way too long are being made by those in the trenches now to create a vision of the JCC people can believe in and get behind.
“We believe that at the intersection of collaboration and excellence in programming is a path for the JCC to re-assume its fundamental role as a community fabric-building engine throughout Detroit, inside and outside its cherished structures,” he said. “This is a profound and historic responsibility and we intend to fulfill it.”