The Blind Bind
With the public announcement that David Wayne, executive director of the Jewish Community Center, is moving on to a new phase in his life, and the JCC is conducting a nationwide search for a new director, questions inevitably arise regarding the change. While I am not privy to the inner workings of the agency, or any behind-the-scenes reasons for his departure, a few points can easily be made.
First, there are no questions or doubts about the integrity or decency of Mr. Wayne. He has always been the definition of “good guy.” But there are questions that anyone who has lived in our community very long might ask, and they all have to do with the direction and vision of our agencies, or lack thereof, and for this agency, leaders must be held accountable. A friend of mine told me that, prior to a meeting with Mr. Wayne, he asked that random JCC newsletters from 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and today be brought along for review. The challenge presented was a simple one. Besides the design of the newsletters, are there substantive differences in the programs being offered by the J? It’s undeniable that our society has changed, that the motivations and interests of our youth have changed, that our time is spent differently, and thus, it would be hoped, our agencies have also evolved accordingly. Sadly, this is not the case, and if one were to look at the newsletters as examples, it would become apparent that what was programmed 30 years ago is being programmed today.
But it’s not just the J that is answerable for an inability to respond to the times. The Jewish Academy of Orlando (called the Hebrew Day School when my two older children attended) continues to eke along with attendance below 150 students and an inability to remain current on its debt obligations to the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando. The Federation, meanwhile, is rolling out a campaign to retire the debt on the community campus, and its vision? By retiring the debt it can give the money that would otherwise go toward mortgage payments to local agencies for programs without any discernible vision. This is, in effect, retiring debt for debt’s sake, or to put it another way, raising money so agencies can simply keep going, with no rationale for their continued (or future) existence.
Listen, I want there to be a thriving Jewish day school in Central Florida. I want vital Jewish programming from synagogues and agencies. I want leadership and vision and a powerful organized voice for our Jewish community. But until the Federation can answer a few basic questions, I see no reason to support a campaign that is based on an agenda of self-sustenance and little else.
First question: why not sell the entire Jewish community campus and divvy up the proceeds? Or at the very least, as a cornerstone of the campaign, have the Jewish Academy move back into the space it once occupied at the J and sell its building? That immediately generates substantial cash for debt retirement. While I want a hub of Jewish life and activity for our community (and in fact my father was one of the key individuals who helped put the campus property together), the question needs to be asked: is this necessary, or would we now be better off selling this valuable commodity and doing something different? Assume, for a moment, that the property has a value of 12 to 14 million dollars. With debt of 6 million dollars, the agencies walk away with enough money to begin again. The Federation only needs a few offices it can rent anywhere. The Jewish Academy could be run out of a myriad of facilities—a storefront, a commercial building, even the space at Congregation Ohev Shalom now utilized by a different private school. And the JCC? Well, it could take its millions and build a new facility to match its vision of what it needs to be to meet the needs of tomorrow’s Jewish generation.
And that leads to my second question. What is our community’s vision, and in particular our agencies’ visions, for tomorrow? What will a Jewish community look like that is so attractive my children will want to (or at least would consider) moving back here to raise their future families? I don’t want to throw my support behind sustaining the same old same old stuff we’ve lived with for years. I want a diagram for the future. When these simple, straightforward questions are dealt with straightforwardly, I will do everything I can to support and promote a campaign that revitalizes and invigorates our Jewish lives. And I’d be willing to help create that vision, as would many people I know (though it must be led by those much younger than myself). But until I do, I’m sitting back and waiting, and watching, and hoping you do the same.
And that’s the good word (or is it?). Feel free to send your comments to the Heritage, or write me at email@example.com.