JCC takes offensive as Palo Alto attempts to solve crisis

The city manager of Palo Alto has drawn up a rough plan that will make land available for a future home for the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center, the center's executive director said Tuesday.

"It's just a concept at this point," Sandy Blovad said after two high-level meetings with city officials. "The land, which hasn't been identified, will either be purchased or obtained through eminent domain" by the city.

Blovad said City Manager Frank Benest was to present the plan to Palo Alto council members yesterday and that the plan will serve "kind of as the guideline" for public hearings on the matter Monday and Tuesday.

Admitting he now feels somewhat better about the JCC's future, Blovad finished the sentence by adding, "but I'm still cautious."

The JCC is in danger of losing its 18-year home on Arastradero Road. The Palo Alto Unified School District announced two weeks ago its intention to reclaim the property, which it sold to the city, through eminent domain. The district wants to open a middle school there in 2003.

That announcement sent the JCC, its supporters and the local Jewish community into a tizzy.

About two dozen Jewish leaders from Palo Alto came together at an emergency meeting Aug. 30 to discuss strategies for making sure the JCC's interests don't get buried.

The leaders, including several rabbis, were charged with rallying their constituents to support the JCC at a pair of Palo Alto City Council public hearings scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday and 6 p.m. Tuesday.

A plan of action — perhaps the one suggested by Benest — is scheduled to be decided at a closed-door meeting Tuesday.

The Monday evening meeting in the City Council chamber at 250 Hamilton Ave., is expected to be packed with JCC supporters, many of whom will speak of the center's value to the city in general and to southwest Palo Alto residents in particular.

There was also talk of having a "Save the JCC" rally before the Monday hearing, but nothing had been finalized by midweek.

Fliers and e-mails were expected to flood the Palo Alto Jewish community this week, asking people to support the JCC. Television ads and a direct-mail campaign were also discussed.

Rabbi Ari Cartun of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto said that as "a Palo Altoan and a father" he understands the district's need for a new middle school. But he added, "We have to focus on finding land and making the JCC part of the solution."

The school district's decision to pursue eminent domain to reclaim the Terman site on Arastradero Road, which the JCC has rented from the city for 18 years, fails to make the JCC part of the solution, according to Blovad.

However, politicians seem to be cognizant of keeping the JCC alive, he said. Blovad took part in a Sept. 1 meeting that included Mayor Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Sandy Eakins and officials from the school district and Stanford.

"It was very positive," Blovad said. "Clearly, it was recognized that the JCC was extremely important to the community and that a home for the JCC must be identified."

Four days later, Blovad had a meeting with Benest and Palo Alto schools Superintendent Donald Phillips. Benest revealed he is working on a plan that will secure land for Palo Alto community services, including a new JCC complex.

"It's still premature and we have to get more information," Blovad said after the Tuesday meeting. "It still has to go through the City Council process, and there's a lot that has to happen."

The plan calls for land or property for the JCC to either be purchased or claimed through eminent domain. If eminent domain were used, the city would have to prove how it needs the land and/or property "for better and higher use," Blovad said.

"What the city is planning on doing is taking the land for community services, and one of those would be the presence of the JCC," Blovad said.

Meanwhile, the JCC has launched an advertising campaign, urging its supporters to write, call and e-mail city and school officials.

Full-page ads appeared earlier this week in two local newspapers, the Palo Alto Weekly and the Palo Alto Daily, offering an "open letter" with the headline "Don't Divide The Community." Ads from other nonprofit agencies supporting the JCC were slated to appear later in the week.

There were also guest editorials written by Blovad and JCC board member Joe Hirsch.

In his editorial, Hirsch characterized the school board's eminent domain strategy as "extremely hostile." He called for "a community-wide effort by all relevant parties" to find a site for the middle school, or a site for the JCC if the district feels it must reacquire the Terman site.

"The JCC must be kept whole," he asserted.

In the same edition, however, were two letters to the editor that had to make JCC supporters shudder.

One person wrote, "While the JCC does provide some important services to the community, it is first and foremost a private club, and one with a religious orientation at that."

Another person wrote, "The value of the JCC as a community resource has been greatly exaggerated and I expect its members will be loud and persistent in their claims."

Blovad said many JCC foes are members of a new group called Save Our School and Community Assets. He said SOSCA "is very well organized" and feared the group was able to dissuade the district from allowing the JCC to construct a new building on district-owned land on the corner of El Camino Real and Churchill Avenue.

The "land swap" option hasn't been formally dismissed, however, Blovad said, especially in the eyes of Stanford, JCC and city officials.

"We all agree that the land swap is the one thing that will make the most sense," Blovad said. The district "is holding it in case all else fails. That's why they didn't take it off the table."

At the Aug. 30 emergency meeting, the JCC land use committee issued its formal position. "The JCC prefers to stay at the Terman site where we have been located for 18 years. However, we are sensitive to the needs of our children and are willing to relocate.

"We are flexible and prepared to move to any alternative suitable location as long as our services to the community are not interrupted. What we are not willing to do is cease to exist. Eminent domain is unacceptable. It is protracted, costly, insensitive and unnecessarily divisive."

That meeting was attended by rabbis and officials from many local Jewish organizations, including New Bridges, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Peninsula outreach program; the Jewish Community Relations Council; Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School; and organizers of a new Jewish high school planned for 2002.

"This is the first potential for crisis in this community, and I've been here for 18 years," Blovad told the group.

"The one thing we're not willing to do is commit suicide," added Jerry Seelig, a member of the JCC's executive committee. "We're not willing to go out of business and that's where we need your help."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.