From Hollywood to Brentwood: Rediscovering Jewish Los Angeles

Jewish Los Angeles, The Artistic Touch/ Bill Block cartographer, 1990. From the collection of the Central Library (LA Public Library).
Jewish Los Angeles, The Artistic Touch/ Bill Block cartographer, 1990; from the collection of the Central Library (LA Public Library).

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Over the course of their history, Jews as an urban peoples have played significant and distinctive roles in the lifestyles and culture of the major cities of the world. Los Angeles is certainly no exception. Since its inception in 1850 as an incorporated city, Jews would be a part of the fabric and culture of this place, as they have been and will continue to be in so many metropolitan settings.

As one of many émigrés to Los Angeles from elsewhere in the United States, I want to take another look at this my adopted community, celebrating 30 years living in the “City of Angels.”

Transforming a Community:

Over the decades the role and position of LA Jewry have changed. Where once the central institutions of Jewish life, its synagogues and social service institutions singularly defined the core characteristics of communal practice, social values, and political priorities, today an array of innovative and creative pockets of Jewish cultural and religious expression contribute to the redefinition of how Los Angeles Jews see themselves and the ways by which they interface with others. Alternative models of religious worship and practice, new and innovative forms of Jewish community organizing, and creative models of Jewish cultural engagement define how the Jews of Los Angeles are reinventing their social landscape. “Being Jewish in Los Angeles” reflects a constantly changing landscape of choices, experiences, and encounters as the institutions of the community are consistently reframing their messages and new modes of communal participation share their offerings.

A Distinctive Rabbinic Voice:

Where the character of the American rabbinate in most other urban settings is seen as providing a supportive role toward enhancing Jewish learning and communal engagement, in Los Angeles rabbis have emerged as central community actors, serving as the architects of new models of Jewish institutional and communal expression. Within each of the core religious sectors of this city, rabbis are seen as accomplished institution builders, articulate spokespersons on behalf of Jewish and civic interests, and trendsetters in shaping contemporary Jewish thought and practice. As significant, LA rabbinic figures have been at the center in leading creative Jewish religious and cultural expression that is transforming American Judaism. In part, this phenomenon can be explained that in the absence of an indigenous base of “great families” who would early on define, fund and lead LA Jewish society, the rabbinic sector as a result of this power vacuum emerged to provide the visionary elements necessary to help build and lead this enterprise.

Leadership Interlocutors:

Great Jewish communities are comprised of premier leaders who have developed significant economic and institutional relationships through their business/professional relationships and social networks. While the community did not develop and sustain a base of legacy families, LA’s communal “shakers and doers” are critical for their financial input, political savvy, and social connections. These Los Angeles “connectors” have been a key bridge between the public square and the Jewish communal system. Their social access and economic clout have opened the doors for growing the circle of Jewish influence and helping institutions and their players to garner a heightened level of attention and public space. This contemporary cadre of communal “godfathers” (and godmothers) have set the ground rules of what might be defined as the acceptable social boundaries and practices that have formed and shaped Jewish LA.

Jews and their Neighborhoods:

Possibly, unlike other urban centers where Jews have abandoned historical neighborhoods, the Los Angeles Jewish community can be seen as contributing to both the maintenance and repopulation of various parts of this city. Jews represent an important demographic sector in revitalizing neighborhoods as the mid-Wilshire corridor, the Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Echo Park districts, not to mention Pico-Robertson and the Miracle Mile, along with significant portions of the central San Fernando Valley, and beyond.

In many ways the new and evolving Jewish Los Angeles can be described as a social experiment, taking place at the epi-center of civic and Jewish life but also on the edges of the larger LA cultural scene. Just as Federation and the community’s mainline congregations are seeking to reinvent themselves, alternative expressions of Jewish learning and cultural innovations are making creative inroads. One example involves the emergence of the second largest Orthodox community in North America with all of its diversity that reflects the expanding role that this sector of religious life will play in shaping the Jewish future. Its resource infrastructure including schools, camps, and social services today extends into the cultural and culinary arenas as well.

Adding to this dynamic quality of Jewish life have been the continuous waves of Jewish émigré populations, providing a distinctive cultural flavor to the existing internal mix of languages, traditions, and ritual and ethnic practices. These newer communities of Jews emulate the multi-ethnic character of LA as a whole. Iranian, Russian, Israeli, and Latin American Jews add to the essential and continuous re-infusion of newness to this on-going communal story. In light of the uncertain future facing Europe’s Jewish communities, LA is beginning to see the impact of these new arrivals. Outside of New York, no other American Jewish community has the depth of such an engagement with new forms of Jewish cultural and ethnic expression. Absent a population study since 1997, it remains somewhat problematic to fully assess the size and impact of this mega-communal model with its estimated 600,000 Jews.

The demographics speak to the vitality and robust character of this region, driven in part by the entrepreneurial spirit and the quality of independence that defines the American West. Over the decades, this same spirit of freedom and the quest for separation has driven Jewish organizations and synagogues to experience their share of territorial battles with their national systems located in the Northeast. These “institutional wars” have led to the formation of very distinctive forms of organizational practice, employing a “West Coast” operational style. Such patterns have been evident with an array of membership-based organizations, charitable causes, and religious institutions.

Over the course of its evolution as a center of Jewish life, Los Angeles would also become the national home for a number of prominent Jewish organizations, including MAZON, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Stand With Us, among others. Its size and location has led other national institutions to locate their largest field operations to Southern California.

Politics and LA Jewry:

Where once Jews were seen as “petitioners” seeking their legal and social standing as full citizens, today Jews are defined by other ethnic communities as the essential “power-brokers” of Los Angeles. As the “new WASPS” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), the Jewish community is seen as the embodiment of the former “white establishment.”

As Latino’s affirm their political clout, as Asian Americans emerge as the new petitioners for access and influence, and as African-Americans seek to reclaim their political voice, the Jewish political equation is likewise being redefined. This new and changing political role is being constructed at the very time when some Jewish elected officials are leaving the public square (Berman, Waxman, Yaroslavsky, among others), and where others including the city’s new mayor are taking up the banner of governmental leadership. Power and credibility for Jews today is as much about economic access and prowess both inside and outside the halls of government as it is about electing one’s own political elites.

LA’s Unique Economy:

Economic issues have always influenced the Jewish condition. This phenomenon remains the case today as external factors have helped to shape the lifestyles and social patterns of LA Jewry. While California has always been identified as an “incubator” of new ideas. Los Angeles today is the largest major manufacturing center in the United States, with 500,000 workers employed in this sector. The largest components can be found in such fields as the apparel industry, computer and electronic products, transportation, fabricated metal, food services, and furniture.

Over the past few years, Southern California has experienced a major economic expansion. The traditional economy that encompassed aerospace, entertainment, and tourism has now evolved into a well-balanced, multi-tiered economic structure. While entertainment has focused worldwide attention on the city, making the area a major destination point, Los Angeles is today the nation’s largest port in terms of the value of goods handled and total tonnage. As a result, the area is home to a significant number of foreign companies who have made LA their international headquarters. The banking and finance industry is represented by more than 100 foreign companies and a broad assortment of investment and financial institutions. Other prominent industries that are central to the economic vitality of the area include health services, education, and high-technology research and development.

This highly complex regional economy has attracted a large, highly educated, and diverse Jewish labor force. As a result, Jews are situated in all of the major business, professional, and cultural arts fields that help to shape Southern California’s economy and its cultural image. Today, one can identify the profound impact of technology, the entertainment mindset, and the region’s international character on Jewish institutional practices.

An Assessment:

Los Angeles Jewry has played an important role in the life and culture of this city. The character and scope of this economic and social impact can only occur in a community of such substantial size and import, where there exists a polity that is wedded to the strengthening of the civic enterprise, just as it seeks to maintain and enhance its core Jewish heritage.

The essential elements of the LA model include:

  1. A dynamic and significant population base operating in a growing social and economic environment
  2. The presence of a high profile community that is culturally and religiously diverse
  3. A high profile set of distinctively LA-based Jewish institutions
  4. Dynamic and high-profile rabbinic voices that are seen as institutional leaders and community builders
  5. A Jewishly-connected and politically-engaged polity, involving power players that can act on behalf of the interests of the Jewish community by expending their economic and political clout to help to achieve desired outcomes
  6. A vibrant cultural scene where Jews and their institutions are contributing both to the Jewish and broader civic environment
  7. A geographically distributed yet deeply engaged set of Jewish constituencies who are involved in the life of their respective ethnic and religious communities
  8. A center for national institutional action, supported by a creative leadership cohort influenced by the LA entertainment and technology enterprise

No doubt, the dynamic quality of LA Jewry is tied to four core components: its demographic composition and size; the multiple levels of the community’s financial, political and cultural connections to the general society; the quality and depth of its leadership; and the impact of the creative Hollywood thread on the Jewish enterprise.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish communal service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. See www.thewindreport for his additional writings.