A New Beginning

It has been a long time since I last communicated with you, the larger Jewish community, through this space in the Jewish Journal. The reason for this hiatus was because I felt it was important for something truly extraordinary to happen before presuming upon your time. Now that “something” is upon us.

What I am referring to is the commitment of $5 million from the Elaine and Bram Goldsmith family in the form of a challenge grant to kick-off our efforts to raise the funds necessary to rebuild the Federation’s community building at 6505 Wilshire Boulevard.

As a result of this munificent gift, we are now underway in planning a community wide Capital Campaign of $20 million, under the very capable leadership of past Federation president, Ed Sanders. This Campaign will be our way of entering the Twenty-first Century as a totally committed and fiscally responsible Jewish community. Let’s talk about where we are now and what, I believe, the future holds.

When driving east on Wilshire Boulevard crossing San Vicente, a wooden wall painted grey blue now surrounds the perimeter of 6505 Wilshire Boulevard. The barrier is the first physical manifestation that activity is now underway to dramatically renovate and substantially rebuild the headquarters of the Jewish Federation.

As was reported in the Jewish Journal, the decision for the Jewish Federation to move back to the site at 6505 Wilshire was an emotional one. It was also a difficult one, in light of the enormous changes facing the Los Angeles Jewish community. The Northridge earthquake is now a distant memory for most of us. Yet, the tremor caused a series of implications which will be felt by our community for some years to come. The quake almost demolished two Jewish Community Center facilities and it did substantial damage to at least four other communal buildings, including the Jewish Community Building on Wilshire. The natural disaster made it necessary to relocate senior adult service programs from communal facilities to local synagogues. It required the entire Jewish Community Campus in West Hills to relocate to a warehouse for over a year while the Milken Campus was rebuilt. Finally, it had a delayed effect, resulting in the decision to move the operations from 6505 Wilshire down the street to 5700 Wilshire, temporarily, while a decision on the future location of crucial community services was debated.

These actions came at a time when Los Angeles was only beginning to realize the impact of almost twenty years of population shifts. A demographic study, the first in decades, has now given us a clear sense of how different we are as a community at the end of this century compared to what we looked like not so very long ago. Yet, the facts are clear. We are a Jewish community with over a half million members, the second largest in the nation. We are also a community which is on the move from our traditional neighborhoods, moving west, south and northwest. The result is multiple Jewish communities not connected physically and in many cases not connected by fully shared values or agendas. We are a community with new and evolving centers of Jewish energy, reflecting the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the Los Angeles Jewish community. It is even safe to say that there is no physical place that can truly be called the center of our Jewish communities, a place that is the nexus of our neighborhoods, our services, our institutions and our leadership.

The decision to rebuild at 6505 Wilshire Boulevard gives us the opportunity to use limited community resources and maximize their potential on a property owned by the Jewish Federation. The exciting modern structure which will stand at 6505 Wilshire by the end of the year 2000, will become, I believe, an icon for the Federation in the 21st Century. We expect that it will house several of our key communal service agencies including the Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Vocational Service, the Jewish Big Brothers, the Jewish Free Loan, the Bureau of Jewish Education, as well as the Jewish Community Foundation. We anticipate this will also become the new home for My Jewish Discovery Place Museum, which is part of the Jewish Community Centers Association. The focus of this presence on children and families with young children should be seen as a symbol of the future of our Jewish community which increasingly needs to find ways to excite and engage our children, youth and young adults in a Jewish setting.

This emphasis parallels other efforts made by our Jewish Federation to focus our communal resources on these younger segments of our community. It is another manifestation of why the Jewish Federation has strategically placed its efforts on the Jewish future and its support on Jewish education, both formal and informal, including schools, Jewish camps and the Israel Experience. It is the reason we continue to place so much emphasis on Jewish young adults through our own ACCESS young adult program reaching thousands, and by assisting in the creation of a Jewish singles web page, on the internet, which is being visited weekly by hundreds of Jewish young adults searching for a meaningful way to engage Jewishly and to meet other Jewish singles.

But the earthquake which sent the walls tumbling down physically and metaphorically presented the Jewish Federation with other opportunities. The new Jewish Heritage Center encompassing the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust, the Jewish Community Library and the Jewish Historical Society, all programs previously housed at 6505 Wilshire now reside down the street at 6006 Wilshire on “museum row” near LACMA, where we hope their visibility and accessibility will attract scores of people who previously were unaware of these communal treasures. At the same time, the Jewish Federation has established a meaningful presence in West Los Angeles at a new conference center, where everyday residents of the westside meet together with residents of the Valley and the South Bay to further our community agenda.

The Jewish Federation is sometimes criticized for being too conservative and not visionary enough. I would challenge these criticisms and ask each of you to think about what it means to be a central coordinating body in a Jewish community the size and scope of Los Angeles. It requires actions on a variety of fronts simultaneously, whether it is support for construction of a new Jewish school in the Agoura area, construction of new senior adult low cost housing in Santa Monica or rebuilding 6505 Wilshire. The ability to remain a strong community is a function of creating places where Jews gather to be served across the hundreds of square miles that are Los Angeles. It also requires the vision and the will to continuously reassess the nature of our communal services, to re-evaluate the most effective communal partners in our endeavors and to find more opportunities to engage you in realizing that to maximize our communal potential we can’t wait for earthquakes to provide opportunities but must assertively and deliberately look for ways to forge a new definition of Jewish community in mid-Wilshire, the Westside, the Valleys and the South Bay. “

Lionel Bell is Chairman of the Board of The Jewish Federation.