The Ruth Hyman JCC in Deal is facing the most difficult challenge in its 72-year history following notice of an impending sheriff’s sale.
Mired in debt negotiations with TD Bank after the bank initiated foreclosure on the facility this spring, the financially struggling JCC received notice on Sept. 26 that the Monmouth County Sheriff would put the Grant Avenue property up for sale on Oct. 24.
It’s an uphill battle that the JCC leadership is determined to conquer, said board chair Donald Epstein of Oakhurst. In an interview with NJJN, Epstein said that the JCC’s attorneys are working to ensure that the sheriff’s sale will be cancelled and that a reorganization plan will move forward.
“It’s important that the community be aware that the JCC board, together with the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County and others in the community, are working on a plan to ensure the future viability of the JCC,” Epstein said. “The rumors and misinformation that are spreading through the community are having a very negative impact on the JCC.
“The community needs to increase its support of the JCC and the use of its fitness, preschool, day camp, and youth programs, as well as the Axelrod Performing Arts Center,” said Epstein. “The JCC can continue to operate as long as we are successful in generating significant resources through donations and member support.”
Set on 12 acres, the 110,000-square-foot facility sustained a string of financial setbacks in recent years. They include a significant reduction in camp and preschool enrollment; the collapse of the gym roof, which caused parts of the JCC to close for six months; and declining revenues from membership, its Center Play School, and the Axelrod PAC, Epstein said.
Enrollment at CPS declined from 90 students in 2009 to 72 students in 2010 to its current enrollment of 51. CPS director Inna Shepard attributed the preschool’s shrinking enrollment to the economy and the migration of some students to public schools.
Camp has traditionally provided critical income to the JCC, board president Stephen Levy of Ocean told NJJN. While once the JCC boasted waiting lists for camp enrollment, this summer enrollment fell to only 20 percent of its capacity in the grades one-10 division, due, he said, to the influx of many competing area camps. For the first time, the upper grade camp was not held at all, and revenues from the preschool camp could not make up the loss, he said.
As a result, ongoing discussions with TD Bank began to break down, Levy said. The sheriff sale notice lists the building at $6,502,717.18. Monthly utility bills average about $20,000, Epstein said.
“We have legal rights to protect us,” said Epstein. “We have invested a lot of community dollars into this facility. It will be very difficult for a bank to close out on a charitable organization that serves so many people of all ages and has the potential to generate revenues and prosper in the future. If they honor those rights without a bankruptcy, that would be terrific. We intend to use its rights to ensure the JCC can relaunch its programming for the betterment of the community.”
Jewish Federation of Monmouth County issued an Oct. 4 letter to community members stating their commitment to strengthening the community and working collaboratively with the JCC leadership.
“We are aware of the serious issues facing the JCC and have been endeavoring to engage with their leadership as to how we can best be supportive and helpful as they try and fix their business model,” said federation executive director Keith Krivitzky in an e-mail to New Jersey Jewish News.
In the letter to the community, signed by federation president Joseph Hollander and Krivitzky, they state: “The JCC serves many important roles and constituencies in our Jewish community, and we will continue to be in dialogue with JCC leadership as they work to address this situation.”
The letter further states: “Our funding to the JCC, and in general, is for specific programs and projects that best address our community’s needs. We are working with the leadership of the JCC and the managers of the programs we fund to ensure that these programs continue to do great work and serve those in need in our community (like Kosher Meals on Wheels).”
According to Krivitzky, the programs that federation supports at the JCC represent “one of our largest allocations. Additionally, we recently assisted the JCC with a significant loan.”
Epstein and Levy credited the JCC employees for their dedication in “going the extra mile to continue working under difficult conditions. The employees are our support system, and their dedication to this agency is unquestionable,” Epstein said. “The JCC board understands the concerns of its members and employees. Our focus right now is to make sure the building operates and the employees are paid.”
Employees said that their salaries are behind by more than several weeks, prompting a flurry of resignations and increased workloads for remaining staff. The JCC employs approximately 38 full-time people and 78 part-time personnel, not including summer camp staffers and counselors.
Tenants in the building, such as Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore and the JCafe, are closely following the JCC developments as they unfold. In a letter issued to YJS parents on Oct. 3, head of school Rabbi Elie Tuchman wrote: “Since the opening of YJS in September 2006, we are grateful to the JCC for their partnership and support and have enjoyed being their tenants and neighbors. The YJS Board and I are working diligently to deal with this situation and to ensure that our school and our children’s education are not compromised.”
‘Strong, definable mission’
Axelrod PAC director Jess Levy and his trustees are moving full speed ahead on a busy lineup of events in the 520-seat theater and adjacent art gallery.
“We are sure the JCC will come up with a plan that will allow it to continue to serve the community as it has done so well for more than 70 years,” he said.
A spokesperson for the JCCs Association in New York, the umbrella organization for the JCC movement, spoke to NJJN about the challenges facing centers today. “JCCs face the same challenges as other nonprofits in this economy, but as our benchmarking studies have demonstrated, the typical JCC business model is an asset,” said David E. Posner, vice president of JCCA’s Mandel Center for Excellence in Leadership and Management.
Although he did not speak to the specific situation at the Monmouth JCC — for the past few years, it has not affiliated with the JCCA — Posner did say, “Successfully executing the business model of a JCC, meaning a focus on performance excellence in the three core lines of business — fitness, day camp, and early childhood — are keys to a JCC’s success.
“Having a strong and definable Jewish mission while simultaneously welcoming the entire community inside its walls, and having a governance structure that is serious about financial oversight are also key factors,” said Posner. “While JCCs respond to the norms of the communities they serve, they also need to lead their communities.”
These core lines of business parallel the areas where the Ruth Hyman JCC is facing its biggest challenges. It caters to a mostly Jewish clientele and is closed on Shabbat, unlike most JCCs, which are open on Shabbat and tend to draw a more diverse clientele.
Attorney Nola Bencze of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Princeton, who is representing the sheriff’s office, did not return repeated phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.