Empty entrance to the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, which closed its facility in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo/Courtesy OFJCC)
Empty entrance to the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, which closed its facility in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo/Courtesy OFJCC)

‘Tremendously challenging’: Palo Alto JCC lays off staff, cuts budget by one-third

JCCs Face the Future: Part of a series on how Jewish community centers in the Bay Area are coping with the financial strain of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sitting on more than 8 acres in Palo Alto, the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life — which includes the Oshman Family JCC and the Moldaw Residences for retirees — has been described as a “modern eco-oasis” and a “hub for the region’s growing Jewish community.”

The campus’ design, which has won architectural awards, features groves of palm and olive trees, meticulous landscaping with nods to Jewish and Israeli heritage, and outdoor sculpture.

The JCC also boasts an indoor pool (with a slide and water park), an outdoor lap pool, a 9,000-square-foot gym and a gleaming, glass-fronted culture and arts hall.

But like other JCCs in the Bay Area and nationwide, the OFJCC saw its revenues from its health center and programming all but disappear in the last four months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With the future uncertain, the organization is looking at significant cutbacks, and on June 22 announced layoffs of about 21 percent of its workforce and the indefinite suspension of a host of programs.

“I never could have imagined what we’ve all experienced these last three months,” CEO Zack Bodner wrote in an email to the community announcing the cuts, with the subject line “A Difficult Announcement.” He said the period has been “tremendously challenging” and “an emotional roller coaster of ever-changing information.”

The pandemic closures eliminated 99 percent of the OFJCC’s anticipated earned revenue from March through June, Bodner said, “a gap that donations alone cannot cover.” Much of the lost revenue was from fitness center memberships.

Looking at the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, the JCC will have to shave its budget by a little more than one-third, from an anticipated $29 million — second only to the JCC in San Francisco — to roughly $18 million. It announced layoffs or “substantial” reductions in hours for nearly 60 employees (not independent contractors) working directly for the JCC.

Senior management will be taking pay cuts of “between 10 and 40 percent” next year, the organization said.

Bodner, CEO since 2013, often wears his emotions on his sleeve. In an email in March announcing hundreds of furloughs, he called it “the most painful message I have ever had to send.”

a man stands speaking at a podium. a banner in the background reads "A VIBRANT DIASPORA"
Oshman Family JCC CEO Zack Bodner speaking at Zionism 3.0, Dec. 9 2018 (Photo/OFJCC)

He has described himself as “a traditionalist wrapped in an innovator’s clothing.”  Since March, innovation has never been more needed, as the JCC has been forced to pivot entirely to online activities and has been actively looking for supplemental revenue streams.

After the JCC closed its doors on March 16, becoming one of the first in the region to do so, Bodner huddled with financial experts and advisers in the community, who helped the organization secure a $2.55 million loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The funds were spent on payroll after some 400 staff (including contractors) were furloughed. The OFJCC also secured $250,000 through two emergency grants from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The federal loan covered “about one month” of operating costs at the JCC, Bodner said, and the funds were exhausted by mid-June.

The staff cuts also mean the indefinite suspension of a number of “beloved” programs, Bodner wrote in the email. Among them: art school, teen programs (including a teen trip to Poland and Israel), Russian-language events, after-school enrichment programs, and arts and culture lectures and concerts. The cafe and Oasis playground, along with other facilities, remain closed to the public.

The OFJCC will continue its Hebrew-oriented Israeli Cultural Connection, certain adult programs and its Center for Social Impact, “but specific programs and events will be on hiatus,” the email said.

In the weeks and months ahead, the OFJCC will reopen in stages. The outdoor pool was to open on June 24, summer camp will begin July 6 with many precautions in place, and the plan is to reopen the preschool on schedule at summer’s end.

Santa Clara County has not yet announced a date when gyms and fitness centers can reopen.

Staff has compiled a “playbook” of health guidelines — including screenings for every person entering campus, PPE requirements, cleaning and disinfection protocols, and limits to the number of people in classrooms, workout spaces and the pools — that will be in place when the center reopens.

Virtual programming is ongoing, with more than a dozen group exercise classes each week, Jewish learning programs and Shabbat observances. Bodner estimated monthly participation in May at around 16,000 people, adding that virtual programming has become “one of the great silver linings” of the crisis and will continue even after the center is reopened.

“The staff has shown remarkable creativity, flexibility and boldness in finding ways to deliver virtual content to keep our community connected,” he wrote, adding that though the moment has presented unprecedented challenges, it has been “punctuated by moments of deep gratitude I have for the support we have seen from our community.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.