For many, the move brings back bad memories of the 2015 JCC Oak Park closure.
In a follow-up statement to the JN, new Federation President Matt Lester and Foundation President Dennis Bernard reiterated that the JCC “is committed to maintaining and restoring wellness programs including fitness classes, basketball and swimming,” and that the closure will “mainly affect the Fitness Club members”, while “no one will need to find a new place to swim or have community events.”
“We truly understand and sympathize with the long-time members of the health club who are affected by the JCC’s decision to close its health and fitness center,” the statement said. “We are all saddened that an era has come to an end, but we fully support the JCC evolving their programing to meet the ever-changing needs and demographics of our community.“
“People are understandably upset that their fitness center is closing. At the same time, we have received strong support for the JCC for this decision from across our community, and we share in the sense of optimism voiced by many community members about the JCC’s future – beginning with the fact that the building will remain open as a central hub for Jewish life in our community,” the statement continued.
“In this forward-thinking move, the JCC increases its capacity to deliver programming across metro Detroit – from West Bloomfield to Oak Park, Novi to Birmingham, Detroit to Troy. We join the numerous JCC stakeholders, partner agencies and program participants in supporting the agency as it confronts difficult financial issues to be better positioned to serve our community for years to come.”
Days after the news broke that the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit’s health club was shutting its doors, the reaction from the Jewish community has been widespread disappointment.
“I’ve been going there since I was 4 or 5 years old,” said longtime JCC Health Club member Barbara Nickel, 63. “Back in Detroit, me and my brothers used to walk up there and swim and hang out at the snack bar, and then it moved out here to West Bloomfield Township when I was at the end of high school. I think it’s tragic, I’m devastated and heartbroken that it’s ending.”
Nickel made countless friends and memories in the six decades she was a member and believes the closure is going to affect the community in many ways.
“It’s going to send us off into different factions because we have to join different places now,” Nickel said. ‘There’s not going to be any one place that we can all join. This was the central for the Jewish community for all these years.”
Nickel learned of the closure from an email to members sent by JCC CEO Brian Siegel on Tuesday afternoon.
Siegel told the JN the JCC decided to close its health club due to a number of reasons, including real estate issues with a 340,000 sq. ft. building with business operations that no longer support it, as well as seeing a membership decline of 50% in the past decade, with a drop in Jewish membership being a crucial part of that decline.
“You have to understand, we kind of raised our kids there,” Nickel said. “When they were toddlers, we would go there and hang out and spend the day there, there was so much to do.”
Nickel said that even her children, who live in Alabama and Chicago now, reached out to her after hearing the news, and were devastated.
In recent years, Nickel has used the health club for swimming and water aerobics classes, as well as weights classes.
Nickel is in no rush to join a new health club due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but said she needs to find somewhere with a pool, considering she’s been swimming at the JCC on a near daily basis since 1979.
“Where do we go? We’re never going to be together again,” Nickel said.
Layoffs of Staff
The closure will result in many layoffs, as well, although the JCC declined to release the number of affected jobs. Heidi Budaj, an assistant executive director of the JCC, believes having to let go members of the health club staff is just as upsetting as the club closing down.
“It’s a heartbreaking moment having to separate from members of our JCC family,” Budaj said. “We’re a very close-knit staff here at the JCC. Having to let staff go at any moment and especially this moment with so much uncertainty in the economy, is heart-wrenching, and we all feel that.”
The JCC has reached out to the employees who lost their jobs, and reiterated that there are avenues for assistance if needed in these tough times. Budaj hopes some of the employees can come back when future plans become clearer.
“When we talked with each of those employees that were let go, the message that we gave was that the community is here for them, and we referred them to JHelp if they need any help,” Budaj said.
“While we don’t know what’s possible, we hope this is not a permanent separation for all of them.”
Memories of Oak Park
The closing of the JCC’s health club comes just over five years after the closing of the Oak Park JCC.
That closing, in August 2015, was controversial and heartbreaking for many in the Jewish community. Members of the Oak Park facility believed the Jewish Federation did not properly communicate the closure to residents and was not working to accommodate the Jewish population of Oak Park and neighboring communities, including the large Orthodox population.
Many commenters on the JN’s Facebook page compared the West Bloomfield health club closure to the Oak Park facility closure.
“When they closed the Oak Park branch, which was always busy and active and had a highly incentivized membership, they said that the building was too old and the West Bloomfield building was the one to save,” wrote Jodie Stein of Huntington Woods. “Now they delete services to the community at that building as well.”
These raw feelings were exacerbated when Federation at first proposed building a new multi-purpose building on the Oak Park site but couldn’t deliver a sustainable model, even though a major donor was on board. Federation then went on to demolish the building in January 2018. Nothing has been developed on the lot to date.
The Oak Park JCC was losing $800,000 annually (out of an overall $1 million annual loss) at the time of its closure, on top of a $6.5 million deficit on the JCC’s 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,” said Siegel in 2015. “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.”
Siegel also asserted at the time that if the community had not made this decision, the JCC would have been forced to shut down all of its operations.
Janet Birnkrant Levine, a Huntington Woods resident and former member of the Oak Park JCC, wrote an opinion piece for the JN after that JCC’s closing.
“There are hundreds of us still living in this 10 Mile corridor, and we have been abandoned heartlessly by not only the JCC, but our Federation as well,” Levine wrote in 2015. “We are the stepchildren of the Metro Detroit Jewish community, much as we were decades ago before our grassroots citizens fought to save this vital Jewish presence.”
Jewish Senior Life Minimally Affected
Barbra Giles, executive director of strategic initiatives for Jewish Senior Life, is among those sad to see the health club go, but understands why.
“Of course we’re sad whenever one of the agencies has to make decisions like this,” Giles said. “These kinds of decisions don’t come easily, and they’re taken with the utmost consideration.”
According to Giles, only a handful of JSL residents took advantage of the JCC health club memberships, even though JSL’s Hechtman, Meer and Fleischman facilities are located on JCC’s West Bloomfield campus.
Some JSL residences, such as the Hechtman and Meer Apartments, currently offer in-house wellness centers to make working out more accessible for their senior residents. Those wellness centers have been closed due to the pandemic but will be reopening shortly.
“We’re in a period of change,” Giles said. “Perhaps this change was inevitable, and it seems like the situation with COVID made the inevitable speed up the process.”
Some aspects of the JCC health club will remain in service, such as the outdoor pool, with goals of it becoming a year-round pool covered by an inflatable structure. JCC basketball leagues, day camps, and the Detroit Maccabi Games will all remain in service. JCC also intends to fulfill all obligations under its current lease to Frankel Jewish Academy, whose athletic department uses many of the JCC’s athletic facilities.
Jewish Federation’s 2020 Annual Meeting is tonight at 7:30 p.m. and will be conducted through ZOOM.