JCCs enjoy autonomy, but some members grumble

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Reveling in their newly won autonomy, Bay Area JCC officials say their independence from the United Jewish Community Centers will lead to more efficiently run centers.

The JCC of San Francisco's new board of directors carried out its first major step as an autonomous entity on Wednesday of last week by approving a set of bylaws.

"We're trying to solve the problems of the center as fast as possible," said Larry Myers, the new board president.

However, a handful of JCC of S.F. members expressed concern this week that the bylaws will limit their ability to influence decision-making at the center. The new rules include a section erasing members' right to vote for the board of directors and to be notified of meetings.

"They eliminated any accountability that they had to the membership," said Irving Zaretsky, who heads the 20-member grassroots group, Friends of the JCC.

JCC and S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation officials vehemently denied the allegation. The centers, they said, are incorporating under the same terms as most other JCCs in the United States and Canada and will likely become even more responsive to members than they were in the past.

"There was absolutely no intention to disenfranchise anybody. As a matter of fact, we've offered to meet with [Zaretsky's] group," Myers said.

This new dispute stems from a 77-2 vote by Bay Area JCC members on July 31 to dismantle the UJCC, the 34-year-old umbrella organization that governed Camp Tawonga and the JCCs of San Francisco, Marin and Peninsula.

Supporters of the decision maintained that the UJCC's oversight duties were no longer necessary and that the $1.1 million deficit at the JCC of S.F. threatened the other financially stable organizations under the UJCC.

Officials at the three JCCs and Camp Tawonga also said most center members wouldn't notice much of a difference because most of the changes will be behind the scenes and will affect only administration and governance.

But some members did notice a difference only two days later, when the JCC of S.F.'s newly appointed 30-person board of directors met for the first time and unanimously passed new bylaws.

The bylaws — which are being passed in nearly identical form by all of the former UJCC organizations — include a section eliminating the members as a corporate entity and erasing their powers.

"Any action that would otherwise require approval by a majority of all members or approval by the members shall require only approval by the board. All rights that would otherwise vest in the members shall vest in the board," the section states.

Until now, JCC members were able to vote for board directors and had to be notified of meetings — though very few actually showed interest in exercising their powers until the financial troubles in San Francisco came to light in March.

However, Myers said Zaretsky's group was overreacting to the changes, which he described as "technical."

Myers emphasized that new officials of the JCC of S.F. have just begun to correct the center's troubles. "Cooperation, not criticism, is essential," he said.

Zev Hymowitz, who started as the new executive director of the JCC of S.F. last week, had stronger words for Zaretsky and his group.

"It's ludicrous — the issue he's raising," Hymowitz said. "This is a group that will never be satisfied. They want to take over the JCC…Frankly, I only need one president."

Although not spelled out in the new bylaws, Hymowitz said center members can still attend the board's annual meeting. He added that the board is creating committees that will seek out the participation of center members.

In fact, Hymowitz said, the UJCC as a membership-based organization was unique among centers. The new bylaws bring the three JCCs back into line with centers across the country, he said.

Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation, agreed. The attorney who drafted new bylaws for the centers followed a form used by most North American JCCs, Feinstein pointed out.

But Zaretsky maintains that the changes in the bylaws have disenfranchised members without their knowledge. For example, he said, members no longer have the right to request financial records.

"San Francisco members would never have voted for [abolishing the UJCC] if they'd known they were voting for a putsch," he said.