JCC pins hopes on trouble-shooter, fund-raiser

After months of struggle, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco officials see an end to their financial crisis and hope to reopen the fitness center and pool.

They are pinning hopes on a new executive director, touted as a "turn-around man," and on a longtime local leader committed to raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the center.

The trouble-shooter, Zev Hymowitz, is full-time consultant for the New York-based Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, He will start work as executive director Aug. 1.

"To have someone of Zev's experience, stature and capability come into a situation as critical as this one — I didn't think was even remotely possible," JCC president Toby Rubin said. "We joke that we think he walks on water."

Meanwhile, S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's former president Larry Myers has been tapped to become the new JCC president this summer.

One of his primary goals is raising enough money to keep the ailing JCC afloat for the next year. The new JCC board will include several community members with strong fund-raising abilities, Myers said.

"I'm going to try to the maximum of my ability to see the center is turned around. But I'm not a miracle man," said 72-year-old Myers, who previously served as the JCC board president about 30 years ago.

The two men have come into the picture three months after the JCC's financial problems became public. The crisis led to the layoff of at least 30 workers in March, an end to most classes and night programming in April, and the closing of the fitness center and pool Wednesday of last week.

The workout areas closed after a members' committee failed to raise $600,000 to keep them open for another year.

The JCC's deficit has been estimated most recently at $1.15 million, although officials say an accounting firm is auditing records to produce a more accurate figure. The center's annual budget is about $7 million.

Hymowitz, a 63-year-old Brooklyn native, knows he has a huge task ahead of him.

"I always like a challenge. That's been my hallmark," he said in a telephone interview from New York.

Hymowitz accepted a two-year contract last week, although neither Rubin, Myers nor Hymowitz would disclose his salary. Hymowitz does not start full time until August but plans to spend two weeks here in June and July.

He will be the fourth person to take charge of the center in less than six months.

Hymowitz will replace acting executive director Nancy Drapin, who took over the job in late May from former United Jewish Community Centers executive vice president Stephen Makoff. He temporarily replaced longtime executive director Karen Robbins, whose job was eliminated in March.

Rubin predicted that Hymowitz "will be our turn-around person," and Myers called him the "ideal person" for the position. But Hymowitz cautioned that he will need several months on the job before he can offer any specific analysis or recommendations.

"Where it went off track, I'm not really sure yet," he said.

Since 1988, Hymowitz has worked as a consultant to JCCs in about 30 cities, including St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, Montreal and Toronto. As a consultant, he offered advice on financing, staffing, programming and public relations. He was also in charge of the JCC Association's training for lay leaders.

For about three months last fall, he directed "crisis management" at the Toronto JCC system, which nearly went bankrupt with at least an $11 million debt.

Hymowitz's experience in the Jewish sphere reaches back into the 1960s, when he began working at two East Coast JCCs. From 1970 to 1977, he was executive director of a northern New Jersey center similar in size to the JCC of S.F.

He worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee from 1977 to 1984, serving as associate executive vice president in the United States, and later as director in Israel. He moved on to direct an Israel-based consulting firm for Jewish agencies from 1984 to 1988.

Asked why he would leave a national position to run a local JCC, Hymowitz said he has been looking for a new challenge and believed the local center needed more than the quick fix a consultant can offer.

"It needs someone to be there on a day-to-day basis to get it going," he said.

Sol Greenfield, associate executive director of the JCC Association, said Hymowitz had wanted to take a more hands-on position in the Jewish community for some time. Greenfield, who served as matchmaker between the JCC of S.F. and Hymowitz, considers Hymowitz's ability "to bring people together" his top skill.

"Zev is a highly competent Jewish communal professional," he said. "He is someone we're not happy at all about losing."

Myers, likewise, has been active in the Jewish community for decades. In addition to his federation and JCC positions, he has been a board member or president of the United Jewish Community Centers, Mount Zion Health Systems, the Jewish Home for the Aged, Northern Californians for Good Government, and the federation's Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

Because Hymowitz and Myers came aboard only in the past few weeks, both said they are reluctant to lay out specific plans or timelines for action.

Myers said he is "totally committed" to reopening the fitness center and pool. But he is also realistic.

Over the next few months, he said, a health-club consultant will determine whether reopening these areas is economically feasible. If so, the JCC will need to invest in at least a "minimal" refurbishing of the workout areas.

Hymowitz believes the pool and fitness center should have remained open because the closing gives the message that the center is going out of business. But he said he came into the process too late to influence the decision.

Now he is determined to reopen these facilities, not because he's a "nostalgia buff," but he believes working out brings Jews together and can lead to further Jewish involvement.

Despite the recent changes, the center's future is still unclear. But once the JCC is back on its feet, Myers said, he will return to long-term plans to tear down the 62-year-old building and construct a new facility on the same 3200 California St. site.

It may take months, if not years, to raise the tens of millions of dollars necessary to build a new JCC and win the required construction permits.

But Myers and Hymowitz believe a new JCC is ultimately necessary to bring in new members and revitalize the center. However, their work can't stop even then.

"People are going to come," Hymowitz said, "but you have to keep them there."