Around the Town: The continued history of the Fort Worth JCC

Editor’s note: The Fort Worth Jewish Archives recently indexed documents, minutes, correspondence, photos, and articles from the Texas Jewish Post that tell the story of the Dan Danciger Jewish Community Center, from its genesis as an idea in the 1950s, to its construction in the 1960s, its flowering, and its dissolution in the 1990s.
Lax financial management and changing demographic trends led to its closing. Proceeds from its sale were placed in a foundation that allots around $65,000 annually toward continuation of the JCC’s core programs and related activities. The following narrative is drawn from documents in the DDJCC Collection, housed in the archives room at Congregation Ahavath Sholom.

By Naomi Rosenfield and Hollace Weiner
Special to the TJP

Management woes

Between 1977 and 1988, operations at Fort Worth’s Jewish Community Center began to gradually slide. With increasing numbers, Jews began to join country clubs and build homes with swimming pools. Membership at the Center declined. To compensate for the loss of Jewish members, the Center found itself soliciting and enrolling more non-Jewish members.
A bright spot on the DDJCC acreage was construction in 1988 of a 19,000-square-foot building to house the Fort Worth Hebrew Day School. The Day School, launched in 1981, had been meeting at Ahavath Sholom and enrolled children from kindergarten through fifth grade. The school finally had a place to call home.

Lillian Bellows and Matti Joseph prepare food in 1980.
Lillian Bellows and Matti Joseph prepare food in 1980.

Yet as the day school burnished its image and grew, the DDJCC’s executive board took a sober look at its finances. The Center’s board of directors notified the Federation “that it was facing the probability of running out of funds before the end of 1988.” Federation President Sandra Freed appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee to study the Center’s finances. It didn’t take long for the panel to ascertain that during the previous five years, the JCC had engaged in deficit spending. Among the reasons for the Center’s financial woes and the membership decline were that:

  • Accounts receivable from dues and services were not collected;
  • The Senior Citizens Program, while providing important services such as transportation and hot lunches, did not produce any income;
  • Repairs, maintenance and upgrades to the facility had been postponed and not done; and
  • Fewer volunteers resulted in more overtime for the paid staff.

The Blue Ribbon Committee report, issued Aug. 15, 1988, stated that the appearance of the physical facility was “depressing” and in need of volunteers to spruce it up.
Closer examination revealed sloppy bookkeeping practices, well below the standards required by the United Way. Subsequently, the Center Board

The Fort Worth Hebrew Day School student body of 1998-99
The Fort Worth Hebrew Day School student body of 1998-99

chose to forgo United Way funding, rationalizing that it was extremely time-consuming to apply for funds. The United Way’s funding requirements had also meant a shift away from the Center’s Jewish mission.
The Blue Ribbon report concluded that the DDJCC continued to have great value to the Jewish community. The panel recommended consolidating office staff for the Center and the Federation, believing that would tighten financial oversight, result in more emphasis on Jewish programming, and draw more Jewish members.
The committee was unanimous in its belief that Jews who did not belong to the Center needed to support it for future generations. Citing the 1959 bankruptcy of Southwood Country Club, another Jewish recreational enterprise initiated with high hopes, the Blue Ribbon report observed: “The failure of the Jewish Country Club some 30 years ago was recalled by the committee members, and well-remembered was the distress and embarrassment of our Jewish community to suffer a failure of that magnitude. The community must not again permit the closing of the doors of a Jewish institution.”
Letters were sent to the entire Jewish community urging support for the DDJCC regardless of usage. It was a sincere plea to reverse the trends outlined in the Blue Ribbon Report. For a while, these measures seemed to work.
The next year, 1989, marked the 25th anniversary of the DDJCC. A grand, Silver Anniversary celebration was planned, with a Gala Dinner and Benefit Auction at Colonial Country Club Dec. 3, 1989. Chaired by Sandra Freed, the auction featured new cars, furs, a yacht and celebrity items. Among the latter was a single sheet of stationery with three jokes handwritten by comedienne Joan Rivers. Another sought-after celebrity item was a script from the television show Magnum P.I. autographed by its star, Tom Selleck. The Silver Anniversary Gala was deemed a tremendous success, both socially and financially. It provided a breath of fresh air and a shot in the arm for the struggling DDJCC.
Eileen Martell (left) was the camp director in 1979.
Eileen Martell (left) was the camp director in 1979.

Dream envisioned in 1950s ends in 1995

Despite the successful 1989 gala, vigorous fundraising efforts and membership drives, it was clear the DDJCC was in dire straits. During the next four years, the center dramatically declined. Membership, which had once exceeded 470 families, had dropped to 328 in 1984 and plunged to 153 families in 1993. Of those family units, 62 had paid full membership dues. Parents who put their children in summer camp were permitted to enroll-now-and-pay-later. Money was not raised to cover scholarships awarded to Russian-immigrant families.
The percentage of Jewish members dropped to 60 percent.
By 1994, it became clear that the Jewish community needed to consolidate its services and facilities. The Jewish Federation, as the funding agency, determined it was necessary to take proactive steps to save the most vital JCC programs.
In October 1994, Federation President Elliott Garsek appointed an Ad Hoc Federation Center/Day School Committee — referred to as the “crisis committee.” Bolstered with a study by consultant Joe Cohen from the Council of Jewish Federations (now JFNA), the crisis committee spelled out these recommendations for the future:

  • Boards of both the DDJCC and Fort Worth Hebrew Day School should place on the market their properties at 6801 and 6795 Dan Danciger Road (formerly Old Granbury Road);
  • The DDJCC should raise fees for all child care programs to no less than market rates, effective Jan. 1, 1995;
  • Immediately discontinue enrolling children below the age of two at the day care center;
  • Move preschool classes for children over the age of two to the Hebrew Day School building with a configuration worked out by the affected agencies;
  • Appoint a committee to explore renting the facilities on a full-time basis.

 Jeff Kaitcer (back left) and Lenny Herzfeld (front middle) were in a 1980 basketball league.
Jeff Kaitcer (back left) and Lenny Herzfeld (front middle) were in a 1980 basketball league.

These recommendations —spelled out in an Oct. 19, 1994, memo to representatives of the DDJCC, FWHDS, Congregation Ahavath Sholom, Beth-El Congregation and the Federation — were intended to implement an interim plan to deal with the financial crises facing both the DDJCC and the Hebrew Day School. By then, enrollment at the Day School was 40 students and the preschool had 25 students.
The consultant, along with lay leadership, deemed continuation of the following core programs essential to the community:

  • Lil Goldman Early Learning Center;
  • Camp Shalom;
  • Senior Adult Lunch Program; and
  • Hebrew Day School.

The Jewish Community Center’s board of directors, headed by Steve Katten, a CPA, voted to approve the recommendations and to sell its property on Dan Danciger Road. This forced the sale of the Hebrew Day School, as the FWHDS only owned the real estate on which it was built, not the access road leading to the school nor the parking spaces around it.
The JCC’s programs, along with the Jewish Family Services office and the Federation administrative office, were relocated to the Hebrew Day School building. An above-ground pool was purchased so that Camp Shalom could continue providing water activities during its summer sessions.
The control and the financial functions of the JCC and the Day School were consolidated under the Federation, whose president was Michael Korenman, M.D. The model was described as a “functionalized Federation” with semi-autonomous agencies operating in full cooperation. This model continued until the sale of the property in May 1999 for $1.6 million to Southwest Christian School. The parochial school planned to utilize the property for 300 students enrolled in its primary grades. The JCC’s core programs relocated. The Federation and Jewish Family Services moved their offices into a triple-wide trailer parked 3 miles away on Congregation Ahavath Sholom’s property.

Legacy of Fort Worth’s erstwhile Jewish Community Center

Today, the core programs that continue are the Senior Adult Lunch Program centered at Beth-El Congregation; Camp Shalom, based at Ahavath Sholom; and the Lil Goldman Early Learning Center, also at Ahavath Sholom, which has grown to enroll more than 100 preschoolers. Sadly, the Hebrew Day School lost not only its schoolhouse, but also its visibility. Enrollment shrank, and the day school was out of existence by 2007.

Frances Marks teaches her ballet class in 1975.
Frances Marks teaches her ballet class in 1975.

The Federation and Jewish Family Services offices are located in a stand-alone building on Kingsridge Road in close proximity to the city’s two synagogues. Commemorations previously observed at the JCC (such as Israel Independence Day, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Memorial Day) now rotate among the county’s five synagogues. They are staffed and funded by the Federation. The Federation also provides grants to congregations for various programs, some of which would have been run by the old JCC. These include movie series, Israeli dance nights and lectures.
The proceeds from the $1.6 million sale of the JCC property were placed in a newly created financial trust called the Dan Danciger/Fort Worth Hebrew Day School Supporting Foundation (DD/FWHDS). After paying debts and bills, the foundation’s beginning balance totaled $1.488 million. Annual interest income has averaged $60,000 to $65,000. Since 1999, the foundation has dispensed $650,000.
“Core” programs — meaning the preschool, the senior lunch program, and Camp Shalom, all of which continue to thrive — may apply to the DD/FWHDS Foundation for annual operating funds. The Supporting Foundation may also allocate money for “cultural, social, entertainment and educational programs” of “Jewish content” that might typically have been held at the local JCC. Grants for these less specific purposes have proven controversial.
Funds accrued from interest not allocated during each fiscal year are added to the Supporting Foundation’s corpus, which presently totals $1.35 million. The principal may only be spent to construct buildings that benefit the Jewish community educationally and culturally. Perhaps someday the DD/FWHDS Supporting Foundation will utilize its growing principal to fulfill the dreams of those who donated to build the Jewish Community Center and the Day School so many years ago.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Sherwin Rubin

    This story is a one sided story that ignores faults in the leadership of the entire Jewish community of Fort Worth. While we were trying to raise money for the original center, the wealthy people often commented that they did not need the Jewish center since they had swimming pools in their back yards. The Jewish Country Club quickly went bankrupt and like today, moneyed people looked to their own needs and not those of the entire community. So many of our children have moved away from Fort Worth to find Jewish communities that were more welcoming to Jewish families. It is a sad story, but that is just history.

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