How External Factors are Re-inventing the LA Jewish Community
A Case Study
Economic issues, including the cost of living, high taxes and traffic congestion, are contributing to the changing demographic picture of Los Angeles.
By Marylin Kingston and Steven Windmueller
The landscape for the Los Angeles is changing, and so is its Jewish community. There are many factors contributing to these structural changes, including such external issues as the cost of living, traffic congestion and high taxes. When we add the changing lifestyle choices of Millennials and Generation Z to the existing economic realities, we have a confluence of forces contributing to the remaking of Jewish Los Angeles.
No doubt, the impact of these forces on quality of life issues is influencing the choices families and individuals are making in connection with remaining in Los Angeles or leaving.
Cost of Living and High Taxes as Barriers to Entry:
Every economic study involving California points to the high costs associated with living in the Golden State. Singles, young families and even retirees report that California’s housing market discourages new buyers, while the state’s tax structure becomes a non-incentive when launching new businesses. Construction costs have increased 20% over the past few years, further weakening LA’s ability to compete for new business ventures and homeowners. There is growing evidence of the continuing economic divide between rich and poor within this state, and especially within the city of Los Angeles, and the decline of the middle class as a key marker necessary for sustaining quality schools, mainstream social services and cultural resources.
Not only are these economic outcomes today impacting Jewish households but also the institutions and services of the Jewish community. The financial barriers have made it more difficult, for example, on the part of some prominent Jewish organizations to recruit top-level professionals. Let us be clear, it is not that people do not want to move to LA rather they cannot afford to do so.
The costs associated with “doing business in Los Angeles” are reflected as well in the expensive character of Jewish life in this city. The ability of our schools, synagogues and organizations to manage operating costs and personnel expenses, to hold down dues and tuition charges, or to be able to purchase additional facilities represent dramatic yet different aspects of the economic challenges faced by this city’s communal institutions.
As social scientists, Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplisky, noted recently:
California, according to the American community survey, is home to a remarkable 77 of the country’s 297 most “economically challenged ” cities, utilizing a scoring of poverty and employment data by the National Resource Network. Los Angeles, by far the state’s largest metropolitan area, has among the highest poverty rates.
The Los Angeles metropolitan area is an economic colossus. If it were a separate nation, LA County, along with its neighboring communities, would represent the17th largest economy in the world. The economy is a driving force in helping to grow and sustain the nonprofit sector. In connection with giving trends, according to a 2014 UCLA Luskin Center Study:
Los Angeles Nonprofits are vying for the high generosity of a very small percentage of high net worth households, which are estimated to provide half of all individual giving to nonprofits. Nationally, it is estimated that the top 1 percent is responsible for 25 percent of all individual giving.
How Traffic in Los Angeles is Reshaping Community:
Traffic is impacting the lifestyle choices, affiliation numbers, and movement patterns within this city. If we wish to understand how folks are making choices today concerning their leisure time options, one needs to consider the impact of this city’s traffic challenges. The circle of social contacts and connections is directly aligned today with the rebirth of LA neighborhoods. Where once one could live in any part of Los Angeles, while still experiencing an active set of social and membership commitments in other parts of the Southland, such patterns of cross-community affiliations and relationships appear to be rapidly diminishing.
LA traffic patterns are dictating choices! This has resulted in long time residents opting to leave this community. Gone are the days, as an example, when individuals would readily travel from the San Fernando Valley to the Westside in order to hear a speaker or attend a concert. Now, it is not uncommon when asked to attend an event to hear the refrain: “I would like to go, but it will likely take me at least an hour to get there on Sunday afternoon.”
Today affiliation patterns are no longer being determined by family loyalty, the presence of longstanding friendships, or other traditional social factors. Geography is redefining communal patterns of participation and membership. Key institutional connections are being rewired on the basis of traffic patterns. The time one spends on the freeway is directly proportional to one’s economic requirements and social priorities.
Can singles and young families afford to live in LA? And even if they are able to do so, do they wish to live with the physical limitations created by the onset of congestion? Similarly, do retirees wish to contend with these financial constraints and physical burdens?
According to sociologists, the anxiety and frustration resulting from these structural realities are reducing the quality of life for Southern Californians. Across LA County, many households are reporting economic challenges while trying to maintain their standard of living in an environment of high costs. No doubt, this city’s significant homeless population is a direct outcome of these economic burdens.
Indeed, these factors impact the Jewish community. In response, some synagogue groups and communal organizations are addressing such concerns, as traffic management, housing costs, and LA’s homeless crisis, in addition to trying to adjust their membership packages to accommodate the economic burdens facing younger families.
The New Generations: Demographic and Economic Implications for our Core Institutions
Based on the current demographic data, Millennials and Gen Z are marrying later and having fewer children. These structural and demographic trends are having a direct correlation on LA’s civic life. These generational groupings are non-joiners, resulting in the downsizing of organizational and synagogue memberships. These structural realities have a direct correlation on civic life in Los Angeles. However, the significant number of unaffiliated presents also new opportunities for L.A.’s religious and civic institutions to develop and implement creative ways for these generational cohorts and their families to become involved in the religious, cultural, and social fabric of our community.
Beyond these factors there are other variables that we see contributing to distinctive behaviors and life style choices of Southern California Jews. No doubt, geography, climate, and regional cultural idioms provide additional layers for consideration when examining the behaviors of Southland Jews.
Measuring the “Favorables”:
In spite of some of these negative trends, there are a number of significant or favorable attributes adding to the welfare of this city, and more directly impacting Jewish life. In fact, we see a renaissance occurring where there is a conscious effort to “reinvent” aspects of the LA Jewish community. Here are but a few of our observations:
- The development of new neighborhoods and communities of Jews, Eastside Jews and Pico-Union represent such creative initiatives amidst the changing demographics.
- We are seeing the reinvention of key “legacy” Jewish organizations and synagogues, offering exciting possibilities, new learning opportunities, and alternative entry points for participation. This is most certainly evident in what is happening, for example, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Valley Beth Shalom, as these institutions move to reposition their roles in Jewish communal life. Yet, out of economic necessity and demographic reality, we have seen and are likely to see other legacy organizations and synagogues merge, or simply go out of business!
- Another distinctive and exciting feature of this community is the presence of pools of creative talent within the business, entertainment and cultural arts disciplines. These “producers” of new culture, start up business models, educational initiatives, and promoters of social activism are each helping to set LA a part from other urban centers in terms of the establishment of new and innovative community models. These same leadership patterns are also evident within our Jewish community as one finds an abundance of creative and innovative leadership among LA’s rabbis, educators and Jewish communal professionals. We are reminded that communities are only as strong and innovative as their leadership base permits.
- As LA’s economy changes and evolves, we are likely to see the presence of new “techies” and other 21st century work force actors enter this marketplace. The creative arts scene, a central component of the economic life of Southern California, will no doubt continue to attract a new layer of artisans and the support systems necessary to maintain Los Angeles’ entertainment brand. Just as city’s two major employers, UCLA and USC, will be competing to add new talent to their educational infrastructures, we will also witness the creation of new start-up technology and business ventures throughout the Southland. As a result of these various economic engines and these different areas of growth, it may be possible to project that a significant number of Jews will continue to be attracted to Los Angeles.
- As LA is seen as a vital community, the continuous addition of “new Jews,” some from other parts of the country, while others from across the world, may help to offset some of the demographic loses noted above. The growing impact of Israelis, for example, within LA represents one such expression of this new wave! The significant contributions of young Orthodox Jewish families provide a second point of optimism.
As we have noted above, Los Angeles is undergoing significant demographic and economic transitions. Neighborhoods are taking on a new infusion of engagement as people rewire their lives in response to issues of traffic, changing life-style choices, and the economic realities. Yet, without a Jewish population study it is difficult, if not impossible, to verify the assumptions posted above or to predict demographic patterns into the future. Just as individuals are attracted to LA for its creative energy, there is countervailing evidence of others seeking to leave in light of the negative characteristics identified earlier in this article.
We are not forecasting the end of the Jewish community, quite the reverse, as we are identifying a re-inventive spirit contributing to Jewish life, our synagogues, schools and camps. The infusion of new wealth is creating various opportunities to grow the Jewish communal model with an array of alternative institutional expressions of engagement, learning and social activism.
Marylin E. Kingston Ph.D. is an organizational psychology consultant practicing in California. Professor Steven Windmueller Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.