The Ground Floor

A lot of the problems and promise of Los Angeles Jewish life were on display last Tuesday evening in Bob and Marcia Gold’s living room.

The Golds live in a envy-inspiring home high upon a bluff in the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The greater Los Angeles Jewish community, all 4,000 square miles of it, pretty much ends here, where the lights of Portuguese Bend disappear into the dark beyond of the Pacific Ocean. Next stop, Catalina — or Kauai.

The South Bay extends from Westchester to San Pedro. According to a 1997 population study by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, it is home to 45,000 Jews. Most of them live in the seaside cities, such as Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach, and in the suburban aerie of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. People at the Golds’ house believe the actual number of South Bay Jews to be far less than 45,000, perhaps half as many. But they agree with the survey that the South Bay is among the Southland’s fastest-growing Jewish communities. Along with the young urban professionals moving into the coastal towns, there is a vast infrastructure moving into El Segundo and environs to support the burgeoning film production facilities there. "Manhattan Beach is Hollywood," said Rabbi Ron Shulman of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay.

Most of the dozen or so men and women who came to the Golds’ house that evening were members of Shulman’s shul, which is on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. They gathered to brainstorm ideas for the future of the larger South Bay Jewish community. Decades old, it is, like many similar communities, facing a time of growth and change. "We have a strong synagogue community," Shulman said, "but not a strong Jewish cultural community."

Shulman’s Conservative congregation has 600 families and boasts the largest United Synagogue Youth group in the Southland. Other synagogues, like Temple Menorah and Congregation Tifereth Jacob, are also flourishing. But outside of synagogue life, when it comes to a sense of a larger community, there is no there there. As symbolic proof, they pointed to two buildings, one that exists, one that doesn’t. The Jewish Federation’s South Bay headquarters on Palos Verdes Boulevard has long stood underused. Expected to be the center of Jewish communal life when it was acquired over a decade ago, it is now a reminder of the lack of organized South Bay Jewish life outside synagogues.

The other symbol: "There’s no deli here!" one of the woman said to loud agreement. "We can’t even keep a good deli open."

The people at Tuesday’s meeting want a deli — who doesn’t? — but more importantly they want to expand and enrich Jewish life in their part of Los Angeles. The catalyst, they hope, will be about $1 million coming their way. At the meeting, Federation President John Fishel and South Bay Federation rep Margy Feldman told the group that the Federation plans to sell the old Federation building and invest the proceeds of about $1 million into South Bay Jewish life. The question that this group and groups from a variety of synagogues are gathering to discuss over the next year is how to take a small windfall and create community.

The challenges they face are familiar to anyone in Jewish life these days: How do you get Jews who are uninvolved or marginally involved out of the house? How do you do triage among all the communal needs: teen services, eldercare, recreational needs, Israel advocacy, Jewish education? How do you reach across ages and denominations and — even in a single geographic area like the South Bay — distance?

Fishel said that as well as being dispersed, the Jewish community throughout Los Angeles is diverse — "concentric circles of communities, which sometimes intersect and often don’t." A single solution, he said, will never suffice for everyone.

He said one possibility, in these lean times, is to think in terms of programs rather than capital. The Federation has been very successful in creating community by engaging in social service programs like KOREH L.A., which sends volunteers to area school to teach English literacy. It’s true that software is cheaper and more adaptive than hardware, but some in the group still gravitated toward the model of a come-one-come-all Jewish community center. In places like Orange County and Austin, Texas, where people pursued dreams of major multiuse Jewish community centers, they were able to inspire donors and bring those uninvolved Jews out of the woodwork. Then again, there are no guarantees.

But this group has at least two things going for it, beyond the million bucks. One, the people who turned out to discuss their community’s future are young men and women. They were very conscious of picking up the mantle of leadership from the previous South Bay Jews who had built up the successful synagogues. Two, this city’s Jewish community is relentlessly entrepreneurial. The Wiesenthal Center, the Skirball Center and the Shoah Foundation are just three examples of Jewish enterprises that were created from the ground up, based on an idea and a plan, right here in Los Angeles. They are proof positive that once the Jews of the South Bay set their sights on what their community needs, they can create whatever it is they want.

And maybe even get a deli.