East Bay JCC has steadied the ship after fiscal turmoil

Eighteen months ago, the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay was on virtual life support.

A $500,000 shortfall threatened to undo the JCC. Even after layoffs of seven full-time positions, programming cuts and desperate public appeals for funds, the venerable Berkeley institution barely had a pulse.

Sally Kauffman Flinchbaugh

And then, it pulled through.

Today, Executive Director Sally Kauffman Flinchbaugh believes the overall health of the JCC is good and getting better, although fundraising remains a constant concern.

“We’re lean and mean,” she said recently. “Financially, we have steadied the ship. Our CFO and finance team have really been able to hold the ropes tightly and not commit to things we can’t afford.”

That doesn’t mean the JCC lacks the holiday spirit. Flinchbaugh says the center will mark Chanukah this year with “Celebration of Light” on Sunday, Dec. 13. The all-day event will be staged in partnership with Jewish Gateways, an outreach and education organization for unaffiliated Jews, and the PJ Library, which distributes Jewish-themed books and CDs to member families with young children.

The celebration will include arts

and crafts, a kugel cook-off and, of course, a menorah-lighting ceremony. For grownups, the JCC will also be the site of the annual Vodkas and Latkes, a party on Thursday, Dec. 17 that will bring together six regional Jewish organizations.

Flinchbaugh said these kinds of community partnerships are the wave of the JCC’s future. “We’re becoming a community convener,” she notes. “It feels like we’re taking the initiative in that.”

She also stressed the JCC has kept its commitment to core programs: preschool, after-school, summer camp, senior services and the annual Jewish Music Festival. To make the center more attractive to parents, new activities have been added to the lineup, including piano lessons, Spanish language classes and even Krav Maga (Israel’s martial art).

To do all this, the JCC received grants from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Much of the funding has gone to scholarships to help families struggling through the recession. Flinchbaugh reports a 400 percent increase in demand for preschool scholarships and a 250 percent increase in aid requests for after-school care.

Given that, she said, the foundation grants still cover only a fraction of the need.

“We’re a community center. It’s our job to be here for people when they don’t feel they can [afford to be members]. We have families in preschool on the verge of pulling their kids out.”

Flinchbaugh takes the JCC’s struggles personally. Her two older children attend the institution’s after-school program, while her youngest is in the preschool. Professionally, she has an MBA and an extensive background in working with nonprofits. She was named board treasurer in 2007 and for much of last year served as acting executive director.

Since taking the reins, Flinchbaugh has also added programming in the arts, notably a new partnership with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival to mount special screenings. She even expanded in the realm of health and fitness, something the relatively small facility (located in a

former elementary school built in 1910) has never stressed. Flinchbaugh brought in a daily group exercise class called BodyPump.

For now, JCC membership is holding steady at around 900. The institution owns the $5 million Walnut Street site free and clear. But the need for creative fundraising never wanes. Flinchbaugh says right now two matching grants, $25,000 for the general fund and $18,000 for children’s programs, are in place and waiting for takers.

Said Flinchbaugh, “We don’t want to be turning anybody away.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.