From where Phillip Liff-Grieff sits — literally — the Jewish community is looking better all the time.
Liff-Grieff is executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, and his office in Covina is at ground zero of a sprawling Jewish population. To his west lie the cities of Pasadena, La Cañada, Downey, Arcadia, Whittier, La Mirada and Azusa. To his east grow Claremont, Pomona, Diamond Bar, Ontario and — yes — Rancho Cucamonga.
Long gone are the days when those names served as little more than the butt of a Jack Benny joke. As Southern California continues to sprawl, and urbanites escape the Westside and young professionals seek their dream of a good job and a $200,000 five-bedroom home in Chino Hills, the San Gabriel Valley/Pomona region is expanding into a unique Jewish area of its own.
The community will come together to celebrate this growth in its annual festival, on Sunday, May 18, from noon to 4 p.m., at Covina Park in Covina. Between 1,000 and 2,000 people are expected to attend the event, which will feature an art show and sale, entertainment, children’s activities and plenty of food.
That number may be a small percentage of the actual Jewish population. Although no recent demographic statistics exist, Liff-Grieff estimates that between 35,000 and 40,000 Jews live in his federation’s 1,200-square-mile region, an area the size of Rhode Island.
Job opportunities and affordable housing are the primary reasons Jews move to the area, said Liff-Grieff, and the population is largely professional, with numerous young families. A large percentage of educators and students live near the universities at Pasadena, Pomona and Claremont.
The mix, according to Rabbi Avi Levine of Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, is wide-ranging, with Jews of all different levels of knowledge, background and commitment. The region has 13 synagogues, two Chabad centers, two Jewish day schools and two preschools. What it doesn’t have, he said, is a visible Jewish presence.
“It’s more like Berkeley or San Francisco in that sense,” said Levine, who served, for several years, as a rabbi in Berkeley. “There’s no Jewish neighborhoods.”
Community Jewish activists say that the lack of an identifiable Jewish presence is the greatest challenge to community building.
“L.A. has signposts and landmarks, a sense of having other Jews around you,” said Liff-Grieff. “That really is lacking here.”
The only kosher restaurant, he said, is Noah’s Bagels. Jews who observe the laws of kashrut make regular trips into Los Angeles for supplies. The Jewish institutions that help promote a sense of Jewish belonging — museums, memorials, even community centers — are all lacking in the region. The Jewish population itself is far-flung. Levine estimates that there are not more than one or two other Jewish children in his children’s public-school classes.
(The irony doesn’t escape Liff-Grieff that, despite the currently limited Jewish presence, many parts of the region, such as Montebello and Downey, were actually created by Jewish developers, and Ontario was once home to huge chicken ranches operated by Eastern European social Zionists.)
As in many other primarily non-Jewish areas, synagogues then take on a critical and wide-ranging role. “Jewish life is hard to find,” said Brenda Rosenfeld, a GAIN program administrator who lives in Chino Hills. “So we have to create it ourselves.” Rosenfeld, who moved to the area from the San Fernando Valley 25 years ago, is active at Beth Israel, which now has 425 families. The synagogue has a full calendar of event programming, and is planning a summer camp as well.
The depth of synagogue life extends from the west, where the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, under the leadership of Rabbi Gilbert Kollin, has long been a mainstay, to Chino Hills, where a nascent chavurah found itself facing off against the religious right last holiday season.
Creating a larger sense of Jewish communal life, beyond the synagogue, remains a challenge, said Liff-Grieff, but not one unfamiliar even to big-city federations. The 3-year-old San Gabriel/Pomona Federation, which split off from the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, has used focus groups and marketing research to zero in on the needs of its constituents. Several tacks seem to be working:
* The 6,000 Federation donors now receive their own newsletter, The Jewish Community News, instead of The Jewish Journal. The News focuses only on local personalities and events. “No offense to The Journal,” said Federation president Douglas Graff, “but that was the biggest single thing in establishing our own identity.”
* The San Gabriel/Pomona Federation is organizing large events and gatherings to bring the community together. Along with the May 18 festival, it will hold the Celebration of Jewish Learning on June 1 at the Duarte Performing Arts Center to honor all graduates of Jewish learning programs. Plans are also underway for a “CyberFest,” sometime in October, to introduce residents to Jewish computer software and Internet resources; a mission to Israel this summer; and even a communal basketball tournament. Liff-Grieff said that he also plans to launch a web site for the community. “The need to connect is a core need, as important as Jewish education,” he said.
* The Federation has created or helped support an array of other outreach services to meet the needs of a variety of Jews; among these programs are the Jewish Con-nection — a Jewish singles network chaired by Steven Fuhrman of Alhambra — and a van service that takes senior citizens on field trips to places of Jewish interest. “People may tend to feel very isolated as Jews living outside L.A.,” said Jonathan Flaum, the San Gabriel/Pomona Federation’s program director. “Our job is to bring them together.”
An Israeli dance troupe performs at last year’s Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys annual festival in Covina.
Coming together has also helped in the rare times the community has faced anti-Semitism. Last August, neo-Nazis distributed anti-Semitic literature to schools and neighborhoods in Claremont, La Verne, Diamond Bar and Upland. Churches and synagogues quickly joined together to put out a “Zero Tolerance for Hate” statement, and the city of Claremont established a Human Relations Committee, under the chairmanship of local communal leader Dr. Jack Schecter.
Of greater concern, said Graff, is the religious right, which is seeking political footholds in some areas of the region. Last December, a struggle erupted in Chino Hills over the planned presentation of an overtly Christian religious Christmas pageant at a public elementary school. When some in the Jewish community protested, they drew the anger of many parents and several school board members affiliated with the religious right. The Chino Hills Chavurah’s compromise proposal to fund an off-campus performance was rejected. Eventually, the pageant was staged in April.
But such occurrences are rare, and the Jewish community continues to thrive. Enrollment in Jewish day schools is increasing. The Atid Day School in West Covina has 80 students, and Chaim Weizmann Day School in Pasadena boasts 110, up from the 60 when Graff, vice treasurer of an international engineering firm, first moved to the area 20 years ago.
And there is little cause to think that the reasons Jews have been drawn to the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys will disappear any time soon: the quieter pace, the safer streets, the smaller scale.
“It’s got to do with the quality of life,” said Graff. “We love it here.”
The Jewish Symphony performs at the 1995 festival.
Koufax, Knishes and Kids
By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer
Abraham, Moses and Sarah will be there. So will Sandy Koufax and Mark Spitz. The ancient biblical figures and modern-day sports heroes — in costume, of course — will be among the multitude of attractions at the Valley Jewish Festival, on June 1, at Los Angeles Pierce College in Woodland Hills.
The festival, a project of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, is billed by its organizers as the largest outdoor Jewish gathering west of Chicago. Held every other year since the mid-1980s, the daylong food-, activity- and entertainment-packed fest attracted about 38,000 the last time it was held, in 1995.
“From Orthodox to Reform, from liberal to conservative, you name it, there’s going to be something appealing here for every Jewish person,” said Dan Shuster, who is chairing the event for the third time.
In keeping with this year’s theme of “Tradition,” exhibitors and vendors have been asked to create booths with cultural or historic significance. In addition to gawking at their favorite biblical and sports heroes, festival-goers will be able to learn about the origins of Hebrew names at one booth, learn how to braid challah at another and get a lesson on tzedakah at still another. Close to 200 nonprofit organizations will be on hand, including synagogues, Jewish day schools and camps, and a wide spectrum of Jewish community service- and social-action agencies.
Other attractions include:
* A two-acre children’s park that’s so extensive, it will require the services of about 200 volunteers to run it during the course of the day. Among the features will be carnival rides, arts and crafts, educational exhibits and a 23-foot-high rock, down which older children will be able to rappel (under close supervision, of course).
* A full schedule of entertainment sponsored by Hollywood’s famed Comedy Store, with a potpourri of Jewish comics doing their stand-up schtick between musical acts. Musical offerings will include Chicago’s nine-piece Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and the Israeli rock band ESTA, among others. Kids won’t be shortchanged in the entertainment department either: Musical, dance, martial arts and theatrical performances will be on tap at the children’s stage in the children’s park.
* A Jewish event without food, glorious food? Not a chance. From knishes to kugel, Chinese noodles to sushi, food booths will offer an abundance of international noshables — all kosher, natch.
* Learning sessions, led by a number of prominent Jewish teachers, including Rabbi Steven Jacobs and Cantor Caren Glasser of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah and Rabbi Judith HaLevy of Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.
The event, costly and complicated to stage, takes about a year to plan and prepare, said festival director Susan Bender, who has overseen the production of the past four festivals with the help of chairperson Shuster and a loyal group of about 30 community volunteers. “It’s like a family,” she said. “We really have a great time doing this.”
The festival, which began with the initial purpose of raising consciousness about the plight of Soviet Jews, has grown and changed over the years. Its main purpose now, Bender said, “is strictly community outreach,” with no fund-raising component, although an admission fee ($5 for adults, $2 for seniors and children aged 2 or older) is charged. By bringing together Jews of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, from an area stretching from Santa Barbara to Orange County, the festival promotes unity and solidarity, Bender said. “With everything that goes on in Los Angeles and the world, it’s important to have everyone get together for one day for pure celebration,” she said.
The festival’s corporate support has been growing as well, with more than half its $130,000 budget coming from sponsors this year. The list includes: Coca-Cola, Target, Health Net, Kaiser Permanente, Gelson’s Markets, Republic Bank, Mizrahi Bank, Summit Hotel, Western Bagel, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Business Journal, the Department of Water and Power, L.A. Parent and TO Printing. With additional support from the Federation and gate fees, Bender said the hope is that the festival will break even this year.
For more information on the Valley Jewish Festival, call (818) 587-3205.