Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

JFGO tackles Schwartz plan to save campus

 

Roth Jewish Community Center, Maitland campus.

For years, leaders of the Jewish community have wrestled with ways to find new sources of revenue and reduce debt on the Maitland campus but no one came up with a plan to do it. Until now.

Local businessman Charles Schwartz, strong supporter of Jewish causes here and abroad, has put in play a bold multi-pronged plan that tackles long-stewing financial issues. Schwartz is proposing that Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando sell its share of the Rosen JCC in South Orlando to the Rosen Foundation and use the proceeds to reduce some of the $5.8 million campus mortgage. He recommends that the Jewish Academy of Orlando consolidate its operations into the Academy wing of the JCC Building. The JAO building would be sold, proceeds to pay down debt; or rented.

Schwartz also urges Federation and agency boards and professionals to tighten their belts and avoid programs they can't realistically afford. He also said the Federation must try to get out of the landlord business.

"These changes would reduce our monthly mortgage payments, which would put the Federation on sturdier footing and enable it to get back to providing the programs and services it was created to do," explained Schwartz. "The agencies would be paying lower rent which would ease their financial burden."

Few people in the community have a better handle on community issues than Schwartz. Since he moved here in 1977, he has supported, mostly behind the scenes, Federation, Jewish Academy, JCC, JFS, Hillel, and Israel Bonds, among others.

For years, he has agonized over the community's shaky financial future. Friends say he continuously discusses his ideas on how to repair it. He finally decided to take his strategy public late last year after he heard about a discussion at the Longwood home of Burt and Barbara Chasnov that stirred interest in Federation's future.

The Chasnovs, tireless workers in the Jewish community, invited friends to taste Barbara's Southern cooking and kick around ideas on how to deal with Federation issues, "It wasn't a fundraiser," Barbara Chasnov said. "We only wanted to hear suggestions from friends who have worked with Federation or its agencies."

When the discussion ended, one of the attendees, Joe Hara, stood up and announced, "I'm in!" A minute later, Ron Shader echoed, "I'm in, too!"

Schwartz's wife Roz attended the brunch. That night she described the discussion to her husband. "There was a consensus that the debt was keeping the Federation from doing its business-and something had to be done," she said.

Over the next few days Schwartz mulled this over. "I decided it was time to open peoples' eyes about the seriousness of what was going on," he said. He jotted down on a notepad a plan that had been brewing in his mind for years. The next morning he called Federation Executive Director Olga Yorish to set up a meeting with Federation President Michael Soll.

Soll and Yorish were impressed with Schwartz's plan. "It was a carefully-thought out, realistic way to get the Federation back on solid footing," said Soll. "We realized it would take community-wide support. We would be asking people to set aside their interest in a particular agency or program and put the interests of the community first."

They decided to create a strategy committee to circulate the plan. To head it they wanted an energetic activist who was respected in the community and understood Federation. They got on the phone to Ina Porth, former Federation president and current annual campaign chair who has often voiced her concerns about community finances. She didn't hesitate. "One of the main reasons Eli and I moved here was the active Jewish community," she explained. "Of course we would do everything to get back that vibrant community."

Porth quickly enlisted Schwartz's wife Roz. She had grown up in Orlando, in a family that helped build the Federation, and she later served as its president. "She was in on the planning of my strategy early on," said Schwartz.

The strategy team lined up like-minded volunteers to talk up the plan with friends. "We didn't ask for money," said Schwartz. "We asked only for people to get behind our plan, and help spread the word." To date more than 150 people have approved the plan, said Schwartz.

One of the first to get on board was Dick Weiner, a former Federation president who grew up in Orlando and has continually supported Jewish causes here and abroad. Weiner was raising money for Israel years before there was a Federation. He praised the Schwartz plan. "I want to compliment Charles for making an effort to resolve the fiscal problems facing the community. The community needs to face up to the problem," he said.

The team was cheered by this kind of support but some members were hesitant about approaching the Rosen Foundation, the JCC and the Jewish Academy before the Federation board had approved the action. Schwartz, however, had no reservations. "We've come this far-it's time to move forward with our plan," he said.

Last month Schwartz presented his plan to the JFGO Board of Directors. At press time, Soll was setting meetings with agency leadership to discuss the plan.

A number of years ago, in response to a growing Jewish community in Southwest Orlando, Federation helped launch JCC South in collaboration with the Harris Rosen Foundation. The Federation has contributed well in excess of $1 million. Rosen Foundation has contributed much more, Schwartz pointed out. The Federation owns the property. The South Campus is named after Harris Rosen's parents Jack and Lee Rosen.

Schwartz praised the Rosen Foundation for its community support. "The Federation recognizes the full contributions of the Rosen Foundation," he said, "and we are extremely grateful."

While Schwartz was formulating his approach to the Rosen Foundation, unbeknownst to him in late December a representative from the Rosen Foundation contacted the Federation expressing an interest in buying the property. Schwartz was encouraged by this overture. He and Soll sat down with a representative of the Foundation. "We explained our need to generate significant capital from all our available assets to reduce our debt," said Soll, "and we began negotiations."

Soll said negotiations are being conducted in good spirit and in a business-like manner. He said there is mutual agreement that a Jewish Community Center on the South campus would be maintained. "We're heading in the right direction," he said.

Tackling the next prong in Schwartz's plan, Soll sat down with leaders of the Jewish Academy of Orlando. Currently, the JAO occupies a full wing of what is known as the "old" building on the Maitland campus and the first floor of the "new" 40,000 square foot building that was erected about 10 years ago. The JAO was asked to consider moving all its operations to the "old" building. The Federation would either sell the "new" building with proceeds reducing campus debt or rent it. Schwartz wants the Jewish Community Center to agree to make space available to the Academy. Executive Director Yorish made it clear that the Federation wants the JAO to flourish. "No community is complete without a Jewish day school," she said. "Our support for the JAO is 100 percent. The same goes for the JCC. Both agencies are indispensable to the Jewish community."

In 2003, the Maitland campus was expanded and renovated. "The community took on a lot of debt when times were good, but things have changed and we must now start living according to our means," said Yorish. "That's why Charles Schwartz's plan is so critical to the future of this Jewish community."

Yorish added that in addition to these two steps, "We are looking into other potential sources of capital to eliminate or significantly reduce campus debt."

Schwartz, astute businessman and admitted worry-wart, is pleased with the support he is getting, but he continues to bounce around the community promoting his plan. He ends every sales pitch the same way: "That's my plan. Please support it or come up with another plan."

Stan Roberts is the former managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel. He is an active member of the Jewish community and has served on the Federation board of directors.

 

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