Rethinking Jewish LA

The Jewish community has an opportunity to be a part of these trend lines of mergers, consolidations and redefining what our community can look like.
April 1, 2021
Photo by Barry Winiker/Getty Images

This past week, the American Jewish University announced plans to seek tenants to fill its available space. This news came at the same moment that Hebrew College announced its decision to sell its property and to move into Temple Reyim in Newton, Massachusetts.

Across the country, in the wake of a radical shift to online triggered by the pandemic, Jews are witnessing the downsizing of various institutions, the mergers of others, the growing availability of commercial facilities and the presence of empty religious properties. Here in Los Angeles, we should seize this opportunity: Is this the moment for a realignment of Jewish institutional life?

Currently, our primary communal and federated services are housed in various locations in the mid-Wilshire area and beyond. But this means that some of our communal services, as well as our Federation, are not as available to Jews living in the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere. We need an accessible location for managing the community’s business, and this requires a convenient site more easily available to our community and its leaders.

Even if we are witnessing a lower need for physical space in the pandemic world, it is imperative to communal institutions to create a centralized location in order to achieve economies of scale and access to a greater portion of our community. Can we reimage an LA Jewish communal system housed “on the hill” between the West Side and the San Fernando Valley — the two core centers of our Jewish population? If Mulholland and Skirball Center Drive were to be home of the core institutions of our communal system, what might that mean in connection with the efficiencies of services and availability of resources?

Our community, alongside the City of Los Angeles, can begin reimagining these buildings to meet core human services. Imagine if we were to take the existing spaces of our agencies and the Federation and partner with others, including the City of Los Angeles and local builders, to develop low- and medium- income homes and apartments in some of these areas. What if we were able to create a hub of our local Jewish start-up organizations, which are involved in work such as social justice, the environment and Jewish culture, in one of our closed or merged synagogue properties or in a former agency building? These reimaginings will help achieve a level of collaboration, collective action and communal partnership.

The idea of “nexus” is receiving a good deal of attention, as institutions and groups are grappling with finding ways to organize their shared interests and common outcomes. Four features define the dynamic and creative character of the Los Angeles community: its demographic composition and size; the multiple levels of the community’s financial, political and cultural connections within the general society; the quality and depth of its leadership; and the impact of the creative Hollywood thread on the Jewish enterprise.

As we witness a significant amount of reorganization within our economy, the Jewish community has an opportunity to be a part of these trend lines of mergers, consolidations and redefining what our community can look like — on a physical basis but also in our schools, youth and teen programing,  adult learning, rabbinical seminaries and core resources.

The Jewish community has an opportunity to be a part of these trend lines of mergers, consolidations and redefining what our community can look like.

Our community ought to look at five key markers to define success and suggest a vision:

  • A Community Population Study. To make appropriate reforms, we need to know who we are, where we reside and what our distinctive behaviors are. With what institutions and synagogues are we aligned? What are our concerns and needs as we come out of this pandemic? The Federation’s forthcoming population report, along with the new Pew Study on American Jews, scheduled for release in May, should provide valued data that can inform and shape some of the structural proposals laid out here.
  • A Community History. All great Jewish communities maintained an accounting of their story. The last commentary on Los Angeles was composed by Max Vorspan and Lloyd Gartner in 1970 when they wrote, “History of the Jews of Los Angeles.” A significant element in managing the affairs of the community depends upon the availability of a historic inventory on leadership, insights on critical actions taken over time, and an accounting of how the communal enterprise emerged and flourished over time. Gathering this communal history will help us learn from the past to drive reforms. Our Federation, in partnership with our local Jewish seminaries and university-based Jewish Studies programs, could facilitate such a historical study.
  • A Jewish Think Tank. Forty years ago, the Council on Jewish Life, which operated so successfully and creatively within our Federation, tackled communal issues requiring thoughtful attention and creative responses. No other institution, except our Federation, has the resources, contextual purview or the strategic responsibilities in charting trends and introducing innovative planning on a communal scale.
  • A Cultural Festival. We are already blessed with a number of significant cultural institutions, among them the Skirball Cultural Center, the Museum of Tolerance and the LA Holocaust Museum. But an LA Jewish cultural festival that celebrates the diversity, contributions and stories of our community would remind ourselves and others about the cultures that define this community.Over many years, this community hosted annually an Israel Festival, isn’t it time to share our story with our neighbors through such a festival? The Jewish community has many stories to tell, and most certainly, the special relationship between Israel and our LA Jewish and civic community represents one of them. Celebratory events will ultimately be critical in a post-pandemic period in order to help promote communalism and create experiences that galvanize the public’s attention and interes while rebuilding community!
  • Recreating the CRC (Community Relations Committee). On these pages and elsewhere, I have addressed the creative and essential work of this body, which operated in this city from 1933 until 2007. Today, Los Angeles is the only major American Jewish community without such a structure! We need a CRC to represent our collective interests and political priorities to the larger LA community because at a time where we are experiencing heightened political tensions, acts of racial and anti-Semitic hatred and increased social unrest, our community requires a central Jewish voice to work with city and county officials to advance public policies.

Other ideas that ought to be on the table might include the “return to regions” — a model our federation and its agencies employed a number of years ago. Building community implies placing communal resources as close to our constituencies as is possible. As our community becomes more complex, separated by traffic, time and distance, such a service delivery model will make sense.

Since its inception, Los Angeles has been a cutting-edge city, no less so than its Jewish community. This is prime moment to reassert a new vision for how the Jewish community can effectively and efficiently move forward from the pandemic. In reimagining LA Jewry, we have an opportunity to inspire the creative restructuring of institutions and communal practices, along with possibilities for relocating key services to assist those who most need it while promoting and advancing the diverse cultural contributions that define our community.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.  His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com

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