Closing of Oakland JCS will end after-school program

Last week, the board of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay voted to close the facility. Citing financial constraints, as well as a structurally unsound building that would cost too much to repair, the board decided not to renew its lease.

Following the recent relocation of other Jewish community programs, the building is currently home only to the after-school operation.

According to Marjorie Wolf, president of the federation's board, closing down the center was not an easy decision.

"It's something we've been struggling with for a good long time," she said. While the lease was renewed two years ago, enrollment declined to the point at which the center was operating at a deficit to stay open. Currently 79 children are enrolled.

Additionally, she said, the building's lease could be renewed only for another year.

"To make it viable, we would have had to put substantial money into it," she said. "It doesn't make sense."

This explanation does little to appease the parents or the director, Joshua Kramer, who will lose his job along with seven other childcare workers and two office staffers.

Kramer grew up attending programs and summer camp at Jewish Community Services' predecessor, the now-defunct Oakland Piedmont Jewish Community Center. "I think there will be a void," he said. "I believe in the need for a Jewish communal agency in this area. We're one of the few inclusive Jewish agencies."

About 35 to 40 percent of the kids in the program aren't Jewish. "These kids are getting a positive feel for Judaism and are seeing what Judaism can be all about," he said.

In addition, many of the kids who attend come from interfaith marriages, and this is the only contact with Judaism they have.

Brenda Goldstein appreciated the program for a different reason. She said its inclusive approach also allowed kids from more observant families, like hers, to feel welcome by scheduling sporting activities on weekdays, rather than on Shabbat.

"It appeals to a very broad range of Jews in the community," she said.

It is also one of the few after-school programs in the area to pick children up from their schools and bring them to the site. That is a life-saver for parents like Goldstein, who lives in El Cerrito and works full time in Oakland, and whose children attend Oakland Hebrew Day School.

Both Smith and Goldstein praised the staff for providing a nurturing environment.

"Whenever you come to pick up your child, every single person is totally engaged," said Goldstein. "They are never just watching the kids…I don't know what we're going to do next year."

The closing of the facility is the latest in the diminishing of Jewish services in the Oakland-Piedmont area. In 1994, the OPJCC on Sheffield Avenue closed its doors after serving the community for 40 years. Two years later, Jewish Community Services opened in an old mansion, housing programs for seniors as well as children.

But now, the camp takes place in the parks and the seniors programs meet in synagogues. The after-school program is the last OPJCC program to operate at that site.

While the East Bay federation has long hoped to purchase a site to build a campus for a number of Jewish agencies, that plan is still on hold.

"When I started my year as president in July, that was one of my major goals of the year," said Wolf. "Unfortunately, Sept. 11 came along, and our energies were redirected to the crises we're dealing with."

With the economic downturn and fund-raising priorities shifting to a more Israel-focused agenda, Wolf said the plan was still in the works, but "we don't have the same ability to look now."

Meanwhile, the federation is in discussion with the Berkeley Richmond JCC about taking over operations for the seniors program as well as helping to oversee the camp program this summer.

"We are saddened by these turn of events and want to lend whatever assistance we can to continue programs that could go on in Oakland and we'll involve ourselves from this point forward," said Joel Bashevkin, executive director of the BRJCC. If the BRJCC should take over the senior program, he said, "we want to take it on in a meaningful way."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."