The former mayor of Oak Park takes a stance on the need for a return of the Oak Park JCC.
By Jerry Naftaly
I have anxiously waited for developments that would return our Jewish Community Center to Oak Park. We were first told an anonymous donor would help save the facility. Many of us were dubious and skeptical, but encouraged. “Save the OP JCC” organized and fundraised in a serious effort to give feedback and support.
And then the JCC in Oak Park, once known as the Jimmy Prentis Morris branch, was gone. Closed. Bulldozed. Demolished. Then more smoke and mirrors. Hope was kept alive with a sign that read “Coming Soon — The New Jimmy Prentis Morris — Jewish Community Facility — Construction to Begin Spring/Summer 2017.”
Privately, I was told funds were not available to continue to own and operate the JCC in West Bloomfield and Oak Park. Many believe the JCC’s budget, including the losses from the West Bloomfield building, was balanced at the expense of the Oak Park JCC.
In previous points of view I’ve shared with Jewish News readers (Nov. 28, 2017, and March 29, 2018), I offered alternatives for a scaled-down JCC without a pool and health club. We need a community center that provides presentation space, a privately run kosher restaurant, a kitchen for food classes and office space for Jewish Federation agencies that could consolidate in this central location. A smaller footprint seemed reasonable. Although few other facilities in our community are self-supporting, proper management of a small JCC might make that attainable.
Soon, another year was gone and so, too, were the anonymous donor and the sign. Instead, we were asked to wait for the results of a 2018 community wide population study to be released, even though the growth of the Jewish community in Oak Park, Southfield, Huntington Woods and other nearby communities was apparent to many of us.
Snippets from the study appearing in the Jewish News, along with an editorial in the March 28, 2019, edition, supports what we knew all along: This is the center of the Jewish community. This is where the Federation should live up to its promised commitment.
The Jimmy Prentis Morris family donated to “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 Jewish Welfare Federation and United Jewish Charities contributed at that time. This year marks the 54th anniversary — triple chai — of the death of Jimmy Prentis Morris at age 13.
The impression I and many others get is that Federation has lost its mission in serving community needs and maintaining the sense of community. At a time when world events call for fellow Jews and neighbors to come together, I feel as if we have been divided into classes.
To the overall Jewish community, I ask that you join with us to continue the dialogue and pressure to bring back the Jewish community center and the services once provided in the former Oak Park JCC to this area.
To the Federation leadership, don’t keep us waiting another year. I ask you to communicate directly with the community. Once and for all, tell us if you intend to further honor the legacy of the Jimmy Prentis Morris family and build a new community center at the former site.
Jerry Naftaly is the former mayor of Oak Park.