Los Angeles’ Jewish community comprises a landscape of choices and creative experiences. How did this unique Jewish story evolve and what might this mean for L.A. Jewry in the 21st century?
Beginning with the arrival of the first Jews in Los Angeles in the 1840s and the formation of their first institutions a decade later, including the Hebrew Benevolent Society (now Jewish Family Services), Jews would play prominent roles in the civic, economic and cultural life of the city. By the post-World War II era in the 1940s, Los Angeles’ Jewish population had evolved from a marginal community to a center of Jewish influence and growth. By 1948, with an estimated average of 2,000 Jews arriving each month, the Jewish population grew to about 250,000, marking one of the great migrations in Jewish history. The Jewish population in 1965 reached 500,000, making Los Angeles one of the world’s largest Jewish population centers.
Jews from all parts of the world continued to arrive during the second half of the 20th century, particularly from the former Soviet Union, Iran, Israel, South Africa and the Mediterranean region. Each of these ethnic Jewish constituencies would create their own institutional structures and construct distinctive social and political identities. As a result, Los Angeles today is a center of Jewish life for thousands of Jews representing many different nationalities and cultures.
Political Activism and Religious Engagement
Over the decades, L.A.’s political culture would profoundly influence the religious and cultural orientation of its Jewish residents. Inspired by the social justice themes conveyed by many of its rabbinical leaders, the Jewish community would also be influenced by the progressive values of Hollywood. Only at the outset of the movie industry’s emergence in the 1920s and ’30s did one find some common threads uniting these two constituencies. More generally, political activism in Los Angeles has been bifurcated, creating a distinctive barrier between the communal enterprise and the entertainment sector.
During the early decades of the 20th century, Jews were generally excluded from the circles of power and influence in Los Angeles. Beginning in the 1950s, prominent individuals, joined by key Jewish organizations, would play important roles in the battle for civil rights, supporting African-Americans and Latinos, as well as advancing gay rights and women’s issues. In the past half-century, Jews assumed high-profile public roles within government, the media and business. One can identify a significant number of elected and appointed Jewish officials, beginning with Rosalind Wyman, who in 1953 became the first Jew and the first woman elected to the L.A. City Council.
Over time, the liberal impulse of this community would foster an array of Jewish-sponsored and -supported institutions. These formal organizing efforts would be supplemented by synagogues’ social action initiatives and rabbis’ proactive roles. This can be further demonstrated by the involvement of key congregational figures during the civil rights era, and in more recent times by a new generation of rabbis who would carry forward a progressive agenda addressing issues of sexual equality, hunger, worker rights, criminal justice reform, immigration and other domestic social concerns.
Beyond the world of the synagogue, Jewish social service agencies would also reflect this specific social-action focus in caring for those in need. Beyond supporting a wide array of Jewish communal health and human service institutions, this community would be unique in establishing two groundbreaking institutions, Bet Tzedek and Beit T’Shuvah. Founded in 1974, Bet Tzedek would employ the Jewish legal injunction, Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” to serve as its framework for offering a broad set of legal services to people across Southern California. Beit T’Shuvah, established in 1987, would become the first Jewish residential treatment center for alcoholism and drug addiction.
Power and credibility for Jews today is as much about economic access and prowess both inside and outside the halls of government as it is about electing one’s own political elites.
Politics and L.A. Jewry
Where Jews once operated as “petitioners” seeking legal and social standing as full citizens, today other ethnic communities see Jews as the essential “power-brokers” of Los Angeles. As early as the mid-19th century, Jews developed connections with Latino leaders. During the post-World War II period, Jews were instrumental in assisting Latinos in securing political rights and access. Similar political and social ties were established with Chinese and Japanese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century that would contribute to the expansion of these relationships during and after World War II. During the civil rights era, Jewish organizations along with area rabbis worked with African American clergy and community leaders to advance the cause of equal rights.
Today, as Latinos assert their political clout in this city, Asian Americans are emerging as the new petitioners for access and influence, while African-Americans are seeking to reclaim their earlier political presence. In turn, the Jewish political equation appears to be in transition. These new and changing political roles are being constructed at the very time when some prominent Jewish elected officials have left the public square and where others, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Attorney Mike Feuer and City Controller Ron Galperin, are taking up the banner of governmental leadership. However, power and credibility for Jews today is as much about economic access and prowess both inside and outside the halls of government as it is about electing one’s own political elites.
L.A.’s Distinctive Features
Geography: Location represents an important marker in shaping the character and development of Los Angeles and its Jewish community. Beyond the fact that L.A. emerged as a major Jewish center, considerably later than Eastern and Midwestern Jewish communities, the historic imprint of Western “independence” and distinctive lifestyle features comes into play when assessing how the Jews of this city define themselves in comparison with their co-religionists elsewhere.
The divide between East and West continues to be a defining factor in Los Angeles’ general relationship to the nation and more directly in the tensions that play into the Jewish communal wars. Along with other key social indicators, the factor of “distance” and the power of regional “culture” have influenced the patterns of communal affiliation and religious participation.
Being far from the “capital” of American Jewry, New York, has had a profound psychological and functional impact on Los Angeles. It would appear that the greater the distance from the center of Jewish power, the greater the institutional tensions. Western regional structures encompassing synagogue movements, membership institutions and policy groups have struggled at times with their New York-based organizations over questions of autonomy, proportional representation and competition for political and financial influence. In more recent times, a number of national entities have made Los Angeles their home or were formed here in the West. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, Stand With Us, Mazon, Israel American Council and Jewish World Watch are but a few of the L.A.-based institutions that have sought to define themselves as “other than New York.”
Financial Clout: Western Jews in general and Los Angeles Jewry in particular are among this nation’s wealthiest Jews. Indeed, a number of these financial elites have embraced their synagogues and Jewish communal networks to foster a broad spectrum of investing in the community’s future. Jewish donors’ significant support of universities, medical centers and hospitals, symphonies, theater and the cultural arts reflects their broader commitment to growing and sustaining the public welfare.
Camping as Informal Education: Also contributing to the distinctiveness of Western Jewish life would be the elements of climate and lifestyle. The uniqueness of Southern California may best be expressed through the presence of various forms of Jewish informal and recreational programming. The Jewish camping movement, while significant for decades around the country, has had no greater impact than on the West Coast, and more directly in the greater L.A. area.
Measuring Distinctive Features
Various community population studies conducted in key Western Jewish communities point to a set of defining social characteristics. Jews of the West exhibit lower levels of religiosity. By all standards of affiliation and participation, Jews living in the Western United States rank lowest. They are also least likely to contribute to Federation campaigns or other Jewish causes. Only 22 percent donate to Federation campaigns and only 39 percent to any Jewish cause.
Identification and involvement with Israel provides another measure of Jewish engagement. One can define “emotional attachment” as significant engagement with Israeli peoplehood and its political situation, economic support and travel to Israel. Based on 2001 data, only 29 percent of Western Jews have traveled to Israel, compared with 35 percent of American Jews generally and 49 percent of those in the Northeastern United States.
Leadership Interlocutors: Great Jewish communities are comprised of premier leaders who have developed significant economic and institutional relationships through their business/professional relationships, social networks and religious affiliations. While the community did not develop and sustain a base of legacy families, L.A.’s communal “shakers and doers” have been critical for their financial input, political savvy, and social connections. These Los Angeles “connectors” have been a key bridge between the public square and the Jewish communal system. Their social access and economic clout have opened the doors for expanding the circle of Jewish influence and helping institutions to garner a heightened level of attention within the general society.
Jews and Their Neighborhoods: Possibly, unlike other urban centers in the East or Midwest, where Jews have abandoned historical neighborhoods, the Los Angeles Jewish community can be seen as contributing to both the maintenance and repopulation of various parts of this city. Jews represent an important demographic sector in revitalizing neighborhoods including the Mid-Wilshire, Hancock Park, Silver Lake and Echo Park districts, not to mention Pico-Robertson and the Miracle Mile, along with significant portions of the central San Fernando Valley and beyond. This type of demographic stability has also been essential in maintaining Jewish religious and cultural institutions across the greater Los Angeles area.
Exploring Unique Religious and Cultural Characteristics
Emulating the religious innovation operating among other Southern California faith communities, L.A.’s Jewish religious culture can be seen as testing traditional religious norms and boundaries that define mainstream American Judaism. With more than 100 synagogues and alternative forms of religious connection, Los Angeles has become a major center for countercultural Judaism, introducing diverse and creative forms of spirituality and worship.
From mainstream congregations representing the core Jewish denominational movements to “emergent” religious expression and activism, Southern California has become a laboratory of experimentation involving alternative forms of worship and study and the creative use of the arts, theater and music. Drawing upon L.A.’s distinctive features, these communities of faith seek to embrace the influences of the entertainment culture, Southern California weather and the region’s laid-back lifestyle in blending religious practice with the existing social environment.
The idea of “mega-synagogues” may have no better setting than Los Angeles with its impressive set of large-membership congregations. Wilshire Boulevard Temple (the community’s oldest congregation), Stephen Wise Temple, Sinai Temple and Valley Beth Shalom, among others, represent this particular model of participation. These institutions are noted for their innovative and extensive range of services and programs, their large physical plants, and the high-profile status of their rabbis.
L.A. represents a dynamic cultural scene where Jews and their institutions are contributing not only to a unique Jewish vibrancy but also to the broader civic environment.
Independent Expressions: The city has seen the flourishing of a variety of alternative religious and cultural expressions, including Eastside Jews, the Pico Union Project and the Shtibl Minyan.
Possibly the most significant emergent model of Jewish engagement is represented by IKAR. Founded in 2004, this emergent religious community represents an effort “to reclaim the vitality and relevance of Jewish religious practice” combined with “a deep commitment to social justice.”
Orthodox Engagement: L.A. is witnessing the emergence of the second largest Orthodox community in North America, reflecting the expanding role this sector of religious life will play in shaping the Jewish future. Its resource infrastructure — including synagogues, schools, camps and social services — has expanded into the city’s cultural and culinary arenas with its community’s kosher markets and restaurants.
Gay and Lesbian Connections: Los Angeles would become the home to the first gay and lesbian congregation, again reflecting the community’s pioneering image. Founded in 1972, Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim would open the way for other religious and cultural expressions that would serve the LGBTQ communities.
The Emergence of New Ethnic Communities: Numerous social, political and religious organizations representing the Israeli, Persian and Russian constituencies have been formed over the past 25 years.
A Distinctive Rabbinic Voice: Rabbis in Los Angeles have emerged as central community actors, serving as the architects of new models of Jewish institutional and communal expression. They have also been among the leaders of creative Jewish religious and cultural expression that is transforming American Judaism. In part, this phenomenon can be interpreted this way: In the absence of an indigenous base of “great families” who would early on define, fund and lead L.A. Jewish society, the rabbinic sector has emerged to provide the visionary elements necessary to help build and lead this enterprise.
The dominance of its rabbis as the central creators of institutions and the definers of Jewish thought and ideas is a distinguishing feature of the Los Angeles Jewish community. Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper (Simon Wiesenthal Center), Elazar Muskin (Young Israel of Century City), David Wolpe (Sinai Temple), Sharon Brous (IKAR), Harvey Fields (z”l) and Steve Leder (Wilshire Boulevard Temple), Uri Herscher (Skirball Cultural Center), Isaiah Zeldin (z”l) (Stephen Wise Temple), Denise Eger (Kol Ami), and Harold Schulweis (z”l) and Ed Feinstein (Valley Beth Shalom) represent a few of these extraordinary rabbinic activists. As The Daily Beast would suggest in its list of the nation’s most influential rabbis, “like American Jews themselves, the rabbis on this list are clustered on the coasts — particularly in New York and Los Angeles.”
Los Angeles Jewry has played an important role in the life and culture of this city. Adding to this dynamic quality of Jewish life have been the continuous waves of Jewish émigré populations, providing a distinctive cultural flavor to the existing internal mix of languages, traditions and ritual and ethnic practices. Outside of New York, no other American Jewish community has the depth of such diverse, ethnic engagement with new forms of Jewish cultural expression. Absent a population study since 1997, it remains somewhat problematic to fully assess the size and impact of this megacommunal model with its estimated 600,000 Jews. The demographics speak to the vitality and robust character of this region, driven in part by the entrepreneurial spirit and the quality of independence that defines the American West.
Five characteristics reflect the distinctive features of L.A. Jewry:
- The pioneering, independent spirit of the West has influenced religious and communal life, impacting its relationships with the East Coast’s “Jewish establishment.”
- Just as Jews play significant roles in New York being this country’s financial center and Washington being its political axis, Jews have been responsible for the birth and evolution of “Hollywood” and Los Angeles being its entertainment capital. The region’s focus on music, theater and media — reflected in the culture of its synagogues and emergent religious institutions — has made it a center for creative, experimental Jewish religious expression.
- The religious culture of the community has been shaped by the Southern California climate, as borne out by the architectural design of synagogues, the meshing of outdoor lifestyles with religious symbolism, and the generating of a particular emphasis on informal Jewish learning and alternative forms of religious practice.
- The historic and distinctive community-building role of L.A.’s rabbinic leadership in the creation of key religious, cultural and political institutions.
- The infusion of Jews from around the world who have added to its mix of cultural, political and religious expression.
- L.A. represents a dynamic cultural scene where Jews and their institutions are contributing not only to a unique Jewish vibrancy but also to the broader civic environment. Emulating the activist impulses of the entertainment/media enterprise, this community has begun to exercise its cultural, religious and political impact on American Jewry as a whole.
No doubt, the creative quality of L.A. Jewry is tied to its demographic composition, diversity and size; the multiple levels of the community’s financial, political and cultural connections; the quality and depth of its lay and rabbinic leadership; and the impact of the creative Hollywood thread on the Jewish enterprise.
California is different. And L.A. is an even more intense expression of this difference.
A version of this article originally appeared on eJewishphilanthropy.com.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. Windmueller’s writings can be found on thewindreport.com.