Campus Envy

I am not a big fan of Jewish unity when it’s ideological. A room full of informed

and opinionated Jews, arguing their ideas back and forth, is a sign of a healthy people.

But I do support Jewish physical unity. Life is with people, and Jewish life flourishes when we learn, play, pray and — of course — argue together.

That’s why I stood on a hill in Irvine last Sunday, suffering — as an L.A. Jew — from a case of campus envy.

The occasion was the dedication of the Tarbut v’Torah Jewish Community Upper School and a tour of the building site of the Samueli Jewish Campus. The school itself is state-of-the-art, spacious, with a professional-quality performance and lecture hall, and even a rock climbing wall in the playground.

We do have good Jewish high schools here, with nice buildings, and I’m certain there will be more of them as the years go by. But that Samueli Campus beside the school, that’s another story.

Last Sunday, a crowd of about 1,000 Orange County Jews came for a "virtual tour" of what will be a $63 million, 120,000-square-foot Jewish community campus. On that breezy hilltop overlooking Orange County, tantalizing, full-color renderings of the future laid propped up beside what is now a dusty building pad. The new campus will house the Orange County Jewish Federation and its affiliated agencies, as well as a full-service Jewish Community Center (JCC). The new JCC will include two massive swimming pools, a 50,000-square-foot fitness center, a 500-seat theater, classrooms and facilities for children from infancy through the teen years, kosher kitchens and space for weddings and celebrations for more than 300 people.

Construction on the site is expected to begin once a $20 million capital campaign is completed. Already, 72 families have pledged $11 million. "This is the catalyst for the center of Jewish life in Orange County," said Henry Samueli, the Broadcom Corp. co-founder who, along with his wife, Susan, donated the land for the campus. "So, 20 years from now, you could open a travel book and look up ‘Jewish center’ and you will find this. This is a place for everybody in the Jewish community to come."

The Samueli Jewish Campus will serve an estimated 2,500 people per day, according to Orange County JCC president Mary Ann Malkoff. "This is our future and it’s all about to happen," she said.

What, I wondered, about L.A.’s future? When is that going to happen? Orange County is a much smaller Jewish community — 100,000 souls at most — more homogenous than ours. But it is also spread out across 700 square miles, and filled with its share of the disinterested and marginally involved. Now all these Jews will have a true central address, a place for all denominations, all political persuasions, all ages. As our JCCs either remain closed or struggle to exist, as we cast about for both leadership and togetherness, we can look south for some valuable lessons:

One person with the right vision can make a huge difference.

There were numerous people involved in the Orange County campus, but one crucial element revolved around one family’s vision, and pocketbook. Henry Samueli is a resident of Orange County who, along with an anonymous donor, funded most of Tarbut v’Torah. ("We are very selfish in doing this," joked Susan Samueli during the dedication ceremony. "We have daughters who will be graduating from this school.") When school officials informed the Samuelis that the school might lose its option to buy valuable adjoining acreage, the couple helped envision the kind of Jewish center of life and learning that Henry Samueli had experienced first-hand as a child growing up — in Los Angeles’ Fairfax district.

Big visions generate big excitement.

In the beginning, as Susan Samueli said, all her transplanted family was looking for was a Jewish school. They could have written a building fund check and called it a day. Instead, they and other Orange County leaders stepped back and imagined the best possible scenario for their community’s Jewish future. That not only inspired large donors to give even more, it galvanized a community that many had written off as dispersed and apathetic.

Real leadership builds real community.

Perhaps most striking thing about the Sunday event was the cooperation and excitement shared by staff and lay leaders of all the Orange County Jewish agencies and organizations. Of course they have had their conflicts, and they will have more, but the project only worked because people worked together. "What makes this special is the relationship between the JCC and Tarbut, between JCC and Federation and between Tarbut and Federation," said Malkoff, echoing the day’s spirit. "Having a campus where we can all work together is extremely meaningful."

No one needs reminding that these are uncertain, perilous times, and we certainly have enough life-and-death causes — terror, Iraq, Israel, the economy, Argentina, anti-Semitism — that demand our money and attention.

Coming together to deal with these crises, as we have in Los Angeles, is an important achievement. This community has always responded to emergencies well. But how much better off would we be if along with our ability to demonstrate unity with Jews in crisis abroad, we brought ourselves together as well, in a big, bold way, as they’ve done in Orange County.