The Jewish Community Center
The Jewish Community Center. (Courtesy of JCC Facebook)

The community center can no longer afford to operate its fitness facilities, its CEO said.

The Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit in West Bloomfield Township is closing its health club, effective immediately.

Brian D. Siegel, CEO of the JCC, spoke exclusively with the JN to lay out how this all came about. He said the decision was due to a mixture of financial, philosophical, political and practical reasons, all in different ways exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The financial impact had much to do with the JCC suffering from “overbuilt” real estate for the past 20 years, Siegel said.

The health club contributed to overhead costs but was not running a net profit, and that was even before the pandemic. If the health club were to open, the impact short-term would be devastating and the long-term impact even worse, according to Siegel.

The health club’s membership has seen a 50% decline in the last decade. A crucial part of that decline is the drop in Jewish membership.

“What was once a core value proposition, of Jews wanting a safe place to work out next to other Jews, has gone away for the majority of people,” Siegel told the JN. “The JCC health club was declining both by virtue of a loss of its core value proposition, but also an exploding competitive marketplace.”

Prior to the pandemic, the JCC was in a committee process with representatives of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the United Jewish Foundation to try to solve its real estate problems.

“A plan was established to shrink the size of the JCC substantially, including reducing the size of the health club,” Siegel said.

The pandemic accelerated plans rapidly. A new committee was formed with Federation, to see how the pandemic affected the JCC’s prior plans to “right size” the building.

Instead of just reducing the size of the health club, the new committee decided to close it completely.

The committee is in the process of issuing a report, and the report will recommend that the health club be demolished. Until the money is raised to tear down that section of the building, it will be shuttered or its use will be radically modified.

“We owe a very firm debt of gratitude to our members,” Siegel said. “We have great respect for the historic nature of this operation. No decision was made flippantly and without great diligence. We look forward to a very bright future, but mourn the loss of a program and the loss of community for the members who made the health club their home.”

In a joint statement, the incoming and outgoing presidents of both JFMD and the United Jewish Foundation said they were aware of the move to close the health club but that the decision was the JCC’s own.

“We know that this is a painful moment for those who have called the Health Club home for decades,” the statement read. “Like each of the local partner agencies that receive funding from Federation, the JCC operates independently and is responsible for all decisions regarding its programs and services. We strongly support the work of the JCC to enrich Jewish life in our community, and to evolve as necessary to achieve its mission. We entrust the running of the organization to its professional and volunteer leadership, including its officers and Board.”

The club was also failing to bring younger members onboard. “Young Jewish people today don’t make a decision on where to work out based on where there are other Jews there or not,” Siegel said.

On the political side, Siegel said the JCC had been trying to negotiate with the community to take responsibility for a building that no longer fits its purposes.

‘It’s only the crisis that allowed that conversation to be productive,” Siegel said.

The political question the JCC asked itself was what they should do with a 340,000-square-foot building with business operations that no longer support it.

The JCC has operated as the sub-landlord of the building, with the real estate being owned by the United Jewish Foundation.

On the practical side, Siegel said the JCC realized the building couldn’t just be reduced “hodge-podge,” and that there needed to be specific plans in place on which parts were reduced.

The “right sizing committee” had plans to keep the health club before the pandemic, and was going to fill the indoor pool and place a new health club over it.

The pandemic stopped that, and it was agreed that a more aggressive demolition and size reduction of the JCC made the most sense.

“The JCC is going to be a much more nimble, financially viable operation that no longer has to chase a building it can’t afford,” Siegel said. “It’s a historic moment, a heartbreaking moment, but a critical moment for the future of the JCC.”

The outdoor pool will remain, with a goal of it being covered with an inflatable structure so it will become a year-round pool. The indoor pool will be closed long term, but short-term plans are uncertain.

The JCC basketball leagues will move over to the Rosenberg Center, with the area that currently houses volleyball being converted with wood floors added so that basketball can be played there.

There will be no impact or negative implications for the Detroit Maccabi Games, and the JCC expects they will have full ability to deliver on all services for the next Maccabi Games.

The JCC has plans to retain its JCC Day Camps, with goals to renovate their standing day camp center into a “world class day camp” in partnership with Tamarack Camps, the managing entity that runs the camps. Efforts are already underway for the renovation, and the JCC expects day camps to be a critical part of what they do moving forward.

Frankel Jewish Academy’s athletic department currently uses many of the JCC’s athletic facilities. Siegel said the JCC intends to fulfill all obligations under its current lease to FJA, which may mean using the existing gymnasiums until alternate spaces are found in the Rosenberg Center.

The membership model will simply cease to exist.

“We intend to build in partnership with our members a robust wellness operation, but it will not be membership-based,” Siegel said.

There are elements that will feel like a membership, but it will be fee-for service. For example, there may be monthly passes that will allow an individual to swim every day, but no traditional membership model.

Siegel wouldn’t go into specific numbers, but stated that many at the JCC will be losing jobs, including many long-standing employees who worked in the health club, which Siegel describes as just as heartbreaking as the close of the club.

An official vote was taken on Tuesday morning, and both the executives committee and the board voted overwhelmingly in favor of the closing.

The health club is located in the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Building, which currently spans 340,000 square feet. The committee is proposing to demolish about 110,000 square feet, leaving the remaining JCC with about 140,000 square feet (not including 90,000 allotted for other tenants and service areas).

“It was time for a paradigm shift,” stated JCC President Mark Rubenfire in a press release. “For decades the JCC had been struggling financially. A large part of the problem related to the size and deteriorating nature of the building. Reducing our footprint will free up capital and resources to get back to our core mission to build a more dynamic Jewish Community by collaborating to create world class education and engagement programs throughout Metropolitan Detroit.”

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  1. The problem is not about being overbuilt but the fact that the previous generation has done a poor job preparing the new generation of Jews for being proud of being Jewish and sticking to the community. Its merely lip service today you may not agree, but unfortunately this is a major fact. Our parents and grand parents paid more and invested to be a part of a larger Jewish community, this pride was not invested into the kids of baby boomers. Today’s generation has over 70%, if not more assimilation rate, and no real commitment to a community or the Jewish people. Of course, there is competition of “nicer” clubs around and convenience of closer ones but our parents were willing to pay more and drive farther because of their upbringing. This is not only happening with the JCC gym but also with the community center as well as majority of the synagogues. Only the orthodox synagogues are expanding. So call it what it is, but majority of Jews are not what they were in the previous generations. The book The Vanishing American Jew by Alan Dershowitz t talked about this years ago.

  2. While I think there is some truth to the above comment, I don’t think that is the only reason for this. Personally, I think it goes down to poor management historically, improper membership pricing, and not placing the JCC as a true competitor to other gyms. If you want young adults and families to attend, make it affordable for everyone. We have executive facilities, but young adults prefer clean and affordable over fancy. Don’t brand yourself as a luxury fitness club, overcharging for the same thing offered in dozens of other places, while also trying to attract the very same people who can’t afford it.

    We have a gorgeous building, that is truly amazing, but unfortunately it became too big without accounting for the future. Yes, we arguably have the greatest JCC in the country, but expansion comes at a cost, as does not knowing your changing customer demografic. This should be a lesson for us all to learn. I am truly saddened to learn about this, but then again, I couldn’t afford the membership.

  3. The fee-for-service model also may not work, considering other fee-for-service fitness (pools, etc.) Are more easily accessible and likely will be cheaper, based on the JCC’s historical practice.

    Why not work with Frankel to better use the building, letting them run the show?

  4. As a long-standing Health Club member,I’m saddened by the closure but not overly surprised. Management has made many poor decisions. Membership has decreased. At age 63, I’m one of the younger members. I will sorely miss the friendship and camaraderie of my fellow members. There is not a replacement for the JCC

  5. We, the Committee that tried to save the Oak Park JCC, knew this was coming. We were basically told that the West Bloomfield JCC was poorly designed, and that this huge behemoth would be closed as soon as the Berman Center closed, because that was their only real source of income.
    The Federation repeatedly lied to our group and misrepresented their position and the fact that they had already made up their mind to close the Oak Park JCC no matter how much it would damage the Jewish Community East of Telegraph Road.
    The Federation closed the wrong JCC!
    We told them that our JCC was smaller, easier to manage and was in better shape. For example, the energy efficient heating and cooling system in the Oak Park JCC was so new, that it wasn’t even paid for at the time of the building’s demolition.
    The Jewish Community East of Telegraph, widely believes that the behemoth JCC was kept open in West bloomfield, because of the number of affluent Jews that were members there, as opposed to the Oak Park JCC that did not have an affluent membership.
    It’s sad that this article did not even mention the Oak Park JCC and how tragic it was that the Federation tore it down without much of an effort to save it.
    Once again, the Federation has failed the Jewish Community. The article mentions that this JCC has been failing for decades. This time they blamed a bad building design, which they built, and the Covid-19 shutdowns for the closing of the affluent JCC.
    At least the Federation spared the community the dog and pony show where they announced a “Secret Donor” that would build a new, better and more efficient JCC. We are still waiting for that in Oak Park!
    I guess you can only use that lie one time.

  6. There would have been a larger MORE loyal membership had it been affordable. Before you tear down the building and throw out the baby with the bath water go back and offer the Jewish community a better way. Exclusivity of membership has been the venom of the health club. Make it affordable to everyone! I am sure you will see a hand over fist improvement unlike anything you can imagine. Giving up is not the Jewish way!!!!!

  7. I am very sad to read this. It’s really a shame that this is the solution. The demise? In addition to the reasons cited in the article above…the JCC has suffered from mismanagement for generations. I’m not sure if it’s too many Chiefs or too few…but as my late father used to say in the 80’s. . “If the Center was a business…they’d be out of business”.

  8. Such a fantastic workout, pool, gym, exercise class facility! It will be a shame to see it go. I agree with the above comments on how they should try and lower the price of membership and make it competitive to other gyms in the area. I bet you’ll see a much bigger membership and be able to afford the building once again. At least try!

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