Snapshot into Jewish LA: Some Insights and Reflections

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

So, what makes Los Angeles unique, or at least interesting!

New Waves: One of the core historic features of Los Angeles has involved the constant flow of new immigrant and ethnic populations, creating one of the most diverse communities in the world.

This same pattern exists within the Jewish community and has been a critical factor in the development of LA Jewry. In addition to its base population, over the past forty years, whole communities of Jews have arrived in Southern California from Central and South America, the Former Soviet Union, Iran, Israel, Northern and Southern Africa. They have each created their own institutional structures, cultural, social and political identities. Just as this region is home to the largest population of Koreans and Filipinos outside of their native lands, LA today boasts being a center of Jewish life for Persians and Israelis. As more than 100 languages are spoken in the LA School District, one can fully image the cultural diversity that now defines Los Angeles Jewry.

Significant Moments: Since the arrival of the first Jews to Los Angeles County in the 1840’s, and the formation of its earliest institutions in the 1850’s, Jews would play prominent roles in the civic, economic, and cultural life of this community during the last half of the 19th century.

The significant growth of LA’s Jewish community can be tied directly to the post Second World War, as thousands of returning service men and women elected to make Southern California their permanent home. Taking advantage of the GI Bill and finding a community open to growth and change, young Jews would settle across the LA basin, purchasing their first homes and entering the expanded labor force.

Rabbinic Voice: No other Jewish community in the world has seen the dominance of its rabbis as key institution-builders, including Marvin Hier (Simon Wiesenthal Center), David Wolpe (Sinai Temple), Sharon Brous (IKAR), Laura Geller (Temple Emanuel), Steve Leder (Wilshire Blvd. Temple), Uri Herscher (Skirball Cultural Center) and Harold Schulweis and Ed Feinstein (Valley Beth Shalom) represent a few of the contemporary rabbinic voices. Over the course of the past century, a number of other LA rabbis played prominent roles both locally and nationally, including Max Nussbaum (Temple Israel), Edgar Magnin, Harvey Fields, Alfred Wolf (Wilshire Blvd.Temple); Isaiah Zeldin (Stephen Wise Temple); Jacob Pressman and Joel Rembaum (Temple Beth Am); Leonard Beerman (Leo Baeck Temple); Albert Lewis (Temple Isaiah); and Simon Dulgin and Maurice Lamm (Beth Jacob). In addition, Baruch Shlomo Cunin has been the core anchor to one of Chabad’s major centers of operation. Beyond creating and leading such high profile institutions, the contributions of this community’s professionals to the intellectual development of Jewish life has been equally impressive.

Programmatic Initiatives: Noted for its culture of innovation, the Jewish community has produced an array of institutions and programs that have gained national distinction. Among the most impressive would be the Skirball Cultural Center; the former Council on Jewish Life of the Jewish Federation; IKAR, “a religious approach that fuses piety and hutzpah, obligation and inspiration, tradition and soul”; all represent elements of the area’s focus on innovation and outreach. Among other contributions, LA would be home to the first gay and lesbian congregation, Beth Chayim Chadashim, launched in 1972.

Friday Night Live” a religiously-orientated program sponsored by Sinai Temple designed to embrace Jewish music and tradition for younger single Jews, has attracted wide interest and broad public attention. This program represents however only a snapshot into the depth and influence of music and the arts on Jewish religious and cultural life in the region.

Whether speaking about Wilshire Temple’s summer camps, the Shalom Institute, or Brandeis Bardin, the Los Angeles Jewish community has been in the forefront of various Jewish camping and recreational initiatives.

The community’s infrastructure is also marked by innovation with the establishment of Bet Tzedek (1974) and Beit T’Shuva (1987) institutions that would fill unique but essential functions.

New York vs. Los Angeles: The rivalry here has several components, but three elements are particularly significant. 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 United Synagogue, ADL, and Hadassah, etc…

Secondly, a number of new national entities have made Los Angeles their home, competing with New York as a national center of American Jewish life. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, Stand With Us, Mazon, and Jewish World Watch are but a few of the emerging LA-based institutions seeking to define themselves as “other than New York”. A number of the key Gen X initiatives would be launched in Southern California, as well.

Social Activism: Over the course of LA Jewish history, individual Jews would play key roles in the battle for civil rights, in support of Latino workers, and in promoting gay rights. Covering the period of the past forty years, Jews were identified in playing important public roles within government, the media, and business. During the period of the 1970’s to the 90’s one could identify a disproportionate number of elected and appointed officials. A young Jewish city councilwoman, Rosalind Wyman would be a primary force in the mid-1950’s in bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles.

This community would be the home to the formation and development of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. For nearly 60 years (1933-2000), its Jewish Community Relations Committee would be among the nation’s largest and most active community-based civic action agencies. In addition, local congregations would take high profile roles on public policy concerns and social justice matters.

Latino-Jewish Connection and Beyond: Beginning in the mid-19th century, Jews have developed connections with key Latino leaders and their institutions. Following the Second World War, Jewish leaders would be instrumental in this city to assist in securing political rights and access for Hispanics. Among the first programs associated with Latino-Jewish relations were crafted in Southern California by the JCRC, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Labor Committee and the ADL. 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 and in more recent times. African American clergy working with rabbis would instrumental in advancing civil rights and social access for minorities.

Hollywood: Not only would Jews “invent Hollywood” but they would continue to leave their mark on the development of the creative arts, covering nearly a century of artistic mastery in film making, television, and theater. Outside of an early period in the history of the “industry” did Jews from the world of entertainment actually play significant and high profile roles within the Jewish communal system.

Reflections: Certainly there are many other “firsts” or programs that deserve commendation, but the above is designed only as a snapshot into Los Angeles! We will leave it to the historians to frame the complete picture of this nearly 170 year old community. In the end, this city’s Jewish messages are about

  1. The Cutting Edge
  2. Leadership from the Inside Out
  3. The Celebration of Localism
  4. The Politics of Diversity
  5. Money Ball: the Power of Elites

Clearly not everything about LA should be seen as idyllic or powerful. For instance, LA has not played its proportional role on the national Jewish scene which reflects the general pattern for California in terms of a marginal presence on the national public affairs scene. Part of this may be explained by the distance factor to the East Coast. Other contributing elements would include the problem of engaging people to play active civic roles, as the weather and an array of cultural and recreational options often are seen as competitive factors. LA’s affiliation and giving patterns are at best problematic, further limiting the West Coast’s credibility. One of the notions about Los Angeles is an assumption about its great wealth; indeed, while there is significant money in this community, LA faces major fiscal, structural and social problems: 25.9% of its residents living at or below the poverty line and a homeless population of over 250,000, with as many as 82,000 being on the street each night. The Jewish numbers are likewise staggering according to the 1997 population study, where more than 10 % of Jews reported living below the poverty line.

The LA story continues to unfold through its high profile personalities, its institutions of prominence, and its cultural imprint.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His website, thewindreport, provides an overview of his research and writings.