This month, as I started my work with the American Jewish Committee (AJC), my wife’s father, Sol, celebrated his 90th birthday with his friends at Leisure World of Laguna Woods. Like many of us, Sol is a transplant to Orange County from Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and finally reaching this day at Leisure World.
We are a people that move as life changes. For Sol, this has been a fortunate journey, and he has his community to support him. For the rest of us, finding our place in a community of transplants can be a challenge.
Although Sol is close by, Marilyn and I are now transplants and need to rebuild our Jewish roots and lives within this community. As we settle in, a number of interesting challenges face us.
First, the geography of Orange County is vast, and the Jewish community is spread out over many miles. Without a central location, the Jewish community has clustered in various parts of the county.
In response, our synagogues and day schools have become central beacons and are clearly enjoying a growth and renaissance that rivals any city in the country. In addition, the new Samueli Jewish Campus will give us a strong central place in which to participate and serve as an identifiable central Jewish point in our vast county.
Certainly, I realize that part of my work at the AJC will be to tie together common threads throughout our Jewish community. For 40 years, The AJC has been an active part of this community, building relationships, participating in the growth of the community and working for Jewish continuity.
Our programs have informed and enriched our Jewish population, while its educational materials and services have helped a community of transplants living in a widespread geographic area to coalesce and strengthen Jewish identity.
Secondly, this is not the same Orange County as when Sol was living in Brooklyn. Population growth, industrial development and the dramatic rise in ethnic groups have created a more diverse and complex community than our fathers would have ever imagined. For example, the population of Santa Ana is 70 percent Latino, and Westminster has one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the country. This diversity is a wonderful opportunity for us to develop better relations with different communities.
With the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education — which helped desegregate public schools in this country — approaching next spring, this is great opportunity to support public education and build stronger ties with the Latino community.
In 1946, the Mendez family tried to enroll their children in a Westminster school, but were told that they had to attend a different school because they were dark skinned and had Latino names. The Mendez family sued and won both their case and the appeal. At that time, the governor was Earl Warren, who would become chief justice of the Supreme Court.
In 1954, Warren wrote the opinion in Brown vs. Board of Education, which had part of its origin with the Mendez family.
With the high affiliation rate of Latinos with the Catholic Church, this is also an opportunity to highlight and renew our commitment to our dialogue with the Catholic community. For many years, the AJC, along with other Jewish organizations and synagogues, has been actively looking at common interests and needs between the two religious communities.
Thirdly, we, as many other parts of the country, are encountering a barrage of misinformation and hatred toward Israel. Much of our population finds itself unprepared for this attack and is searching for positive ways to respond. Educational materials and forums are essential for Jews struggling to respond.
Above all, we must find ways to not only counter the flow of propaganda and misleading words, but also to help people to connect with the Israeli people, and the beauty and depth of its culture, arts and accomplishments of its society. As with interreligious affairs, the AJC has worked closely with other organizations, both in the community and on college campuses, to win the hearts and minds of our community to support the people of Israel.
So, as I survey the Jewish community of Orange County, there is great excitement and energy within the Jewish community and great need for the unique resources of the AJC.
Sol’s 90th birthday was a great success. His family and friends gathered around him to celebrate and marvel at such a milestone.
Interestingly, between the toasts and well-wishing, they reminisced about their own experiences. They sat as transplants to Orange County after decades of migration and movement with a sense of community and Jewish identity.
Sol and company are good models for Marilyn and I, as we have become transplants searching for our place in this county. And, more than that, it helps us hear the stories of other ethnic and religious groups, reminding us how important it is to embrace the diversity and pluralistic society that Orange County has become.
Rabbi Marc S. Dworkin is executive director of the American Jewish Committee, Orange County chapter.