Clifton-Passaic Y slated to close
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Clifton-Passaic Y slated to close

Amid budget troubles, federation had sought merger with North Jersey

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The YM-YWHA building at 199 Scoles Ave., Clifton Josh Lipowsky

One year ago the YM-YWHA of Greater Clifton-Passaic celebrated its grand reopening, and the dedication of a newly renovated half-million-dollar playground. One month ago the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic, facing budget deficits and major drops in its fund-raising campaign in recent years, decided to sell the Y, a 105-year-old institution and the only Jewish community center in the Passaic-Clifton area.

The Y, also known as the Tri-County JCC, houses the federation, Jewish Family Service, the Riskin Children’s Center, and the Holocaust Resource Center. Federation leaders say they intend that these agencies would remain open after the sale of the building but remained noncommittal about Y programming beyond September 2011. The Y still expects to offer camp for the summer of 2011.

The board voted to sell the building at its July meeting and put the building on the market later that month. Community members did not learn about the move, however, until they received a letter in early August.

“The decision has been brewing for several years,” Ed Schey, the federation’s executive director, told this newspaper last week. “It became very difficult these past several years to maintain the services we want to at the Y. We just don’t have the wherewithal to continue.”

He pointed to a diminishing donor base as the result of a donor’s death or relocation out of state. Late donors’ families often don’t continue the tradition of contributing, he said, while those who move away shift their dollars to local charities.

The changing demographics of Passaic – the city has experienced a boom in its Orthodox population in recent years and is home to 10 Orthodox synagogues, while Clifton has one Conservative shul – has also played a role. While Y leaders estimated at least 50 percent of the Y’s users are Orthodox, the federation has not been successful in fund-raising in that community.

Ten years ago, the federation’s campaign raised more than $1 million. Schey would not provide specifics but said the campaign today is about half of that. According to 2008 tax forms, the latest on file with the website Guidestar.org, the federation collected $5,162,965 in total revenue between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, but faced expenses of $5,583,671 – a deficit of more than $400,000.

Just to open the doors of the Y – paying for electricity, heating, and other basic needs – costs approximately $600,000 a year, according to the Y’s executive director, Kenneth Mandel. With the federation facing a $1.5 million budget deficit, he said he was saddened by the decision but understood it.

“I look at this building and say this is a community asset,” he said. “By selling this building you’re never going to be able to have a building like this again.”

The Y has approximately 1,300 members including family units, and Mandel estimated that about 1,000 people pass through the doors each day. This year’s summer camp is at capacity, with 600 children enrolled.

The Y’s operating budget is $2.7 million; it receives $178,000 from the federation and the rest is raised from other sources. Each year the staff wonders if that will be the final year, Mandel said, but various grants and last-minute donations have kept the building afloat. The Y staff took a 10 percent pay cut last year, representing a savings of $200,000, Mandel said.

The federation had looked at merging with one of its neighboring federations, but plans to merge with the Jewish Federation of North Jersey in Wayne fell apart when that organization merged with the UJA of Bergen County & North Hudson to form UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. From 2002 to 2008 the Passaic-Clifton federation held conversations with the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, but those talks eventually broke down.

“We didn’t want to be in a position next September to say, ‘We’re closing tomorrow,'” said Mark Levenson, who concluded his eight-year presidency of the Passaic-Clifton federation in June. “We have been deliberating for a long time to come to what I call a soft landing.”

The 7-acre property went on the market last month, Levenson said, although he would not disclose the asking price or the broker.

The federation is not shutting down, Levenson emphasized, acknowledging rumors that followed the sale’s announcement.

“The campaign will continue; what federation does will continue,” he said. “We are not closing the federation. The federation absolutely is in control and the implementer of this decision.”

The federation board is open to ideas to save the Y, Levenson said, but only a large infusion of dollars will work.

“Unless there is some real concrete plan of real funding to help address the gap in keeping the building going, good intentions just don’t get us there,” he said. “We need actual real cash to keep the building going.”

When Mitch Morrison, a Passaic resident who is vice president and group editor of CSP Information Group, received the federation’s letter, he quickly began to mobilize efforts to save the Y.

As of Monday, when he spoke to this paper from a business meeting in Utah, he had been trying to organize a meeting with federation leaders for the end of this week. An initial e-mail asking people for help has attracted lots of attention, he said, and he’d like the federation to examine all options from the community.

“Let’s pause,” he said. “Let’s take a deep breath and let’s regroup and see if we can create a model that is truly representative of a broader Jewish community and can we do it under a financial model that not only allows the institution to survive but to thrive.”

Passaic has experienced a demographic change, not a demographic decline, Morrison said. That separates the Passaic-Clifton Y from other agencies in decline across the country. He envisions new models of operation and outreach for the Y that bring in the Orthodox, the Russian émigre´s, the non-affiliated, and Jews from smaller communities nearby.

“If you take the attitude of ‘let’s rebuild this from scratch, what kind of fund-raising model could you create,’ you could potentially create something very dynamic and robust,” he said.

Schey said that the federation would negotiate with a buyer to see if Jewish Family Service, the Riskin Children’s Center, and the Holocaust Resource Center could stay in the building. Whether the federation ends up renting space back from a buyer or if the building will be razed depends on who buys it, he said.

“The executive committee of the federation and board of trustees of the federation will review carefully all of the proposals and make a decision that’s in the best interest of the Jewish community of Clifton-Passaic,” he added.

Edith Sobel, the former editor of the Jewish Community News, praised the federation and its relationship with the paper when the JCN was housed at the Y.

“It was a very wonderful experience for me,” she said.

Valerie Sharfman, director of the Holocaust Resource Center, declined comment.

Jewish Family Services receives $125,000, or about 10 percent of its annual budget, from the federation, which has been “a pretty secure funder,” said Esther East, executive director of Jewish Family Service.

“We are very saddened by the fact that the financial difficulties have resulted in this loss,” she said. “We’re losing the one communal institution in the Clifton-Passaic community where Jewish people cross-denominationally come together. That’s a big loss.”

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