This is a critical, yet challenging moment for the Los Angeles Jewish community as we await the first population study since 1997 and anticipate the selection of a new executive leader of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. What do we want to see for our community going forward?
We acknowledge current President and CEO of the Federation Jay Sanderson’s creative efforts to reconstitute the Federation and for his leadership in framing a distinct direction. As we know, each executive leader will introduce his or her perspectives onto the larger institutional canvas of the Federation.
We have experienced significant changes in the LA Jewish community over the course of the past twenty years and most certainly since the 2008 recession and the 2020 pandemic. The rise of the sovereign self, where personal choice, individualized philanthropy, and the privatization of Jewish expression are key, has emerged. Further, we have seen the emergence of boutique organizations that address specific Jewish communal issues including the environment, social justice, spirituality, Jewish text study, and more. The more generic political divisions within our country have also impacted our community, as differences around Israel and American politics have sharpened the divide among LA Jews.
We have experienced significant changes in the LA Jewish community over the course of the past twenty years and most certainly since the 2008 recession and the 2020 pandemic.
Jewish identity in Los Angeles reflects a constantly changing landscape of choices, experiences, and encounters as Jewish institutions consistently reframe their messages and offer new modes of communal participation. In many ways, the new and evolving Jewish Los Angeles can be described as a social experiment, taking place at the epicenter of civic and Jewish life but also on the edges of the city’s larger cultural scene. Just as the Federation and the community’s mainline congregations are seeking to reinvent themselves, alternative expressions of Jewish learning and cultural innovations are making creative inroads.
As the 2020 Pew Study confirms, we are witnessing a significant and transformative set of changes as we move to a new generational era reflective of the racial, demographic and cultural changes taking place among American Jews. Today, we find a more diverse community with varying differences in race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality—all of which reconfigure who we are and how we identify as American Jews. Just as we account for the rise of the “Religious Nones” denoting the significant numbers of Jews, especially Millennials, who opt out of formal religious (synagogue) affiliation, we observe the continued growth and engagement of LA’s Orthodox community. Further, the presence of Sephardic, Israeli and Persian Jews make us one of the most diverse Jewish communities in the world.
Beyond some of the proposals introduced here and the data likely to emerge from this community study, this is a critical time for new leadership to conduct a listening tour of LA Jewry, capturing the insights and concerns of both involved as well as disaffected Jews in order to build credibility with key institutional leaders, former communal players, emerging actors, uninvolved persons, and more.
This transition period is an opportunity to reconstruct a unique but essential relationship, bringing together three core institutional partners: our agencies, synagogues and emergent boutique organizations.
Can we imagine a community plan that addresses a model that seeks to strengthen the partnership of our Federation with these enterprising entities? Rebuilding community, supporting Jewish learning and engagement, and building conversations around Israel and Diaspora connections will be important themes.
Can we envision the creation of LA Jewish forums, held simultaneously across the community, addressing critical issues of concern to our community?
Can we envision the creation of LA Jewish forums, held simultaneously across the community, addressing critical issues of concern to our community? Conversations focused on responding to antisemitism, growing Jewish educational options, dealing with our divisions and disagreements in connection with Israel, and unpacking the LA Jewish population study could comprise key but essential discussions.
But there is more!
- A strategic plan that identifies our congregations, schools, camps and seminaries as designated Jewish partners in reaching and serving affiliated and unaffiliated LA Jews.
- A study designed to expand the social, cultural and learning opportunities and offerings for our pre-teens and teens.
- A new community initiative to grow Jewish educational and cultural opportunities, where the Federation initiates a city-wide partnership with our synagogues, seminaries, JCCs, museums and cultural centers to expand public offerings.
- A program proposal that seeks to be responsive to Jews in crisis within our community.
- A regional planning framework where federations within our general catchment area of LA, Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties collaborate on joint ventures designed to serve the second largest Jewish population base within the country and to act in coordination on broad concerns and interests of the community.
- An LA-based Jewish facilities study designed to maximize and strengthen the delivery and availability of social and human services as well as educational and cultural offerings.
Expanding the significant and essential partnership between our Jewish Community Foundation and the Federation will be a central tenet in constructing a shared assessment of the needs and priorities of our community.
This is also the moment to construct a relationship with Hollywood, in ways that had previously aligned the Federation with tinsel town in the 1930s. Its high profile Jewish players should be seen as strategic partners in helping to reset the image of Jews in this nation, in the aftermath of some of the most dangerous and destructive antisemitic expressions in recent history.
The Federation should consider developing working relationships with the various higher Jewish educational resources within our community by expanding training opportunities for its professionals. This would be the opportunity to strengthen the Board of Rabbis as an essential community resource and to build a partnership in supporting the Jewish Communal Professionals of Southern California.
Through our Federation, we want to revision how as a community we can most effectively intersect with other religious, ethnic, and racial groups that comprise LA and with key governmental leaders in the U.S., Los Angeles County and beyond. What is the best model to employ for creating a coherent and central message about who we are and what we represent as a community?
The demographics of LA speak to the vitality and robust character of this region, driven in part by the entrepreneurial spirit and quality of independence that defined the American West.
The demographics of LA speak to the vitality and robust character of this region, driven in part by the entrepreneurial spirit and quality of independence that defined the American West. Over the decades, this same spirit of freedom and the quest for separation has driven Jewish organizations and synagogues to experience their share of territorial battles with their national systems located in the Northeast. These “institutional wars” have led to the formation of very distinctive forms of organizational practice, employing a “West Coast” operational style. Such patterns have been evident with an array of membership-based organizations, charitable causes, and religious institutions.
How we define our community moving forward will be shaped by forming an entrepreneurial partnership between our Federation and the multiple organizations and agencies that comprise this marketplace.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.