800 pack Jewish Community Center in Oak Park, Michigan, to stop it from closing

Hundreds jammed the Jewish Community Center in Oak Park Monday night to strongly object to the center’s closing, accusing Jewish leaders of favoring the wealthy in the community.

It was standing-room only inside the center as residents lined up to blast the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and Jewish Community Center leaders for moving to close the center. About 800 attended, with police preventing additional people from entering because of fire safety regulations.

Leaders are “only caring about the country-club set instead of worrying about those in need,” said Alan Hitsky, 69, of Southfield, to loud applause.

“Something has to be done to save it,” said Tova Schreiber, 26, of Oak Park. “It provides a very valuable service for different segments of the community.”

Some at the Monday discussion suggested setting up a grassroots fund to raise money to save the center, with one woman writing a $1,000 check.

Alan Hitsky, 69, of Southfield, speaks out against the closing of the Jewish Community Center in Oak Park, Michigan, on Jan. 12, Monday.

“I have tears in my eyes,” Florine Mark, president of the Jewish Community Center, said at the meeting. “I’m so proud of this Jewish community. I just got a check for $1,000. Let’s save this building.”

But center officials stressed Monday that any such effort to save the building would probably have to be independent of the Jewish Community Center.

Leaders with the center and Federation are recommending the center be closed because it is losing up to $1 million a year. The plan has led to a sharp pushback from some in the Oak Park area, with a petition against the closing drawing 650 signatures so far, said Aaron Tobin, 53, of Oak Park, who opposes closing the center.

The meeting on Monday night was to hear the concerns of the public; all of the speakers from the audience opposed the closing.

“We’re not abandoning this neighborhood,” said Scott Kaufman, CEO of the Jewish Federation. “We’re going to continue servicing the community, but at a price we can afford.”

Built in 1956, the Jewish Commmunity Center in Oak Park is the oldest and smaller of the two main Jewish community centers that is largely funded by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. The other center is in West Bloomfield. Residents say the closing of the Oak Park center would hurt the Orthodox and less wealthy members of the community, who tend to be more concentrated in the Oak Park area.

In fiscal year 2013-14, the Jewish Community Centers in Oak Park and West Bloomfield lost close to $1.4 million, said Jim Issner, interim executive director of the Jewish Community Center. The centers were projected to lose $1.2 million for fiscal year 2014-2015.

“They have been losing a significant amount of money for a number of years,” said Issner. “A significant portion of the losses can be attributed to the Oak Park facility.”

But Issner says he understands the concerns that some may have.

“No one is taking this lightly,” he said.

Schreiber said that Jewish leaders are not aware that a growing number of young Jewish people have moved to the Oak Park area in recent years.

She said the center is a great place for different denominations in the Jewish community, and age groups, can come together.

“It would really be a shame if it closed,” she said.

Marvin Berman, 80, of Southfield, suggested teaming up with the Chaldean community to create a joint Jewish-Chaldean center. He also said the Federation should spend more locally on the community than on helping Israel.

“The needs of the local community are more important than the financial needs of Israel,” Berman said.

Shirley Zimberg, 84, of Southfield, said the center plays an important role.

The Oak Park center “offers a face-to-face experience for all people, young and old, disabled, all kinds of religions and races,” she said.

Contact Niraj Warikoo: nwarikoo@freepress.com or 313-223-4792, Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo

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