Mass Transit: Is it Good for the Jews?

While the title of this article ends with a question mark, rather than keep you in suspense, the answer is “yes.” And not just for the Jews, but for all Angelenos, regardless of tribe.
June 23, 2010

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While the title of this article ends with a question mark, rather than keep you in suspense, the answer is “yes.” And not just for the Jews, but for all Angelenos, regardless of tribe.

So now that I’ve given away the store, here’s why. If you think about it, Jews and mass transit go together like a bagel and a shmeer, hummus and pita, or kebab and sabzi. But like the diversity of tastes on display at the “Jews on Vinyl” show at the Skirball Cultural Center demonstrates, getting L.A.’s Jews to show their collective support for mass transit, is like getting them all in one room to listen to “Bagels and Bongos.” Jews are, of course, of different minds when it comes to mass transit and much of that has to do with geography and one’s connection to Los Angeles as a genuine city. If you live in the hills and don’t work in one of the city’s half-dozen downtowns, you may have a hard time seeing mass transit as anything other than a nuisance as you crawl along the freeway. The native versus transplant issue also figures in, as does one’s age and association with buses and trains in Los Angeles and other cities. And that’s to say nothing of our two Jews, three views perspective on taxes, congestion, and the construction and business disruption that inevitably accompanies the building of mass transit.

Still, even though it may not appear in the Talmud, if you take a quick look at who has been involved in mass transit — on one side or the other — over the past two decades, you get the sense that mass transit does and should matter to Jews. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky — Jewish; Congressman Henry Waxman — Jewish; former Assemblyman and current Metro board member Richard Katz — Jewish. Of course there are other critical players who are not Jewish, including 30/10 champion L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane. 30/10, for the uninitiated, is the city’s plan to build 30 years of overdue transportation projects within a decade. In order to accelerate the initiative’s dozen critical projects, the city is currently working to secure a bridge loan from the Feds to start the work now, while construction costs are relatively low, rather than over the next three decades. Without 30/10, I fear my kids may be sitting shiva for me before I ride the Subway to the Sea.

If we pull off 30/10 however, I, for one, am planning to petition the beit din to make Antonio and Denny honorary members of the tribe. The lesser-known Zane is the indefatigable intellectual firepower behind Measure R, the half-cent Los Angeles County voter-approved transportation sales tax passed in November 2008. Since then, his nonprofit, Move LA, has been working tirelessly to see Measure R realized and, more recently, to bring home the ambitious but possible 30/10 initiative.

To be completely upfront, 30/10 is about transportation including freeways, not just mass transit. But in my book, subway, light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT) lines are the money projects and the ones that should sit at the front of the bus. In addition to the improved transportation it will bring, 30/10 will create thousands of much-needed construction and other jobs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and (somewhat) easing traffic congestion. Even if you have never been on Metro and aren’t likely to be buying a monthly pass any time soon, you can still do the right thing by supporting a comprehensive mass transit system for Los Angeles that will make life here that much more livable for all.

I can’t tell you the number of times older Angelenos, transplants and natives alike, have shared their tales of waiting for various politicians’ mass transit promises to be fulfilled. But maybe this time things will be different. Look at the reaction of segments of the Westside and Valley Jewish communities to the Red and Orange Line projects of years past versus the response to 30/10, the Expo Line and plans to extend the Purple Line to Westwood or the Veteran’s Administration. Even segments of the Jewish community in Valley Village who once opposed the Orange Line Busway, which in part runs down yeshivot- and synagogue-rich Chandler Boulevard, now regularly ride the line between the North Hollywood Red Line subway and Warner Center. And with construction under way on a four-mile extension of the line from the Canoga Station to Metrolink in Chatsworth, by summer 2012 the Orange Line will become even more of a mass transit poster child in a city once known famously as a great big freeway.

Just last month, I saw firsthand how far we’ve come in our support for mass transit in what just a decade ago would have been a free-for-all community meeting about the Purple Line. Maybe it was the meeting’s setting in a church, but Metro couldn’t have hoped for a more ecumenical response to its plan to tunnel under dozens of homes to bring the subway to Westwood. As Neal Broverman put it in his May 19 blog on Curbed LA, “At last night’s meeting in Westwood regarding the western leg of the Purple Line extension, things were civil: No shouting, no NIMBYism. … the message from the mostly 50+ crowd was, ‘You have our support, just be careful.’ Actually… there wasn’t one person among the couple dozen speakers who voiced opposition to the subway’s route.”

With so many native Angeleno converts to mass transit and so many transplants here from the Bay Area, the Midwest, the East Coast, Israel and elsewhere where mass transit in the form of BART, the CTA, the MTA and Egged thrive, an expanded Metro is a natural for L.A.’s Jews. So if you recognize that we need it, it is time to ante up — by writing a check to MoveLa.org and by contacting your city councilmember, supervisor and congressperson to express support for 30/10.

Kudos and yasher koach to the American Jewish Committee and community leaders like University Synagogue’s Rabbi Joel Simonds, who have been outspoken in their support. Rabbi Simonds recently shlepped downtown from Brentwood to testify on behalf of 30/10 at the Metro meeting at which a unanimous board endorsed the initiative.

If Los Angeles wants its Jews on board with 30/10, we will need to do more than have celebs like Bar Refaeli and Sergey Brin appearing in ads for Metro. After all, even New York’s Miss Subways are a thing of the past. But many of us have strong associations with mass transit, and there is no reason that a more complete network shouldn’t be brought on line through 30/10 as soon as possible.

To me, pairing Jews and mass transit brings back memories of dinner at Schweller’s and Epstein’s (no relation), long-closed delis on Jerome Avenue underneath the noisy El in the Bronx. With my older kids already Metro card-carrying commuters and my little one on the way to riding the Metro to school, I am proud that they will have their own experiences with mass transit. It shouldn’t take the Chosen People another day stuck on the freeway to see that there’s a better way to move Los Angeles.

Joel Epstein is a blogger for the Huffington Post and a consultant to Move LA.

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