BRJCCs new director keeps his focus on bottom line

For the past few years, the Berkeley Richmond JCC has been financially choking. For the past few months, Joel Bashevkin has been applying the Heimlich maneuver.

The $450,000 deficit the Jewish community center piled up over a three-year period won't be eradicated overnight, and there are still some other big bites to be swallowed.

But the center's new chief operating officer is getting rave reviews for his work so far.

"Joel is a gift sent to us from heaven at this time, in this place," said Ami Nahshon, the executive vice president of Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, which helps fund the JCC.

"He hit the ground running, and with each month that he's here, we see more and more progress and I'm more and more optimistic about the future."

Bashevkin, a native of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, is the former director of finance and administration at the Jewish Museum San Francisco, where he worked for seven years. He joined the BRJCC in December.

His financial expertise is one of the main reasons he was hired to replace Judy Wolff-Bolton, who stepped down in December after 12 years as executive director.

When Wolff-Bolton left the Berkeley center, which will mark its 20th anniversary next year, it was in a monetary shambles.

The center had failed to adequately retool after losing two major revenue sources in the late '90s, a JCC-run bingo game and United Way funding. Suddenly, some $120,000 per year was no longer coming in.

Three years later, the center was in such bad financial shape that the federation felt it had to step in and create a special joint management committee. Wolff-Bolton resigned.

"We needed at the head of the center a person who is an expert in finance," said Lee Marsh, the BRJCC's founder and first president.

Enter the 38-year-old Bashevkin, although he is no designated hatchet man wielding a program-slashing machete.

"Our goal is to keep the programming intact so that our community gets the service it has been getting in the past," the eight-year resident of Berkeley said. "At the same time, we want to be creative about how we bring in our income and manage our overhead expenses better."

The first order of business is getting the JCC's operating costs in line with its revenues. If and when that happens, only then will the JCC turn its attention to whittling down the $450,000 it owes to the East Bay federation.

Bashevkin has eliminated some administrative and marketing staff positions, and merged some programming posts. "To be honest, we've suffered in those areas," he said, "but it had to be done."

He has also tightened things by using an outside contractor for busing and by streamlining the summer camp program.

Also, a major Bashevkin objective is to "increase collaboration and cooperation among the Jewish agencies of the East Bay." He said "finding points of intersection" can help reduce costs for all involved parties.

"What we've been doing is trimming around the edges," Bashevkin said. "We cautiously watch every new venture, every new effort."

Efforts have been stepped up to develop new revenue sources. The car donation program "will bring us $60,000 this year," he said, and a more efficient solicitation program should increase contributions.

Many community members remain skeptical, he admitted. And not without reason. For example, Bashevkin said the budget for the fiscal year ending June 30 is $1.3 million, and that the 2001 budget will be roughly the same.

While that might appear to be a only small slice off last year's $1.4 million budget, Nahshon said it's actually a sizable start toward achieving the "fiscal health" that he wants.

"We're looking for minimal impact and yet achieving the necessary results," Nahshon said. "A consultant said we could do it without a dramatic cut to the budget."

Bashevkin laments the fact that people in the community continue to focus on the financial woes of the center, rather than seeing "that we have top programming going on."

But things are looking better, he added. "Although there is still work to be done, I do see a growing confidence among our community members."

Bashevkin had what he described as a "traditional Conservative and Zionistic" upbringing. After high school, he lived on a kibbutz and studied for 1-1/2 years in Israel.

In 1984, he graduated from Tufts University outside Boston with a degree in nutritional anthropology — citing his implementation of a kosher meal plan in the dorms as one of his claims to fame. He also started a co-op for Jewish students and ran a political action group calling for peace in the Galilee during Israel's war with Lebanon.

He then got a master's degree from Tufts in nonprofit management, simultaneously running all programming for the Boston Food Bank.

He began working at the Jewish Museum San Francisco in the early 1990s, and confesses that he had a tough time leaving at such an exciting point in the museum's history. A new, state-of-the-art building in downtown San Francisco is slated to open in 2-1/2 to three years.

"It was a very difficult decision," Bashevkin said. "I was torn."

As a consolation, Bashevkin now has only a five-block walk to the office from his north Berkeley home, where he lives with his wife, Sarah, a native of nearby Albany, and their kids. The couple has a 7-year-old son, and a daughter whose fourth birthday is today.

Bashevkin said if all goes well, he could conceivably depart the JCC before she turns 6.

"I plan to stay here for as long as I'm needed," he said. "I'm hoping that in the next year or two, we can eliminate the chief operating officer position and have the agency move back to a more traditional executive director structure.

"Ultimately my goal is to leave the agency healthy and viable."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.