Questions for the Board Room

Let me share with you three scenes.

Last Sunday, I spent part of a pleasant afternoon at Pan Pacific Park, site of the Israel Independence Day Festival. Those who tally the numbers estimate that 40,000 people turned out for the celebration. There were booths staffed by Jewish organizations (including The Journal), carnival rides, music, a few speeches and, of course, ethnic food.

The turnout appeared to consist primarily of Israelis, Sephardic Jews and Orthodox families. I saw a few people I knew, including some from the Jewish Federation. But absent were many faces from the board of The Jewish Journal, the Board of Rabbis and the community I would loosely identify as Westside Jewry. I would also venture to guess that not a single member of the Hillcrest Country Club was present; nor were many from the university Jewish communities of USC, UCLA and Cal State Northridge.

By coincidence, last weekend was the occasion for the Los Angeles Times’ annual book fair, held at UCLA. According to Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman, more than 110,000 turned out for the fair. (See story on page 23). My assumption is — based on people who were actually present, writers who served as panel discussants, and parties that I heard about and/or attended — that all 110,000 were Jewish.

But I assume also that only a small number of the celebrants from Israeli Independence Day were at the fair; and, at best, among the large crowd, one might find only a handful of those men and women who identify themselves as leaders of the Jewish community.

A few months ago, I attended a dinner at USC that was sponsored by the university’s Jewish Studies Center to honor the academic links which had been established between the school and Hebrew Union College. There were probably 400 people, and I would guess that there was not a table in the room that did not accommodate at least several leaders of Jewish organizations in Los Angeles.

At my table, for example, I rubbed elbows with Los Angeles attorney Bruce Ramer, national head of the American Jewish Committee, and Rachel Adler, distinguished author and professor at USC and HUC, and one of our city’s leading Jewish thinkers.

It is not a test of anything to ask if they were or were not present at either of last week’s events. Just a way of signifying that we are quite numerous in this city, represent quite distinct and separate interest groups, and are directly and critically (and independently) involved in the political and cultural life of Los Angeles.

Indeed, without us, this city’s cultural scene would be modest, and the political life not anywhere near as dynamic and/or socially responsible. But it seems to me that we come to these endeavors often as members of distinct and separate Jewish enclaves. And we, as persons and as groups, are often linked only tenuously to everyone else in town who claims a Jewish identity.

Which leads me to the question that started this rumination in the first place: Are we in Los Angeles so large and diverse a Jewish community that there is more that separates than unites us?

Perhaps I should raise the opposite question. What is it that unites us as Jews? In the past, the first two immediate responses would most likely be: The fear of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust unite us. A pause would follow and then maybe, Also a commitment to Israel. But these have become slender reeds today for some within our diverse community. They are issues not necessarily charged with the same current that used to animate us; and they are often less central to our lives today.

Indeed, it seems at times as though we need to find a new wellspring, a new dynamic, that could serve to reenforce our identity as Jews, and that might also link us again as members of a dispersed tribe. Except, of course, some of us are reluctant to return to that fixed and distant fold.

That challenge, I believe, is what confronts the Jewish federations across the country today. It is a dilemma that goes to the very heart of their existence. They are faced (as are we) with the fact that the boundary lines, which define our role as Jews in America, have been changing at a rapid rate these last two or three decades. During this period, we have moved into all the corners of American society and, in the process, have at times separated ourselves from what, at this distance, looks like a more cohesive (though restrictive) former Jewish world.

Today, our borders as Jews often do not touch. There is clearly a gain present in this opening of doors, of possibilities, that permits us to move with ease and at will in America. But perhaps a loss as well. The questions still remain: Must we each go our separate way? Is there so little today to draw us together, to bind us one to the other, sharing a culture and past that was alive and hearty and that needs once again to be made fresh and vital? — Gene Lichtenstein