A Case for Pasadena
Most people are surprised, even flabbergasted, to learn that there is a sizeable Jewish community in Pasadena, one that has been here for well over a century.
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and I had never been to Pasadena. I knew little about it — mostly that the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl were there; I had no idea how close it was to Woodland Hills, where I lived. And I certainly didn’t think about if there were Jews there.
Pasadena is located in the San Gabriel Valley — or what locals call the “Other Valley” — and it’s surrounded by the San Gabriel Mountains. It sits at the foot of Mount Wilson, home to the observatory where Albert Einstein worked during his stay at Cal Tech. It’s also home to Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the leading U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system, which offers us a connection to space, science and some of the best minds in the world.
Jews first came to Pasadena at the turn of the 20th century, not long after the city was founded. Jewish women formed an aid society, and the men formed a congregation. Meetings first took place in congregants’ homes, and High Holiday services were held in the Union Labor Temple. In 1920, Temple B’nai Israel incorporated and established a presence on Hudson and Walnut streets, and from 1925 to 1932 the congregation grew from 60 families to 207 families. In 1940, the congregation moved to its present location on North Altadena Drive.
When Rabbi Max Vorspan arrived to head the congregation 1947, he encouraged the Pasadena Jewish community to reconstitute itself as the Jewish Community of Pasadena, with Temple B’nai Israel, B’nai B’rith Men and Women, Hadassah and ORT as constituent organizations. The congregation adopted the name “Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center” (PJTC). Vorspan went on to become the University of Judaism’s dean in 1952.
When I took over the rabbinic leadership of PJTC two years ago, I learned not only about the amazing cultural, social and natural wonders of Pasadena, but also about the awesome Jewish community here: It’s one that has a solid base and an incredible potential for dynamic growth.
In addition to PJTC, there is also a Chabad of Pasadena. All different kinds of Jews live here — and are moving here in large numbers.
The area features a wonderful preschool, B’nai Simcha Jewish Community Preschool, which cares for 70 children ages 2-6, and is located a short drive down the road in Arcadia. On the PJTC campus is an accredited day school, the Chaim Weizmann Community Day School, which has recently been awarded a science and arts grant for its work with Eaton Canyon Reserve, as well as a city of Pasadena Unity Award, for its Daniel Pearl program bringing together Jewish, Christian and Muslim children.
PJTC is currently home to almost 400 families, with many young families joining every month. We have a vibrant and nationally recognized religious school, the Louis B. Silver Religious School, with more than 175 kids.
I am using my experiences from my time at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan to bring innovative prayer experiences to PJTC. We have “Shabbat B’lev,” Shabbat of the Heart, featuring musicians who create an incredibly deep and passionate Shabbat evening service. PJTC is also engaged in social justice programs, including acting as one of three host synagogues for a May 26 program focusing on the Sudan, partnering with Longfellow Elementary in an extensive tutoring and mentoring program, serving monthly meals at our local homeless shelter and raising money to build a reservoir in Israel.
I constantly hear from people who are interested in moving to a more open and expansive part of town. Given how crowded the San Fernando Valley and the Westside are — Pasadena is set to explode to become the next major Jewish community in Los Angeles.
With a greater number of committed Jews moving here, we will have the chance to open kosher restaurants and markets, which are currently not available. The saying promises, “build it, and they shall come,” but in this case, I think we need to build it together.
I can see a time in the next 10 to 15 years when Pasadena will take its rightful place as the newest — yet oldest — addition to Jewish Los Angeles. I foresee a future when people will mention Pasadena’s Jewish community alongside Jewish neighborhoods like Pico-Robertson, Fairfax and Valley Village. Of course, given how often Pasadena is compared to the San Fernando Valley, our Jewish community may be known as the “other Jewish neighborhood.”