Pico-Robertson’s Orthodox head east

Three years ago, when Edo Cohen’s observant friend moved several blocks away from the center of Pico-Robertson’s Orthodox community to an area east of La Cienega Boulevard, he remembers thinking, “I can’t believe he moved there.”

Now, Cohen, his wife Merav and their two daughters have joined the increasing number of observant Jews who are heading in the same direction — east, past the far reaches of the area traditionally considered Pico-Robertson to an adjacent, up-and-coming community known as Faircrest Heights that extends beyond the other side of La Cienega Boulevard.

At the time Cohen’s friend moved, the region bordering Pico-Robertson and Faircrest Heights, also known as the Pico-Fairfax corridor, was not known as an ideal location. Commercially, it was — and still is — a mixture of down-market retailers, medical marijuana stores and auto mechanic shops. 

Residentially, though, the neighborhood is becoming an attractive spot for middle-class families. There are Spanish Colonials, one-story homes with front and back yards and ample street parking. 

“It’s a little bit more quiet,” Cohen said, comparing the area around his residence on Point View Street to his former home in Pico-Robertson. And, Cohen added, “You get more bang for your buck.”

Whereas Pico-Robertson offers a middle-class environment with upper-class property values, homes less than 2 miles to the east offer similar living at a lower cost. This contrast appears to be the primary ingredient drawing observant Jews east. 

But how far are observant families willing to move? As one goes east of La Cienega, the number of synagogues within reasonable walking distance, particularly for families with children, dwindles with each block.

That’s where Chabad of South La Cienega (SOLA) has found a market. Five-and-a-half years ago, Rabbi Avraham Zajac and his wife, Stery, opened SOLA, capitalizing on what they saw as an unfulfilled demand for a synagogue that could serve families who wanted to move east as well as those who already had settled there.

After a recent Shacharit morning prayer service at SOLA’s location on La Cienega Boulevard, between Pickford and Airdrome streets, Zajac sat down and spoke about his congregation, which he estimates has grown from 10 families to 100 families in under six years.

“Simply moving out just a little bit gives people the best of both worlds,” Zajac said. “On one hand, you move here — more affordable. On the other hand, you can still feel part of the greater Pico-Robertson Jewish community.”

Reflective of the increasing Jewish market, SOLA has plans for a $8 million expansion, which would include the construction of two mikvehs, a Chabad synagogue, a Sephardic synagogue and a Jewish Montessori preschool. 

SOLA, though, won’t long remain the only option for Jews in east Pico-Robertson and Faircrest Heights. Later this year, a new synagogue affiliated with LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel, is expected to open in the area.

LINK, a synagogue and kollel (a place where rabbinic scholars study among themselves and teach people in the community), has an existing location on the corner of Robertson Boulevard and Saturn Street. While its founder, Rabbi Asher Brander, hasn’t yet announced an exact location for the new, additional shul, he told the Journal that it will be near Pico and Crescent Heights boulevards.

The proliferation of Jewish families and synagogues farther and farther east is not entirely out of the blue. Rather, it’s only the latest chapter in the neighborhood’s decades-long evolution. 

Walking down Pico, with its medley of kosher grocers, delis, Judaica shops and synagogues, it’s difficult to imagine a time, not so long ago, when a yarmulke sighting would have turned heads. The observant Jewish community of Pico-Robertson has been developing since the 1980s, but not until the 1990s did it become the go-to location for Orthodox Jews in the city.

According to Brander, the area east of Shenandoah Street — just a couple of blocks from the intersection of Pico and Robertson — “could have been Texas” when he moved to the neighborhood in the early ’90s.

Rabbi Aaron Parry grew up in Pico-Robertson in the 1950s, lived there until the 1990s and now lives in the La Brea neighborhood. He said that one “would need a microscope to see a Jew walking on the street” for most of the time that he lived there.

“It was like a whole different world,” Parry said.

Now there are an estimated 30 kosher restaurants — including Chinese, Italian and Mexican — as well as bakeries and even parve ice cream shops. There are multiple Jewish schools, and on Shabbat mornings, the sounds of prayers and Torah readings can be heard up and down Pico, from at least Sherbourne to Doheny drives.

Over the last several years, economics and migration into Pico-Robertson has expanded the observant community’s borders — particularly its eastern one. Twelve Jewish restaurants, bakeries, markets and synagogues sit between the 4 1/2 blocks separating Shenandoah and La Cienega, which is currently the eastern boundary for kosher food establishments on Pico.

“Pico-Robertson has always been the landing strip” for new, particularly young, Jews moving to L.A., said demographer Pini Herman, who also writes a blog for the Journal. 

Migration from other cities and states may be one part of Pico-Robertson’s expansion, but as real estate broker Peyman Karami explained, plenty of families who already live in the 90035 ZIP code are picking up and moving a couple of minutes east.

“Going far east from this side — from Robertson — makes the property value lower, and obviously the community is [expanding],” said Karami, whose company, Broker L.A., is located on Shenandoah. 

He told the story of a recent client, a rabbi, who bought a house east of La Cienega “just because of the affordability.” To meet the rabbi’s budget, the broker said, “We had to go far east.” 

Jerry Hsieh, who with his wife owns Jerry & Rachel Hsieh Realtors, echoed a similar sentiment. The Hsiehs have covered the Pico-Fairfax corridor for about seven years, during which time, Hsieh says, it has become a go-to spot for Jewish families, many of whom purchase older properties at lower prices and then renovate them.

“Every single month I drive through,” Hsieh said in a phone interview. “And a new home is being remodeled.”

Real estate analyst Tim Ellis recently classified Faircrest Heights as the third hottest neighborhood in the nation on Redfin.com, a national online real estate brokerage, behind Highland Park in Los Angeles and Mira Mesa in San Diego. Compared to 2012, Ellis wrote that home listings in Faircrest Heights are down 63 percent, prices are up 29 percent and the number of sales is up 17 percent. 

The increasing home prices remind demographer and Herman’s Journal co-blogger Bruce A. Phillips, of what happened to Pico-Robertson decades ago. That’s when rising property values priced out many lower-income renters and persuaded some long-time homeowners to sell and cash out, in effect gentrifying the area.

“It’s the same phenomenon happening,” Phillips said, comparing the Pico-Fairfax corridor with the early stages of Pico-Robertson’s transformation into an observant Jewish community. “I think people there are selling and taking the cash.”

It’s important to remember though, according to Herman, that the corridor’s growth has a lot to do with the drop in property values and in families’ incomes caused by the 2008 recession.

“If the recession keeps on going,” Herman said, the expansion of Pico-Robertson farther and farther east “might be a successful phenomenon.” But if the economy picks up and raises families’ incomes with it, he said that the Jews who moved east might want to return to the pricier real estate of Pico-Robertson.  

Although Herman predicts that the “outlying areas of Orthodoxy are going to recede back into the core areas,” he sees a chance that the new observant community in the Faircrest Heights area is there to stay.

“You might get a viable community.”