Continuity and Change Through the Ages

by Natalie Jacobs April 26, 2017


dsc_0150 Asking Michael Cohen to talk about the highlights of his 45-year career at San Diego’s Jewish Community Center is like asking Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road. Prepared with a list of handwritten notes, Cohen saunters down the metaphorical memory lane that stretches nearly five decades through what many consider to be the heart of Jewish communal life here.

It was November 1, 1971 when a 20-year-old Cohen started at the JCC on 54th Street. He was hired as physical education assistant tasked with setting up the leagues for “bitty” basketball, men’s volleyball and afternoon floor hockey.

“And I handed out towels in the basket room,” Cohen admits from his corner office at the La Jolla location.

The J had been in its own building on 54th Street since 1958, after 13 years in a leased space on the same street. Michael Cohen grew up in San Diego, attended Madison High School in Clairemont and was in his second year at San Diego State with the goal of becoming a teacher and coach at the high school level.

One of the first things he says he noticed about the JCC was its intergenerational nature. He would see mothers drop off their kids at the preschool and stick around to take a jazzercise class or use the gym. He’d see fathers come in at night for the 30-and-over basketball league. And during lunch, he’d see grandparents at the senior program.

dsc_0348“There was this whole continuity,” Cohen says. “So I went back and talked to my high school basketball coach and said ‘What do you love about your job?’ He said ‘What I love is working with the kids and the families – the unfortunate thing is after three years, they graduate and we don’t see them.’”

That didn’t seem to be an issue at the JCC. Shortly after that realization, Cohen received a Morton Mandel Scholarship through the Jewish Community Centers Association that covered his last two years of schooling and his position at the JCC, with the expectation that once he graduated he’d continue working for a JCC, though it could be anywhere in the country.

“I could do this for two years,” Cohen remembers thinking. “Obviously it was a great opportunity.”

After graduating and securing his spot at the San Diego JCC, Cohen began working his way through the ranks of the sports and fitness department. Four years there and he moved to the administrative side of operations. It was around the same time when San Diego Jewish leaders noticed a migration of the local Jewish population from the center city to the northern coast.

Cohen recalls that in 1976, Ed Robins, who was the JCC’s executive director at the time, and the Board began looking for property on the west side of the city.

Through a tip from the director of the Jackie Robinson YMCA who suggested that the JCC look into land owned by the city and permitted for parks and recreation, Cohen says, Robins found the plot where the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center lives today, in what is considered the financial center of San Diego. At the time Robins secured the deal with the city, there was only the UTC mall and La Jolla Country Day School in the area. The JCC leases the land from the city but owns the buildings it has erected throughout the years.

“We weren’t in the financial situation to buy outright property,” Cohen explains, “so we were able to negotiate with the city. It was an incredible deal. You don’t get many opportunities.”

Construction at what was then called the M. Larry Lawrence Branch started in 1983 with the Friedenberg pool, the Mandell Weiss Eastgate park and the Albert A. Hutler tennis center. Then in 1986 came the Jacobs Family Gymnasium. In 1987, Michael Cohen was brought over from 54th Street to be branch director of the La Jolla location. He took over as Executive Director from Harry Stern in 1991 at a time that Cohen describes as financially challenging.

The JCC owed $1.3 million on the construction loan and was $500,000 short on operations. Despite his life in athletics, Cohen remembers this as his first real introduction to teamwork. In close collaboration with Kenneth Polin, who was the board president at the time, Cohen says the J was able to balance its budget within three years of his taking the helm, bringing the debt down to what he considered a manageable $300,000.

“Nothing really is accomplished around here without a lot of people and a lot of support and committed volunteers, Board members, presidents, as well as great professional staff.”

At the time of the budget balancing, the Board, led by Joan and Irwin Jacobs, began working to raise funds for continued expansion of the Center. With their eldest son Gary as President at the time, the philanthropic family helped raise $16 million to expand from 26,000 square feet to what Cohen calls a “state of the art” 100,000 square feet that became the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, JACOBS FAMILY CAMPUS.

“As Joan [Jacobs] said while we were going through that process,” Cohen recalls, “we had the opportunity to really go out and educate the community on the value of a JCC.”

dsc_0473What is that value? For Cohen, who ended up dedicating his entire professional life to the space, it’s about having a location where a diverse community can gather.

“Anything is possible in social, cultural and recreational activities. If you work with a strong Board and staff, miracles can happen and we got to witness a lot of cool things.”

Cohen is the San Diego JCC’s sixth executive director. In his tenure in that role, which will total 26 years by the time he retires on June 1, he has seen a tremendous expansion of what the JCC is and does.

“When we started, there was like 60 kids and we were in trailers. Then we expanded to serving over 300 families in the Nierman Preschool,” Cohen offers as one example. “The camp was about 300 kids and now we’ve reached a high of 750 kids. The other growth areas have been in cultural arts, like with J*Company. Not every child is into playing baseball or soccer, basketball, tennis, what have you.”

Also under his tenure, there was the creation of the annual Jewish Book Fair and Jewish Film Festival, Jewish education programs for children and adults, and an inclusion program for kids with special needs.

With every milestone, Cohen is sure to note that there was always a collective “we” at work. He credits his understanding of this notion to his mentor Ed Robins.

“He really taught me working with lay leaders, committees, and having strong professional staff so you can really create incredible activities.”

I met with Michael Cohen shortly after it came out that the JCC was cutting its budget and laying off some employees. To make up for around a $400,000 deficit, they laid off three people, out of 186 full and part-time employees.

“We’re seeing some reductions in some funding so we have to make those adjustments,” Cohen says.

He says this is the third such cut-back since 1991 when he started as executive director, noting that in 2008 shortly after they hosted the massive Maccabi Games they had to cut nine employees from an initial list of 27. But in between tough times, Cohen was able to reinstate the JCC’s employee retirement program, with support from the Leichtag Foundation and key donors Joan and Irwin Jacobs, David and Sharon Wax “and so many people stepping up to support.”

“I really want to keep quality staff and I want to attract outstanding professionals,” he says. “If you don’t have a retirement program, that’s kind of challenging.”

This year has also been a challenging one on the safety front, with record numbers of bomb threats issued to San Diego and many other JCCs across the country. None had any merit, and since I spoke with Michael Cohen a suspect (a teenage Israeli) has been charged. But people feel that increased security is necessary at gathering places like the JCC and synagogues. For his part, Cohen says safety is their number one priority.

“We train our staff on a regular basis and we are always on alert and prepared. Training is a key element in all of that. We work very closely with the San Diego Police Department, Homeland Security. We’ve worked closely of late with the FBI. The Anti-Defamation League has been incredible.”

dsc_0024For context, Cohen says that SDPD reports there were 600 bomb threats in San Diego County last year with 100 directed at public schools and none were credible.

“This is an attempt to disrupt the operation of the JCC not only here but in other communities and it’s not going to happen,” he says frankly.

Twenty years ago, the Center had no security. Now, a retired Oceanside police officer heads a security division, guards are armed and the Center is spending up to $400,000 a year on these efforts.

Cohen’s initial attraction to the JCC – the “continuity” that he experienced as a 20-year-old watching multiple generations of San Diego’s Jewish families gather within its walls – foretold a great deal about the path his personal life would follow as he advanced there professionally.

“The biggest highlight of my life is that I met my wife, Myrna, here at the JCC,” he says, saving the best for last.

As the story goes, Ed Robins had hired Mryna as the senior adult director when Michael was still in the sports department.

“[Ed] goes ‘You gotta go meet Myrna, you gotta go up and say hi,’” Michael recalls with a devious smile. “There she is on a three-foot ladder doing a collage for the seniors and our eyes lock and she falls off the ladder.”

Three years later, the two married. Their three children, now 35, 32 and 25, grew up at the JCC through the preschool, J*Company and sports teams. They had their first jobs at the J.

“Now,” Michael says, “the coolest thing for me is to walk downstairs to the Nierman preschool and see my three grandchildren.”

Michael Cohen’s life and work will be honored at this year’s JCC Patron Party on May 20 through a “roast, toast and boast” with help from the comedians at The Second City. Associate Executive Director Ana Kozlowski will take over operations from June 1 until August 18 when the new executive director Betzy Lynch arrives from Birmingham, Alabama.

“I’ve had the honor and privilege to work with this incredible staff but also all these lay leaders and all the past presidents,” Cohen says, approaching the end of the road. “They have such tremendous knowledge. I never knew all the answers and I had to always go to them. I always felt, as Ed [Robins] taught me, if you share, people care. I say being transparent and oversharing is important because things that you can do, solve, resolve or create all comes from that dynamic relationship between the professional and the lay leader. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

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