Jewish Los Angeles: Reflections and Insights
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
“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 orchestrating new modes of communal participation.
Often I am asked about the distinguishing features of the Los Angeles Jewish community. I have written several articles and monographs, a number of them have appeared on this site. Yet, this is the first occasion to examine many of these themes in a more comprehensive format.
Setting the Context: LA’s Jewish Past
The historical journey provides insights into the evolution of this distinctive Jewish community. There have been three periods of demographic growth and institutional change that define this city’s Jewish communal and religious development, explaining in part this community’s unique contributions and growing impact on American and global Jewish culture:
Jews and the Founding of Los Angeles: Early Jewish settlers would create the essential institutional elements necessary for a religious community to flourish. Since the arrival of the first Jews in the 1840’s to Los Angeles and the formation of its institutions in the 1850’s, beginning with the Hebrew Benevolent Society (now Jewish Family Services), Jews would play prominent roles in the civic, economic, and cultural life of the community during the last half of the 19th century.
Post–war Expansion: This demographic infusion fundamentally changed the image and dimensions of Los Angeles from a marginal Western community to an emerging center of Jewish influence and growth. By 1945 Greater Los Angeles would be home to 150,000 Jews. At the end of the Second World War, the community experienced a major growth as thousands of war veterans moved west with their families. As city’s population multiplied, the Jewish community expanded accordingly. By 1948 the Jewish population was a quarter of a million, representing an increase of 2,000 people a month as Jews moved to Los Angeles in one of the great migrations in Jewish history. By 1965 the Jewish population reached half a million, making this community one of the largest Jewish population centers in the world.
The “Foreign” Invasion: One of the core historic features of Los Angeles involves the constant flow of new immigrant and ethnic populations, creating one of the most diverse communities in the world. This same pattern would be evident within the Jewish community and defines the third wave of immigration that encompasses the last several decades of the 20th Century. In addition to its core population, whole communities of Jews arrived in Southern California from Central and South America, the Former Soviet Union, Iran, Israel, Northern and Southern Africa. Each of these ethnic Jewish constituencies are creating their own institutional structures, as well as their distinctive cultural, social and political identities. Just as this region today serves as to the population center for Koreans, Filipinos, Japanese and Chinese, LA today boasts being a center of Jewish life for thousands of Jews representing diverse backgrounds and nationalities.
Political Activism and Religious Engagement:
Over the decades the liberal Jewish political environment would profoundly influence the religious and cultural orientation of this community. Inspired by the prophetic messages of many of its rabbis, the community would also be influenced by the progressive values of Hollywood. Yet, despite the entertainment industry’s proclivity to embrace social causes, Jewish political activism would operate for the most part in total isolation from the Hollywood community. Only at the outset of the movie industry’s emergence did one find some common threads uniting these two constituencies. More generally, political activism in Los Angeles would be bifurcated, creating a distinctive barrier of separation between the communal enterprise and the entertainment sector. Indeed, the specific agendas central to Jewish interests, Israel and anti-Semitism, would garner minimum support or sustained interest on the part of the Hollywood crowd.
The Rise of Jewish Liberal Expression: During the early decades of the 20th century, Jews were generally excluded from the circles of power and influence. During the succeeding decades, beginning in the 1950’s, an array of prominent individuals, joined by key Jewish organizations, would play important roles in the battle for civil rights, supporting African-Americans and Hispanics as well as advancing gay rights. Covering the period of the past half-century, Jews assumed high profile public roles within government, the media, and business. One can identify a significant number of elected and appointed Jewish officials, including City Council member Rosalind Wyman, who would be the first Jewish politician and the first woman, elected to public service in the modern era.
For 70 years (1933-2003), the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee would be among the nation’s largest and most active community-based civic action agencies. The American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the National Council of Jewish Women would also be in the forefront of issues affecting the welfare of the community. They were be joined at an earlier time by the Jewish Labor Committee, American Jewish Congress and other organizations that dominated the LA scene a generation ago. The liberal impulse of this community in more recent times would foster the formation and development of an array of Jewish sponsored and supported institutions, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance, now Bend the Arc, a national movement for social change and the arrival of a new generation of rabbinic activists.
These formal organizing efforts would be supported and supplemented by the broad scale involvement of synagogue social action initiatives and the pro-active roles played by the Los Angeles rabbinic community. This can be further demonstrated by the involvement of key congregational figures in the civil rights movement as demonstrated by Rabbi Al Lewis and Robert Gans at Temple Isaiah, Rabbi Jacob Pressman at Temple Beth Am, and Rabbi Steve Jacobs at Temple Judea, among others. In more recent times, a new generation of rabbis would carry forward this progressive agenda in addressing issues of sexual equality, hunger, worker-rights, criminal justice reform, and other domestic social concerns.
Beyond the world of the synagogue, Jewish social service agencies would also reflect this specific focus on caring for those in need. Beyond supporting a wide array of Jewish communal health and human service institutions, this community would be unique in establishing two groundbreaking institutions, Bet Tzedek and Beit Tsuvah. Founded in 1974, Bet Tzedek would employ the Jewish legal injunction, Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” to serve as its framework for offering an broad set of legal services to people across Southern California. Established thirty years ago (1987), Beit Tsuvah would become the first Jewish residential treatment center for alcoholism and drug addiction.
Politics and LA Jewry: Where once Jews operated as “petitioners” seeking their legal and social standing as full citizens, today other ethnic communities see Jews as the essential “power-brokers” of Los Angeles. Today, the Jewish community is seen as the embodiment of the former “white establishment” or the new WASP’s (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).
Already as early as the mid-19th century, Jews developed connections with Latino leaders. During the post-Second World War period, Jews would be instrumental in this city to assist in securing political rights and access for Hispanics. Similar political and social ties were established with Chinese and Japanese Americans at the turn of the 20th century that would contribute to the expansion of these relationships during and after the Second World War. During the civil rights era, rabbis and Jewish organizations working with African American clergy and community leaders advanced the cause of civil rights and social access for minorities.
Today, as Latino’s affirm their political clout in this city, Asian Americans are emerging as the new petitioners for access and influence, while African-Americans are seeking to reclaim their earlier political presence. In turn, the Jewish political equation appears to be in transition. These new and changing political roles are being constructed at the very time when some prominent Jewish elected officials have left the public square and where others, including the current mayor (Eric Garcetti), city attorney (Mike Feuer) and city controller (Ron Galperin) 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.
The New Political Voices: In more recent times this binding together of political activism with Jewish progressive ideals has begun to be reshaped and challenged by the arrival and emergence of new Jewish constituencies. As large communities of Israeli, Iranian and Russian Jews have entered the LA scene, along with a growing presence of Orthodox Jews, creating another dimension to Jewish politics in Southern California, the rise of the Jewish political right. This phenomenon has contributed to a growing Jewish presence within the Republican Party, casting an alternative voice to the traditional liberal commitment.
LA’s Distinctive Features:
Geography and financial clout represent two important markers in shaping the character and development of Los Angeles and its Jewish community. Beyond the fact that LA emerged as a major Jewish center considerably later than eastern and mid-western Jewish communities, the historic imprint of western “independence” and distinctive lifestyle features comes into play when assessing how the Jews of Los Angeles distinctively define themselves in comparison with their co-religionists elsewhere.
The divide between east and west continues to play a defining factor in Los Angeles’ general relationship to the nation and more directly in defining how these geographical tensions play into the Jewish communal wars. Along with other key social indicators, the factor of “distance” and the power of regional “culture” have influenced the patterns of communal affiliation and religious participation.
The Factor of Distance: Being far from the “capital” of American Jewry, New York, has had a profound psychological and functional impact on Los Angeles. It would appear that the greater the distance from the center of Jewish power, the greater the institutional tensions. Over the decades many national institutions have exhibited difficulties with their organizational relationships with their West Coast affiliates. Western regional structures encompassing synagogue movements, membership organizations, and policy groups have struggled at times with their central administration over questions of autonomy and proportional representation.
The “East-West” rivalry has several components: regional autonomy, representation, and competition for political and financial influence. National agencies have often found their LA constituencies to be “in revolt” or at least unhappy over the control that they perceived their “New York office” manifested over daily operations and organizational policies. Over the years various battles and institutional disagreements have erupted involving such groups as the Jewish Theological Seminary in connection with its relationship to its Los Angeles campus, the national ADL’s conflict with its regional director in Los Angeles, and Hadassah’s engagement with its Southern California operations center.
The University of Judaism – now the American Jewish University – would break with its parent organization, the Jewish Theological Seminary (New York) in 1994. Similarly, Hadassah, the largest women’s Zionist organization, would reluctantly permit its Pacific Southwest area chapters to create a different organizational and governing model than that prescribed by the national administration in order to more appropriately accommodate to the cultural and social norms of its Southern California membership.
A 2002 Los Angeles Times article, “American Jews Face East-West Power Struggle,” highlighted the dismissal of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) longtime Los Angeles director David Lehrer. The story noted: “Among some Jews here, the brouhaha has reignited long-simmering resentment over the way national Jewish organizations in New York still treat Los Angeles as ‘a colony,’ as one put it. The same kind of tension – often between national headquarters and regional offices – has surfaced in other American Jewish organizations in recent years.” As Lehrer put it, “my ouster is in part a reflection of the East-West divide in American Jewry. I hope the Los Angeles Jewish community continues to assert its independence and uniqueness.”
Western Jewish organizations and synagogues have complained for decades that their communities are underrepresented on national policy boards and governing bodies of their Eastern-based organizations. In turn, many national leaders have argued that West Coast representatives have failed to accept greater responsibility. Organizational leaders on the West Coast have pointed to a longstanding absence of committed leaders from communities such as Los Angeles who could play major roles in their respective national agencies. Southern California leaders have consistently argued that the entrenched presence of a New York mindset simply does not understand the cultural styles and political priorities of Western Jewry.
In more recent times, a number of new national entities have made Los Angeles their home, competing to some degree with New York as a national center of American Jewish life. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, Stand With Us, Mazon, Israel American Council, and Jewish World Watch are but a few of the emerging LA-based institutions seeking to define themselves as “other than New York.”
Financial Clout: During the early years of Hollywood’s formation and early development, Jewish studio moguls were instrumental in building and supporting such institutions as Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Temple Israel of Hollywood and Hillcrest Country Club, and more recently, new generations of financial investors have continued to be active in growing the communal system of services and synagogues. Western Jews, in general, and Los Angeles Jewry, in particular, are among this nation’s wealthiest. Indeed, a number of these financial elites have embraced their synagogues and Jewish communal networks to foster a broad spectrum of investing in the community’s future.
Over time these financial stakeholders have funded not only Jewish religious, educational, and social causes in Los Angeles and across Jewish world but have been instrumental in underwriting many public and private causes within the community. The significant participation of Jewish donors to universities, medical centers and hospitals, symphonies, theatre and the cultural arts reflects their broader commitment to growing and sustaining the public welfare of the community. A specific focus of some Jewish funders has been directed toward promoting interreligious cooperation and engagement, sustaining community-organizing initiatives, and encouraging and supporting various forms of political activism.
Camping as Informal Education: Also contributing to the distinctiveness of Western Jewish life would be the elements of climate and life-style. The uniqueness of Southern California may best be expressed through the presence of various forms of Jewish informal and recreational programming. The importance of “life style” in shaping religious and cultural expression is borne out by the significant impact of Jewish camping and outdoor programming that today increasingly defines Los Angeles Jewish life. The Jewish camping movement, while significant for decades around the country, has had no greater impact than on the West Coast, and more directly in the greater LA area.
The quality, number and scope of Jewish camping includes the American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin campus, located in Simi Valley; Wilshire Boulevard Temple Malibu campsites and conference center; JCA Shalom Institute; the newly established 6 Points Science Tech West Camp Program of the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism); the Conservative Movement’s Ramah Camp at Ojai; and Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Camp Bob Waldorf on the Max Straus Campus in Glendale.
Unlike many Jewish communities across the world, this is a region that has all but disposed of its JCC’s. Currently, the Westside JCC remains as the last anchor of the center movement in this city, and WJCC has adopted an entrepreneurial model as a creative approach designed to sustain itself. The collapse of JCC’s in this community has sparked a conversation as to why this cultural/recreational model has not succeeded. Various theories abound. Could it be about “climate,” namely that everyone is already enjoying the ocean, mountains, and desert, thereby not requiring such a communal resource or maybe it is the presence of mainstream “competitors,” existing athletic clubs, cultural centers and other such resources?
Indeed, the success of the Skirball Cultural Center and other initiatives designed to celebrate and promote culture may indicate that new models of Jewish engagement will continue to emerge.
Jews of the West: Measuring Distinctive Features: While many Jews living in the Western United States are highly successful and well educated, the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) reveals that the religious and cultural behaviors of west coast Jews differs significantly from their counterparts across the nation. Various community population studies conducted in key Western Jewish communities point to a set of defining social characteristics.
Religious Commitments: Jews of the West exhibit lower level levels of religiosity.
Affiliation and Participation: By all standards of affiliation and participation, Jews living in the Western United States rank lowest. They are also least likely to contribute to federation campaigns or other Jewish causes. Only 22% donate to federation campaigns and only 39% to any Jewish cause.
Israel Engagement: Identification and involvement with Israel provides another measure of Jewish engagement. One can define “emotional attachment” as significant engagement with Israeli peoplehood and its political situation, economic support, and travel to Israel. Only 29% of Western Jews have traveled to Israel compared to 35% of American Jews generally and 49% of those in the Northeast.
Jewish Literacy: Jews of the West were the least likely to read Jewish newspapers or magazines (62%); Midwestern Jews were the most likely (72%).
The Wealth Factor: Western Jews, in general, and Los Angeles Jewry, in particular, are among the nation’s wealthiest based on a number of business surveys, including the Forbes 400 where a significant percentage of all Jews mentioned in this study reside in the West.
At the same time, data from both the NJPS (2001) and local community studies show a higher percentage of Western Jews living in poverty. The NJPS (2001) found 46% of elderly Jewish households in the West with incomes under $25,000 compared to the national Jewish average of 37%.
Leadership Interlocutors: Great Jewish communities are comprised of premier leaders who have developed significant economic and institutional relationships through their business/professional relationships, social networks and religious affiliations. While the community did not develop and sustain a base of legacy families, LA’s communal “shakers and doers” have been 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 within the 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 in the East or Midwest, 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 including the mid-Wilshire corridor, 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. This type of demographic stability has also been essential in maintaining Jewish religious and cultural institutions across the greater Los Angeles area.
In many ways Jewish Los Angeles can be described as a social experiment, taking place at the edges of the larger LA cultural scene. Just as its Jewish 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 expands into the city’s cultural and culinary arenas as well.
Emulating the religious innovation operating among other Southern California faith communities, LA’s Jewish religious culture can be seen as testing traditional religious norms and boundaries that define mainstream American Judaism. With more than 100 synagogues and alternative forms of religious connection, Los Angeles has become a major center for counter-cultural Judaism, introducing diverse and creative forms of spirituality and worship.
From mainstream congregations representing the core Jewish denominational movements to “emergent” religious expression and activism, Southern California has emerged as a laboratory of experimentation involving alternative forms of worship and study and the creative use of the arts, theater and music. This pattern is also present within its mainstream social service and philanthropic institutions, as evidenced by the Jewish Federation and other mainstream organizations that are committed to reinventing themselves. Drawing upon LA’s distinctive features, these communities of faith seek to embrace the influences of the entertainment culture, Southern California weather, and the region’s laid-back lifestyle in blending religious practice with the existing social environment.
The idea of “mega-synagogues” may have no better setting than Los Angeles with its impressive set of large membership congregations. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the community’s oldest synagogue; Stephen Wise Temple, Sinai Temple, Valley Beth Shalom, among others represent this particular model of participation. These institutions are noted for their innovative and extensive range of services and programs, their large physical plants, and the high profile personalities of their rabbis.
These diverse religious communities have been supported and embraced by the presence in LA of a significant base of Jewish educational resources including seminaries (American Jewish University; Hebrew Union College; the Academy of Jewish Religion, California) and Jewish studies programs (Alan D. Leve Center of Jewish Studies at UCLA; HUC’s Jerome H. Louchheim School of Jewish Studies at USC; Cal State Northridge Jewish Interdisciplinary Studies Program; Loyola Marymount Jewish Studies Program, among others), cultural resources (Skirball Cultural Center; Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance; USC’s Casden Center for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life and its Shoah Visual History Foundation), and philanthropic sponsors (including the Jewish Community Foundation and Federation).
The institutions introduced below demonstrate the breath and depth of Jewish religious expression. Many of these communities have creatively integrated cultural resources, lifestyle options and political values into their operational frameworks.
Independent Expressions: Eastside Jews describes themselves as “irreverent, upstart, non-denominational collective of Jews living in Los Angeles’ East Side. We host several events throughout the year during unpopular holidays at unlikely venues.” Pico Union Project, founded in 2013 by composer and musician Craig Taubman, “is dedicated to the Jewish principle to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ It elevates this teaching into practice in a historic building by bringing diverse cultures together through song, story, art, food and prayer. The Shtibl Minyan (1999) describes itself as an “equalitarian community with a lay-led independent minyan whose davening attempts to fulfill the joyous Hassidic ideal with all my limbs I will say praise.” Makum Ohr Shalom serves as the Los Angeles home for Jewish Renewal, whereas Adat Chaverim represents the humanist Jewish community.
Possibly the most significant emergent model of Jewish engagement in Los Angeles is IKAR. Founded in 2004 by Rabbi Sharon Brous, its spiritual leader, IKAR represents an effort “to reclaim the vitality and relevance of Jewish religious practice” combined with “a deep commitment to social justice.”
Orthodox Engagement: The vitality of American Orthodoxy can also be found in Los Angeles. Orthodox Jews have established an array of synagogues, schools, and yeshivot that are supported by social service agencies, kosher markets and restaurants. Three primary neighborhoods comprising the bulk of LA’s traditional Jews: Pico-Robertson, encompassing parts of Beverly Hills, Beverlywood and Westwood; Hancock Park and La Brea; and sections of North Hollywood, Valley Village and Van Nuys. The anchor congregations comprising the modern Orthodox community include Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, Young Israel of Century City, Shaarei Zedek in North Hollywood, and Congregation B’nai David Judea, representing the progressive wing or “Open Orthodox” constituency, are present within this community.
Gay and Lesbian Expression: Los Angeles would be the home to the first gay and lesbian congregation, again reflecting the community’s pioneering image. Founded in 1972, Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim would open the way for other expressions that would serve the LBGQ communities.
The Emergence of New Ethnic Communities: An array of social, political and religious organizations, representing the Israeli, Persian and Russian constituencies, has been formed over the past twenty-five years. These initiatives have, such represented by the Iranian American Jewish Federation which is comprised of some 15-member organizations, including social service and religious structures, the growing cultural and political activities of Israeli Americans as demonstrated by the IAC (Israeli American Council) and the creation of Ru-Ju-LA, the Los Angeles Russian Jewish Network, and its Russian Jewish Leadership Tract, a program designed to engage younger Russian Jewish leaders, operated under the auspices of the Jewish Federation.
A Distinctive Rabbinic Voice: In most urban settings where the character of the American rabbinate is seen as providing a supportive role toward enhancing Jewish learning and communal engagement, rabbis in Los Angeles 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.
The dominance of its rabbis as the central creators of institutions is a distinguishing LA feature. Among the most significant include Jacob Pressman* and Joel Rembaum (Temple Beth Am), Marvin Hier (Simon Wiesenthal Center), David Wolpe (Sinai Temple), Sharon Brous (IKAR), Harvey Fields* and Steve Leder (Wilshire Blvd. Temple), Uri Herscher (Skirball Cultural Center), Isaiah Zeldin (Stephen Wise Temple) and Harold Schulweis* and Ed Feinstein (Valley Beth Shalom) represent a few of these extraordinary rabbinic activists (*deceased).
Indeed, LA rabbis have been ranked by various national and Anglo-Jewish publications as among the most influential within America. Among the rabbis most frequently identified as “influential” include Marvin Hier (Simon Wiesenthal Center), Uri Herscher (Skirball Cultural Center), Sharon Brous (IKAR), David Wolpe (Sinai Temple), Denise Eger (Kol Ami and immediate past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis), and Harold Schulweis*(Valley Beth Shalom). As the Daily Beast would suggest based on their survey of influential rabbis, “but like American Jews themselves, the rabbis on this list are clustered on the coasts – particularly in New York and Los Angeles.”
Distinctive Features of LA Jewry: The uniqueness of the Los Angeles Jewish experience can be defined by these six characteristics:
- The pioneering and independent spirit of the West has distinctively defined religious and communal life, effecting its relationships with the East Coast’s “Jewish establishment.”
- Religious culture of the community has been shaped by the Southern California climate. This is borne out by the architectural design of synagogues, meshing of outdoor lifestyles with religious symbolism and practice, and generating a particular emphasis on informal Jewish learning.
- If New York is seen as this country’s financial center and Washington as this nation’s political axis, then Los Angeles must be understood as its entertainment capital. For America’s Jews, each of these cities would also serve as anchor communities where Jews would play significant roles in each of these “industries.” Indeed, in LA Jews would be responsible for the birth and evolution of “Hollywood.”
- The West in general and Los Angeles in particular would emerge as a center for creative, experimental and alternative Jewish religious expression and practice. As noted elsewhere, the imprint of the region’s focus on music, theater and media would be reflected in the innovative use of these resources in the culture of Los Angeles synagogues, its camps and emergent religious institutions.
- The historic and distinctive community-building role of LA’s rabbinic leadership in the creation of key religious, cultural and political institutions.
- The infusion of Jews from across the globe would add to its mixture of cultural and religious expression.
Ava Kahn and Marc Dollinger in their work on California Jews have helped to define the distinctive features that may best define the particular characteristics of this community:
Jewish immigrants to California took advantage of its physical environment, ethnic diversity, and cultural distinctiveness to fashion a form of Judaism unique in the American experience. California Jews enjoyed unprecedented access to political power a generation earlier than their New York counterparts. They thrived in the multicultural mix, redefining the classic black-white racial binary by forging relations with a variety of religious and ethnic groups in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Moving Beyond: 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 Jewish polity that is wedded to the strengthening of the civic enterprise, just as it seeks to maintain and enhance its core Jewish heritage. Its dynamic and high profile rabbinic voices serve as community builders, institutional leaders, moral and spiritual guides, and political activists transmitting their ideas and presence across this racially and culturally diverse setting.
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. Outside of New York, no other American Jewish community has the depth of such diverse, ethnic 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, as referenced earlier, 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.
LA represents a vibrant cultural scene where Jews and their institutions are contributing both to the Jewish and broader civic environment. Emulating the activist impulses of the entertainment/media enterprise, this community has begun to exercise its cultural, religious and political impact on American Jewry as a whole.
No doubt, the dynamic quality of LA Jewry is tied to four core components: its demographic composition, diversity and size; the multiple levels of the community’s financial, political and cultural connections to the general society; the quality and depth of its lay and rabbinic leadership; and the impact of the creative Hollywood thread on the Jewish enterprise. California is different! LA is an even more intense version of these differences!
Over the decades the role and position of LA Jewry have changed. Where once the central institutions of Jewish life, its synagogues, federation, 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.
Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.