Friends of JCC disbands, still berating center leaders

Instead, it is splitting the money among the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, Hadassah, B'nai B'rith and Chabad House of San Francisco.

"We distinctly decided not to give any to the JCC," said Irving Zaretsky, the president of Friends before it folded two weeks ago. "There was such disdain shown toward the membership and so much disinterest toward the community."

Likewise, Zaretsky said, the Jewish Community Center's leaders have done "nothing right in the past two years…They just eviscerated the Jewish center."

There is no love lost between Friends and Zev Hymowitz, the center's executive director.

Hymowitz described the members of Friends as "contentious" and their overall contribution as "inconsequential."

"This group has no newsworthy value. They haven't been around. They haven't done anything in over a year," Hymowitz said Monday. "If they think they helped, fine."

Carolene Marks, a Friends member and the wife of former state Sen. Milton Marks, disagreed with Hymowitz's assessment.

"I don't see why Zev has nothing good to say about these people. They are good people…a dedicated group of people," said Marks, who hosted the group's final meeting in her San Francisco home and had served briefly on the JCC board as a Friends representative. Marks said she quit the board because she wasn't happy with the JCC's treatment of the union workers.

Zaretsky, who had been a longtime JCC member, said the dormant group decided to dissolve its status as a nonprofit association in order to avoid the annual government filings — not because it believed the JCC's leaders were handling the situation any more competently.

Its end became official at a July 31 meeting with 14 of its remaining 20 members. At its peak, the group comprised at least two dozen and spoke for hundreds of angry or disappointed JCC members. Most of the group had been JCC members for decades.

Friends originated in spring 1995 when the JCC's board and administration faced a deficit topping $1.5 million. As a result, the JCC board laid off workers, reduced hours and cut activities.

Friends decided to help by trying to raise the money the board said it needed to keep the health club open. But the health club was closed in May 1995 anyway.

The relationship with the JCC soured as Friends members began questioning the board's decisions and pressing for financial information.

Their access to board meetings was cut off later that year, when the JCC's umbrella group, known as the United Jewish Community Centers, dissolved. In its new bylaws, the JCC changed the status of its members. They are no longer allowed to attend board meetings, for example.

That move incensed Friends and decimated its ability to demand information.

Hymowitz believes only one Friends

member, Larry Burgheimer, offered constructive efforts instead of just criticism. Burgheimer joined a committee to assess the future of the health club and worked one-on-one with Hymowitz.

"All the other people…were flapping their jaws and doing nothing but flapping," Hymowitz said.

Burgheimer, a longtime JCC member, said he understood the center's leaders annoyance with Friends.

"We were definitely rebels," he said.

But Burgheimer still stands by the group's ideals.

"The main thing we were pushing was for members to have a real voice," he said.

Over the past two years, the JCC has slowly managed to get back on its feet. The health club reopened in January, under the management of the for-profit Pinnacle Fitness. Courses and activities have been reintroduced. And the deficit now hovers around $300,000.

JCC leaders are proud of what they've accomplished so far. But Zaretsky asserted that the JCC has been treating itself as a private business instead of a true community center. JCC officials, for example, would not publicly disclose the terms of its lease with Pinnacle Fitness.

This spring, the center's board decided to either massively renovate or raze and reconstruct its 65-year-old building at 3200 California St.

When the fund-raising for the effort gets under way, Zaretsky promised, Friends will regroup.

"We are going to try to make sure that any efforts to resurrect the JCC are accompanied by accountability to the community," he said.