Jerry Freedman Habush led excursions through historic Jewish Los Angeles as vice president of tours at the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California (JHS) for more than 20 years. In recent months, Habush’s commitment slowed, but not from a waning passion. He was receiving chemotherapy for cancer that spread through his pancreas, liver and lungs. Habush died on July 29 at age 60.
In June, Habush told The Journal, "People are astonished to learn that there were once eight synagogues south of the 10 freeway and east of Vermont [Avenue]."
It was Habush’s passion to know such facts — but not his job. Habush, a veteran educator and community and media relations executive, served with the local Jewish culture conservator on a volunteer basis.
Before his illness, Habush never tired of taking tourists to Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s third site in Koreatown and "watching people’s jaws drop because it’s so overwhelmingly huge and beautiful."
His tours included such landmarks as the original downtown site of Wilshire Boulevard Temple (originally Congregation B’nai Brith), "the oldest shul, built in 1862," Breed Street Shul and the Presbyterian church occupying the old Sinai Temple site.
Boyle Heights, location of the latter two destinations, was once home to "the panoply of different kinds of Jews" that included immigrants, gangsters, Zionists and communists, and gave birth to institutions such as Union Bank, City of Hope, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Jewish Home for the Aging and the original Canter’s deli.
"Boyle Heights is an attraction out of nostalgia," Habush said, "even if they didn’t come from there, their parents came from there."
Originally from Chicago, Habush moved to Los Angeles as a youth, where he grew up in North Hollywood and went to Grant High School. A 1966 graduate of UC Berkeley, Habush received his master’s degree in U.S. history from UCLA in 1968.
"That’s all I ever intended to do was to teach U.S. history," said Habush, who in addition to teaching history at UCLA, taught part-time at Los Angeles Valley College
He also worked for two years as a Hillel director at L.A. City College — the last non-rabbi to do so — and served as a youth worker while living in Los Feliz.
Habush, who once spent four months living on a kibbutz with his Valley-bred wife, Audrey, divided his career between working in education and public relations. He worked as associate executive director for the National Conference of Christians and Jews and as a public affairs consultant, specializing in community and media relations, for clients such as the Jewish Community Relations Committee of The Jewish Federation, the University of Judaism, and Stephen S. Wise Temple for more than a decade.
"I always put a lot on intergroup relations," Habush said. "My main professional goal was intercommunity, interethnic, interreligious."
Habush began his association with the JHS 14 years ago — about the same time Stephen Sass, now JHS president, came aboard.
"We were the only ones under 60 on the board," he recalled. "Little by little, we’ve brought in younger people."
Habush gave Sass the lion’s share of the credit for not only keeping the JHS relevant, but keeping it going.
"It would’ve collapsed without him," Habush said.
Habush honed some unwritten philosophies while training JHS docents.
"It’s got to be something that you love or you’ll never do a good job," Habush said. "If you get to feel that you’re going to work on a Sunday, you shouldn’t be doing it."
A big prerequisite: one must really revel in imparting Jewish history.
Habush really enjoyed "helping people understand and appreciate their history; to appreciate that Jews lived in South Central, East L.A."
"L.A. is the most colorful place in the world," Habush continued. "And the diversity within the L.A. Jewish community mirrors the diversity of L.A."
"Besides Jerry’s concern for his family’s welfare, his greatest wish was that the JHS tour program, which he nurtured for so long, continue to flourish," Sass wrote in a July 29 letter informing the community of Habush’s passing. "In accordance with Jerry’s wishes, the Freedman Habush Fund [established in 2003 by JHS] will support the ongoing recruitment and training of future generations of tour leaders, the development of educational materials and outreach to children, teens and young adults."
"May Jerry’s memory be for a blessing," ended Sass’s statement.
Funeral services were held on July 31 at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary. Habush is survived by wife, Audrey; daughters, Gabriela and Rachel; and sister, Ferne.
For information on the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, call (323) 761-8950.