November 18, 2018

Letters to the Editor: Demographics, Israeli Supreme Court, Salvador Litvak and Marcus Freed

Demographic Study Would Aid Stories on L.A. Jews

As a former Angeleno and current doctoral candidate studying the American Jewish community, I read with disappointment the framing for the story “Building Boom: Is Jewish L.A. Defying National Demographic Trends?” (Nov. 17). I celebrate that a number of schools and synagogues, including my family’s, are growing, but the article does not tell the full story — the fact of the matter is, it can’t, as no one knows the full story of L.A. Jewry. It has been two decades since the last demographic study, the only way to systematically understand what is happening within the Jewish community of greater Los Angeles. A lot has changed since 1997 — for starters, I’m no longer in fifth grade at the VBS Day School.

In the absence of recent data, it may seem all well and good to focus on national Jewish trends as identified by the Pew Survey in 2013, but I’m sure every Angeleno will agree: L.A. is not like the rest of the country. In the absence of up-to-date estimates of the population, geographic distribution, migration habits, ritual practice, organizational involvement and more, communal institutions are left reacting to perceived trends, rather than planning ahead for growth, stabilization or even decline. Would it not be to the community’s benefit to know the relative proportion of 20-something Jews on the Westside who are Orthodox; young families in the Valley interested in Jewish summer camp; or senior citizens in Santa Monica who need social support? It’s only with a local demographic study that questions like these can be answered, so the truly important one can be asked: How can local Jewish organizations help community members lead meaningful Jewish lives?

Matt Brookner, Brandeis University, Somerville, MA (formerly from Tarzana)

Debating the Israeli Supreme Court

I enjoyed the dueling stories by Shmuel Rosner and Caroline Glick on the Israeli Supreme Court. While posed as a debate, the two authors agree that the court suffers from ideological activism and has outsized power in the absence of a written constitution.

But what both miss is the underlying reason for the court’s current misalignment with Israeli society: the judicial nomination process. Whereas in the United States, the executive branch nominates a candidate and the legislature confirms — ensuring democratic input — in Israel, an independent “judicial selections committee” is responsible for nomination and confirmation. The nine-member committee operates in secret, and while composed of members from all three branches, a majority is unelected and therefore unaccountable to the Israeli public. In fact, the largest bloc on the committee is the Supreme Court justices themselves, allowing the court to essentially self-select its composition, refining its ideological uniformity with each successive iteration.

While we in the U.S. view checks and balances among the branches as a vital democratic feature, Israel has chosen a “hermetic seal” between the branches to ensure a judiciary independent of politics. While a noble sentiment, it essentially cuts off the court from its contemporary society, rendering it less and less relevant — and more and more controversial — to the citizenry. Indeed, in order to be saved, the system must be changed.

Jordan Reimer, Los Angeles

Israel and Ancient Claims to Its Land

Professor Judea Pearl conceded too much to the neo-Philistines, who suddenly discovered in 1967 that they, not we, are “Palestinian” (“The Balfour Declaration at 100 and How It Redefined Indigenous People,” Nov. 10.)

First the disclaimer: I hold that those Arabs who stayed in Israel in 1948 earned their Israeli citizenship. They and their descendants richly deserve it.

That said, they are not “equally indigenous.” We have been present in the land of Israel since before recorded history, millennia ago. That is why the Arabs were calling it the “Abode of the Jew” when they first invaded it in 632 C.E. True, most of us were exiled for many centuries, but there was always some Jewish presence. The Arab population, too, dwindled as they destroyed the very soil until it would no longer support them. Most current Arab settlers descended from infiltrators attracted by the new prosperity created by the Zionists.

Louis Richter, Reseda

Torah Portion About Sarah and the Handmaid

Well, that parsha was fun (“Vayera,” Nov. 3).

To David Sacks and Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits: A Jewish child would say “Enough with the tests. I get too many of them in school.”

To Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat: Older son, upon viewing his brother when the latter was brought home from the hospital, with the source explained as “Mommy’s belly:” “Put it back.” So sometimes there’s no “anymore” about it.

To Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky: The concentric circle model also applies to how one reveals himself to others. There is a core revealed to no one. The innermost circle can be, but need not be, one or more family members. It can be one or more friends. And so forth.

Finally, to Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh: My late father-in-law’s approach to life was very simple: “Whatever I have is the best.” No matter the example, “mine is the best.” Thus, he didn’t worry about competition, and the women you speak of might do well to consider something similar. I might add that it took a while for him to apply his philosophy to his two sons-in-law.

Steve Meyers via email

From Facebook …

Salvador Litvak Column

There is clearly a distinction between young people who make immature decisions whose ramifications are beyond their scope of experience and serial pedophiles/sexual deviants (“I Shot a Sex Offender,” Nov. 17). The stigma of being convicted of a sexual offense seems to have no pyramid of seriousness, and often the term becomes dissolved into an ambiguous term that simply translates to “sicko” or “pervert.” There are literally ex-prostitutes who are registered sex offenders for prostitution too close to a school or playground (even when no children are present). Studies have shown that the wide-stroke brush of “sex offender” for minor offenses is detrimental to the public at large, places tremendous strain on law enforcement, and has not proven to reduce recidivism. Hearing the words “sex offender” places a stereotypical image in the listener’s mind of a sex predator, when the vast majority of those who commit sexual offenses are not registered offenders. I think the videographer’s open-mindedness is in good faith, and that there is much to learn from his efforts.

Brandon Moore

This is why there needs to be clearly defined parameters as to who is and who isn’t a pedophile. Those who engage in pedophilia are highly recidivist in nature. Extensive studies have shown they cannot be weaned out of it. So, this article would suggest that while he might have engaged in what is considered a sexual offense, it wasn’t pedophilia. The idea that G-d forgives the truly penitent, so we should as well … runs against what we believe — that G-d only forgives, once those we’ve transgressed against, forgive.

Batsheva Gladstone

Back and Forth Column

I actually agree with both of them (“Reform. Orthodox. Let’s Talk.” Reform Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Orthodox Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, Nov. 10) — but the Orthodox rabbi was correct when he said “Many would applaud others’ activism and philanthropic work while claiming that our resources must be allocated to the sustainability and future of our own community.” In our own synagogue, we have seen the numbers of millennials dwindling and are not seeing the growth necessary to exist in the near future.

Sherri Chapman

Help for Marcus Freed

Thank you Jewish Journal for covering this story and helping to support Marcus J. Freed! (“A Community Rallies to Help Beloved Teacher,” Nov. 17.)

Audrey Jacobs

BUILDING BOOM: Is Jewish L.A. defying national demographic trends?

Image courtesy of Temple Beth Am

If you have read about recent demographic studies claiming fewer young American Jews are marrying inside the faith and affiliating with Jewish organizations, you might think organized Jewish life in the United States is on its way out.

But Los Angeles donors have a response to those studies: Want to bet on it?

In the last two years, more than $100 million has been dedicated to renovation and construction projects at schools and synagogues across L.A., and much more is expected to be raised through ongoing capital campaigns that aim to build facilities for the next generations of Jews.

Together, these projects represent the collective optimism of a Jewish community unfazed by seemingly gloomy population studies, according to clergy, donors and lay leaders.

The projects currently underway are spread across the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles Basin. They consist of new schools and school expansions, custom-built synagogues and old sanctuaries in need of facelifts. And they are being carried out within the three major spiritual movements: Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation, has plans to build a new preschool; Conservative synagogues Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) and Temple Beth Am are constructing new school buildings; and among Orthodox communities, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy is engaged in a $20 million renovation, while Chabad of South La Cienega (SOLA) is building a new, multi-use religious facility.

At Temple Beth Am, synagogue leadership has raised $25 million to renovate its main sancutary and construct a middle school building for its Pressman Academy day school.

“What could reflect more optimism in the school and the synagogue than that kind of effort?” said Temple Beth Am building committee co-chair Avi Peretz, who said he has donated a significant sum.

To Peretz, donations reflect a sense of obligation and a feeling of responsibility to proverbially set the table for the next generation of Jews.

Peretz recalled walking into Pressman Academy on the first day of school for his daughter, who is now 21, and saying to himself, “ ‘Wow, look what somebody built. Somebody built this school that my daughter gets to go to classes in. Somebody built it knowing full well that probably their own kids wouldn’t be the ones that got to benefit from it.’ But the sense of obligation you feel is that other people came before you and did the work that you’re benefiting from. It’s now your turn to do the work.”

The groundwork of breaking ground

Even before construction begins, planning and permitting can be complicated, time-consuming and costly.

Adas Torah, an Orthodox congregation that razed a Pico Boulevard furniture store to open a new synagogue building in September 2016, spent more than $20,000 in permitting fees alone, Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety records show.

“It’s a long process,” said Trevor Abramson, whose firm, Abramson Teiger Architects, has designed a half-dozen synagogue buildings in the past 15 years, including the project currently underway at VBS. “It takes time to draw up plans, to build consensus with the community, to get the plans approved by the community, and then also get approved by the city — and then to raise the money.

“There are some synagogues being built right now in L.A. where the wheels have been in the motions for the last three years or more,” Abramson said.

Pressman Academy’s expansion plans have been in the works for about a decade. Over that period, Temple Beth Am, directly or through its members, quietly bought eight contiguous apartment buildings on Corning Street, directly behind the temple’s La Cienega Boulevard compound. Nine years ago, it converted one building into an early childhood center, and two years ago, it razed two more to create an outdoor play space.

When Erica Rothblum joined Pressman Academy as head of school in July 2014, synagogue leadership had already judged that “the school building was bursting at the seams,” she said.

Rothblum had the idea to build a new middle school that would not just increase retention — class sizes tend to shrink as grade levels increase — but serve as the Jewish day school of the future.

“We’re not building just a prettier version of a traditional school building,” she said. “We’re actually changing how the school looks and functions. In some ways, it’s going to look more like a Google office than the school buildings we’re all used to.”

Buying in and building up

Often, the first step in a construction project is winning the buy-in of parents and congregants. “A house is really just an endeavor for an owner, but when you’re designing a synagogue or a religious building, that’s really for the whole community,” Abramson said.

Abramson’s firm designed a community center now under construction at VBS for dual use by the synagogue and its day school. Plans for that project date back 15 years, according to VBS Executive Director Bart Pachino.

Timing can depend on permitting, donor interest or even the national economy. Construction at VBS was delayed at least five years after the Great Recession as donor funds dried up, Pachino said.

Before Abramson and his employees start drawing on a synagogue project, they gather congregants for a town hall meeting about the needs for a new building.

“We like to listen to what everybody thinks the needs are,” he said. “And it’s super interesting, because some people are worried about where they can park, and some people are worried about the spiritual aspect of the synagogue, and some people are worried about saving the plaque on the wall that’s been there since 1852.”

By the time VBS broke ground in September, it had raised $26 million for the new center and for renovations to its existing buildings.

“That’s the greatest compliment a rabbi can get when somebody says, ‘I’m willing to work with you, and I’m willing to share my resources and time, and I want this to continue past me,’ ” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, the Encino synagogue’s senior rabbi. “It’s a great statement.”

Bursting at the seams

The Montessori preschool run by Chabad of SOLA began seven years ago as a mommy-and-me group with eight children. Today, it has more than 80.

Until recently, the children gathered in the same space that served as home to four minyans — Chabad, Sephardic, teens and young couples. That arrangement presented challenges, such as having to take down folding chairs and movable walls each weekend, said Stery Zajac, the preschool’s director.

In December 2014, The Eiden Project — a nonprofit organization set up to build a new community center, mikveh and preschool for Chabad of SOLA — bought a 21,000-square-foot property at Airdrome Street and La Cienega Boulevard for $4.5 million, according to Josh Moorvitch, who runs a mortgage company and sits on The Eiden Project board.

The property was home to two car dealerships in separate buildings, one of which now temporarily houses the preschool. Recently, Chabad of SOLA began renovations to transform the empty dealership into a preschool building, Moorvitch said. After that project is completed, the congregation intends to raze the other building to create a new mikveh for men and women and a synagogue building. Moorvitch said there was a “tremendous demand” for the mikveh, as the closest one is Mikvah Esther, about 1 1/2 miles away.

Another Orthodox Jewish school, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, also is  planning an expansion. Its head of school, Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, recently announced that the Orthodox kindergarten-through-eighth-grade day school would undertake a $20 million renovation.

In recent years, Hillel’s enrollment has increased some 20 percent to 650 students. After a two- to three-year renovation process, including planning and obtaining city approvals, it hopes to have a campus for 700, Sufrin said.

Before its capital campaign went public this fall, the school had quietly raised about $10 million, half of its total goal, he said.

“The project itself brings a certain amount of optimism and hope and joy about the community,” Sufrin said. “People are looking and saying, ‘Wow, I’m going to be a part of sustaining the next 20 or 30 years of the community.’ And that means a lot to these people.”

Money management

Chabad of SOLA and Pressman Academy have taken different approaches to funding their building projects.

“There are schools in this community where they’ve raised 10 percent before they begin construction, and I know heads of schools that want 100 percent,” Rothblum said.

Pressman is somewhere in the middle, having raised $25 million of the $30 million it estimates it will need — enough that it feels confident breaking ground as soon as January, she said.

Sometimes, breaking ground can accelerate the fundraising process.

“We’ve definitely had people say to us, ‘Once I see construction, you can come talk to me,’ ” Rothblum said. “I’ve had other people say, ‘Right here, right now, I’m willing to invest in this and be a leader.’ ”

While Pressman Academy waited to raise more than 80 percent of its needed funds, Chabad of SOLA broke ground on its $1.4 million preschool project after collecting about $600,000. Moorvitch said that decision was based on confidence in the generosity of community members once they see construction underway.

“In breaking ground, our goal was to have the school open as quickly as possible for our families,” he said. “It wasn’t a choice to wait around. We had to break ground, and we have to move this project along. And we’re going to do it.”

Demographics be damned

Schools and synagogues that are literally mortgaging their futures for expansions and renovations face some troubling national trends. A 2013 Pew Research Study of American Jews painted a dismal picture that some analysts have interpreted as a death knell for synagogue life in the United States. In particular, the study focused on the increasing number of “Jews of no religion,” or cultural Jews — those who check “None” when asked about their religious practice. These Jews, in turn, are less likely to affiliate with religious institutions and attend synagogue. Whereas 39 percent of Jews by religion report belonging to a congregation, only 4 percent of those in the secular demographic do, the study found.

But the synagogues and schools working their way through their respective building projects say that overall trend doesn’t apply to them.

“The Pew study is not everybody’s written destiny,” said Temple Beth Am President Susan Hetrsoni. “It’s time to take it on.”

Hetrsoni said that membership at Temple Beth Am has held steady in recent years. Valley Beth Shalom’s membership has increased over the past five years to more than 1,500 families, a fact Feinstein attributes at least in part to a growing need for spiritual connection.

“L.A.’s a funny city,” Feinstein said. “We have these giant block walls that separate our homes from each other. People don’t know their neighbors, so you want to belong to something. You want people to know who you are. People are craving that in this moment of history.”

But L.A. is not the only metropolitan area defying national statistics, he said. His clergy friends in places such as Boston, Chicago, New York and Atlanta report similarly encouraging trends.

“In lots of pockets all over the country this is happening,” Feinstein said. “I wish I could take full credit for it and say it’s the genius of my rabbinate — but it’s certainly not.”

Lashon Academy Plans Appeal of Charter Denial

Lashon Academy students participate in a program in which they learn modern Hebrew and Israeli culture.

A Hebrew-language charter school in Van Nuys plans to appeal to the Los Angeles County Board of Education the denial of its charter renewal by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

On Oct. 3, the LAUSD Board of Education voted, 6-0 with one abstention, to deny the renewal of Lashon Academy Charter School’s charter.

Of the school’s 350 students, about 40 percent are Hispanic, 50 percent are white and 10 percent come from other backgrounds.

In 2013, the LAUSD board approved Lashon Academy’s charter status, and the school opened the following year. The school submitted a renewal petition this year because, like all charter schools, it was required to have its charter status reviewed and approved every five years.

The curriculum of the publicly funded, tuition-free school includes Hebrew and Israeli history and culture. Lashon (Hebrew for “language”) has been the only LAUSD-authorized, Hebrew-language charter school.

In an Oct. 3 report, LAUSD administrators recommended the denial of the school’s charter because, among other reasons, the school’s demographics did not reflect the makeup of its immediate surrounding area.

Of the school’s 350 students, about 40 percent are Hispanic, 50 percent are white and 10 percent come from other backgrounds.

Lashon Academy’s Executive Director Josh Stock said the school is more diverse than the data indicated because the school’s white students include immigrants from Russia, Iran, Israel and elsewhere who are learning English as their second language.

Because a school featuring Hebrew-language instruction draws a significant population of white students, he said, it’s unrealistic to expect the school’s population to mimic its surrounding area.

“We’re not getting students from a mile, two-mile radius. Our average kid is driving 10 miles to get to our school,” he said. “To compare us to the school next door is unfair.”

The LAUSD report also said the school had demonstrated an intent to avoid providing special education services in accordance with LAUSD policies and procedures.

Stock said the school wanted more flexibility in purchasing special education services because it was not satisfied with the services LAUSD providded.

Since opening in 2014, Lashon Academy has added a grade every year and now has students in kindergartern through 5th grade. It plans to continue adding a grade each year until it has grades K-8.

At the LAUSD board meeting, District 6 Board Member Kelly Gonez, whose district includes Lashon Academy, said she considered it a high-performing school.

Nick Melvoin, the board’s only Jewish member, said in an interview that he voted against renewing the charter because the school had not been able to resolve its differences with the school district.

Stock said he is confident the school will continue to operate. “I don’t think we’re going to close. I think we’re going to appeal to the county and be successful.”  If the appeal to the county fails, he said the school would appeal to the State Board of Education.

“There is no reason why [students who] have a passion for the Hebrew language or Israeli history should not have an option to get a public education that represents that,” Stock said.

Tarzana resident Sara Dagan said she enrolled her three children in Lashon because she wanted them to feel connected to their Israeli heritage in a public school environment.

“It’s not like I have an alternative,” she said. “I won’t be able to afford taking them to private school, to day school, so anything other than Lashon would be a compromise for me.” 

Study: N.Y., Boston and Miami are America’s 3 most Jewish cities

New York, Boston and Miami are the three most Jewish cities per capita in the country, according to a new analysis of data gathered last year by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Eight percent of New York City residents are Jewish, followed by Boston at 6 percent and Miami at 5 percent, according to the data. Philadelphia and San Francisco each are 4 percent Jewish, and Chicago and Washington are 3 percent Jewish.

Nationally, 2 percent of all Americans are Jewish, according to the study. Los Angeles, which by raw numbers is believed to house the country’s second-largest urban Jewish population, is just 2 percent Jewish, the analysis found.

Ranked by state, New York and New Jersey tie as the most Jewish, with 6 percent of residents in both counted as Jews. Next are Massachusetts (5 percent) and Maryland (3 percent), followed by California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Vermont each with 2 percent.

Ranked by region, the Northeast is 4 percent Jewish; the Midwest, South and West each are 1 percent Jewish.

The analysis is based on data collected in some 52,741 telephone interviews conducted in 2014 as part of the Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Atlas.

Overall, the largest urban religious group is Catholics, who are No. 1 or tied for the top spot in 15 of America’s top 30 metropolitan areas. Religiously unaffiliated make up the top “religious group” in 10 of those metro areas, and white evangelical Protestants are the plurality in six of the major metro areas. Atlanta is the only major metro area with a different group at the top: black Protestants.

Nationwide, Nashville, Tennessee, has the largest percentage of a single religious group, with 38 percent of all residents identifying as white evangelical Protestant.

The least religious city appears to be Portland, Oregon, where 42 percent of respondents identified as religiously unaffiliated. Two percent of the city’s residents are Jews.

Does the Jewish vote still matter?

Does the Jewish vote still matter and if so, how? Exit polls indicate that 70 percent of Jews voted for President Obama, compared to roughly 39 percent of white voters overall. However, with California and New York, which have large Jewish populations, guaranteed to go Democratic, the Jewish vote may have mattered only in Florida. 

As usual, most attention on the Jewish community has been focused on whether Obama’s 70 percent Jewish support represents a serious decline from the either 78 percent or 74 percent (depending on the source) that he received from Jews in 2008. We spend so much effort on the beaten-to-death question of whether Jews will ever vote Republican that we miss something more important — the potential role Jewish voters can play in a society that is in profound demographic and political transformation.

The 2012 election may well turn out to be more historic than Barack Obama’s 2008 election. It revealed the flowering of the transformation of the American electorate, a trend that was obscured in 2008 by the hope and change that surrounded Obama’s first campaign, and that brought about a momentary appearance of consensus.  The rough, tough re-election campaign of 2012 clarified the lines of conflict in the electorate.

This is especially true in California, but also nationwide, where the Democratic surge was powered by a new electorate that includes growing cadres of both younger and minority voters. Sleeping giants awoke. Latinos increased their share of the overall vote to 10 percent and broke in huge numbers for Obama, giving him between 70 and 75 percent support. Young voters comprised a larger share of the vote than they did in 2008. Single women, who represented 20 percent of the vote in 2008, comprised 23 percent in 2012 and cast 67 percent of their votes for Obama, according to a study by the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund. In California, these constituencies carried Proposition 30 to an historic upset victory and may have helped to give Democrats two-thirds dominance of the Legislature. Nationally, one swing state after another fell into the Democratic column.

At the same time, Mitt Romney increased — to 59 percent — the Republican share of the white vote over John McCain in 2008. A majority of whites were on one end, especially those who are older and those who live in the South, while communities of color, especially if younger, were on the other.

And then there are the Jews. The overall demographic transformation is so startling that there has been less attention on the Jewish vote this year than in 2008. Republicans have much bigger problems than not winning over Jews, starting with their staggering defeat among mobilized African-Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans as well as among single women. 

Yet Jews voted for Obama in numbers comparable to Latinos, echoing conservative legendary plaint that “Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” (Well, also like single women and also like Asian Americans — 73 percent.) Only the gigantic support of African-Americans surpassed all of these groups.

It’s less important that Jews frustrated Republicans than that Jews, an older, largely white demographic, represent a refusal to be predictably polarized along lines of race, age and class. This block of voters adds a more realistic perspective to the simple assumption that there are two Americas, one ascendant and the other on the decline, one nonwhite and the other white. 

The Jewish vote, whether or not it determines who wins states, offers an important reminder that whites are not a monolithic block of voters. After all, more whites voted for Obama than any single minority community. The 39 percent Obama support among whites, among the more than 70 percent of votes cast, represents roughly 27 percent of all votes. In his 2007 book, “Boomers and Immigrants: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America,” Dowell Myers argued that in order to maintain support for such programs as Social Security and Medicare, the aging boomers, who are disproportionately white, need to be in alliance with immigrants. Bridge building will be essential. Jewish voters never joined the parade of immigrant bashing, and opposed such anti-immigrant measures as California’s 1994 Proposition 187. Nor did Jews turn away, even in political hard times, from the social liberalism on abortion and gay rights that this year became politically popular for the first time.

One underappreciated role of the Jewish vote in American politics is in bridge building. Even in Los Angeles in the mid-1800s, when it was a rough-and-tumble frontier city filled with diverse groups, the small Jewish population was civically active and a positive contributor to local governance.

When American cities were torn apart by racial polarization in the 1960s, a small block of white voters, principally Jews, supported embattled black mayoral candidates in Gary, Ind., Cleveland, Newark, N.J., and Chicago. In Los Angeles, the relationship between African-Americans and Jews flowered into a full-fledged, coalition of equals, with Mayor Tom Bradley drawing from African-American and Jewish supporters. For many African-Americans and for many whites, the black-Jewish coalition became a path across which new friends and allies could be encountered and cooperation nurtured, and also a framework for working out intergroup conflict.

Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have been working for decades with those in minority communities who fight for equality and justice. As communities of color push further into the center of state and national power, the bridge role played by the Jewish community will continue to matter.

The Jewish political role will not disappear in local, state and national politics. There has indeed been a noticeable decline of Jews in office in Sacramento, but Jews continue to hold many national offices, especially in the House and Senate, as well as in the states. In Los Angeles, high voter turnout among Jews means that city candidates will continue to consider the Jewish voice in local elections. It will still be important to have candidates and elected officials who are sympathetic to the interests and values of the Jewish community.

There is no question that the Jewish vote still matters. But the future for Jewish involvement may extend even beyond electoral strength to reconnecting with the bridge role that a state and nation of isolated communities may value.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Prediction Misses

Once again, despite predictions to the contrary, Jewish voters stuck with the Democrats. By a 3-1 margin, Jews backed Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) against President Bush.

Some Republicans took comfort in a slight uptick of Jewish support for Bush from about one-fifth in 2000 to about one-quarter in 2004. Republican pollster Frank Luntz noted that in his small survey of 484 voters in Florida and Ohio, Orthodox Jews voted for Bush and younger Jews were more likely to support Bush than older Jewish voters, but this remains to be confirmed with larger samples.

With only 484 voters in his sample in the first place, it’s extremely dicey to draw conclusions about even smaller subgroups such as younger and older voters.

Peter Beinart argued in The New Republic that the pro-Bush voting of Orthodox Jews is a sign that Jews are becoming like everybody else, divided between religious and secular. But given the small share of Jewish voters who are Orthodox, his declaration that 2004 marks the end of the Jewish vote is hard to support.

In fact, Republicans were profoundly disappointed by their showing among Jews on Nov. 2. According to the Los Angeles Times national exit poll, Jews went 74-26 for Kerry. By contrast, non-Jewish whites went 57-42 for Bush. Catholics, normally a somewhat Democratic group, voted 55-44 for Bush. CNN had it 76-24 for Kerry. The National Election Poll pegged the Jewish ratio at 78-22. In California, according to the Times statewide exit poll, Jews were even more Democratic, voting 80-20 for Kerry and 87-12 for Sen. Barbara Boxer over Republican Bill Jones.

The true distinctiveness of Jewish voting in California can be seen not only in partisan elections but on two key ballot propositions.

Proposition 71 authorized the state to issue $3 billion in bonds to support embryonic stem cell research. Jews were the No. 1 group in support, with 77 percent backing it. Proposition 71 passed easily, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger defying Bush to support it.

Proposition 72 mandated employers with more than 200 workers to provide health insurance for workers and their dependents. Opposed by the governor and business interests, it went down to a narrow defeat. But Jews gave it a 2-1 majority.

There has been much talk that Democrats are now “out of the mainstream,” and, therefore, are Jewish voters, too? California Jewish voters not only backed Democrats but also supported social liberalism (stem cell research) and economic liberalism (employer mandates for health insurance).

Nothing more clearly illustrates the gap between Jews and the Bush administration than stem cell research. Jews are children of the European Enlightenment, which removed the shackles of centuries of ignorance and superstition. The pursuit of scientific and medical knowledge is a central value for American Jews, and many have chosen professional paths to pursue and apply that knowledge. The use of reason to solve physical and social problems is quite natural to Jews and represents no contradiction to religious faith.

Therefore, the president’s decisions to limit stem cell research, to politicize federal science policy by stacking scientific review panels with ideologues and to treat evidence in public policy as an obstacle not as a necessity may reassure his loyal base but strikes many Jewish voters as nearly medieval. By contrast, the potential affinity of Jewish voters for the moderate wing of the Republican Party can be seen in their common position with Schwarzenegger on Proposition 71.

In any case, the definition of “mainstream” has been hopelessly muddled by the unusual, perhaps unique, re-election strategy adopted by Bush. While Bush won a clear electoral victory, it was not the sort of re-election win that incumbents normally win.

Incumbents normally run from the center, and they are usually judged by their performance; they tend to win by a lot or lose by a lot. But Bush went a different way. He built a fanatical base on the right, while alienating the left and center. Kerry won a majority of independent voters.

Bush’s approach gave him both a floor and a ceiling. He would not lose by a lot no matter how miserable his performance, because his base worshipped him. But he could not win by a lot, because his approach so alienated so many other Americans.

With this strategy, 51 percent was probably about the outer edge of the ceiling, and a remarkable achievement, but it may not grow much from there in Bush’s second term. It’s not so much a “mainstream” as a heavily mobilized, deeply ideological and theological Republican Party that commands a narrow majority of the nation.

Jews were not essential to this strategy but were to be a valuable add-on both to hurt the Democrats and broaden the Republicans a little bit. But this broadening would not be so important that it would force the Bush group to change any of their policies or approaches.

The Republican movement is a very powerful surge, that in its aggressiveness and narrowness has generated a nearly, though not quite equal, countersurge. Jews largely joined the countersurge.

The American electoral system allows huge changes in formal power despite narrow differences in popular support. Kerry simply could not survive the wave of voting by the religious right. But to be on the losing side in 2004 is not to be some cosmic outsider alien to the populace.

The Bush people now will feel no need, if they ever did, to respond to the broad social and political values of Jewish voters other than Israel. With most Jewish votes going to Kerry, they may even feel less need to be as strong for Israel, except as that stance pleases their real core: the religious right, according to an American Jewish Committee post-election report.

Moderate Jewish Republicans are in a vulnerable spot in post-election Washington. Days after the election, a Jewish Republican, the pro-choice senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, suggested that the president would have difficulty winning Senate confirmation for Supreme Court Justices who would overturn Roe vs. Wade.

A firestorm arose from the religious right, noting that they had put Bush back in the White House and demanding Specter’s removal from the seniority-based succession to the chairmanship of the all-important Judiciary Committee.

Let us see how Specter and other Republican moderates fare in the right wing and even more militant Republican regime.

If Republicans ever want to permanently realign Jewish votes, they will have to change themselves. They will have to rediscover their moderation, their common sense and their respect for the wise application of knowledge and science in addressing our national problems.

Don’t expect that to occur anytime soon. Political failure is a better teacher than stunning success. Losing the Jews did not keep Republicans from executing their program of national political monopoly.

Right now, national Republicans do not feel they need anybody else but themselves at the table, but the day will surely come when they will need the rest of us.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton, is the author of “The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles” (Princeton University Press 2004).

Wilshire Boulevard Gambles on Future

On any given day, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles is a hub of activity. Built seven years ago for $30 million, the campus attracted new members like a magnet. They came flocking to enroll their children in day school or religious school or attend the many other activities the campus offered.

Now it wants to repeat its success in a part of town that is far less congruous with Jewish life than the Westside: Koreatown. The temple is planning on spending $30 million to revamp its Wilshire Boulevard property and to turn it into a major Mid-City Jewish destination.

Although 70 percent of Los Angeles Jews currently live on the Westside and in the Valley, the Wilshire Boulevard board is banking on the fact that high housing costs and a lower tolerance for long commutes will cause a west-to-east demographic shift.

“Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Hollywood Hills, Glendale, Pasadena — not only are they more affordable places to live, but they are fabulously interesting places to live,” said Rabbi Steven Leder, Wilshire Boulevard’s senior rabbi, who is spearheading the renovations. He said the Koreatown temple is located in the “newly revitalized Soho of Los Angeles,” referring to the trendy New York City neighborhood.

The proposed renovations come at a crucial point for the temple. The Edgar Magnin Sanctuary, which turns 75 this month (see sidebar), needs serious repair. While the sanctuary hosts two bar mitzvahs a week during its Saturday morning services, which draw about 500 people, the Friday night turnout is generally small and the majority of those attendees live east of La Cienega Boulevard. Most Wilshire Boulevard programs, such as day school, most religious school classes, adult classes and psychological support groups, are at the Irmas Campus.

It is the Irmas Campus that increased Wilshire Boulevard’s membership by 700 families, and two-thirds of the temple’s 2,500 families are affliated with the Irmas Campus. While the Magnin facility has 40 classrooms, during the week they are rented out to a charter school and not used for Jewish studies.

“We either needed to restore [the Edgar Magnin Sanctuary] and contemporize its space for usage or let it go,” Leder said. “And I would be ashamed of myself if it was let go on my watch.”

In 2001, the temple received a Preserve Los Angeles grant from the Getty Foundation to draw up a plan to rehabilitate and maintain the Wilshire Boulevard property, which is a landmark building. The study found that there was significant deterioration of the stone and concrete decorative elements on the building’s exterior and there was efflorescence (a discoloration) of the plaster on the dome inside the sanctuary. The study also found that the building’s electrical, lighting, plumbing, heating and ventilation systems were old and worn out.

In addition, the board had some complaints of its own. While the sanctuary was built to accommodate 2,000 people, the social hall only holds 200, which means that congregants needed to go elsewhere for their parties. There is also no air conditioning, which can make packed High Holiday services, with 6,000 people attending, very uncomfortable.

The plan estimated that it would cost Wilshire Boulevard close to $5 million to restore the sanctuary to its former glory, but the board has grander visions. It is planning to building a large social hall with an industrial kitchen, parenting center, nursery school, rooftop garden and youth lounge.

The board also wants to renovate the current auditorium so that it can become a center for cultural programming in Los Angeles, akin to the 92nd Street Y in New York, and to landscape the gardens and create a perimeter wall to give the facility a campus feel.

The estimated cost of all the renovations is $30 million, and Wilshire Boulevard is currently soliciting funds and negotiating naming rights with some members.

But who will come to the Wilshire synagogue? Leder and Steven Breuer, the temple’s executive director, are reluctant to admit that the motive behind the renovations is to attract new members, saying that they are spending $30 million to serve the existing 1,000 families that affiliate with the Magnin facility.

Los Angeles demographers think that Wilshire Boulevard is ahead of the curve.

“I think that [Wilshire Boulevard] is very astute, and what is going to happen is that they are going to anchor a Jewish community there,” said Pini Herman, principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research.

He said that the Westside can’t handle the density of the population, noting “When the alternatives are a $1.5 million tear-down on the Westside or a $300,000 [house] in that area, which is only a 10-minute drive from Wilshire and Fairfax, and you have reasonable Jewish services, it’s going to become a lot more attractive.”

Herman doesn’t think the new Wilshire Boulevard, which could take two years to renovate, is going to detract from the Westside, “but it will give some alternatives to Jews who like to be urban pioneers but who also want to live among Jews.”

Young people and empty nesters may be returning to inner-city properties, said Steven Windmueller, director of the School for Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, “because they reject the commute, and they want the convenience of what downtown L.A. and mid-Wilshire and Los Feliz offers.”

With the closing of the Jewish Community Center in Los Feliz and the downgrading of services at the Westside Jewish Community Center, Windmueller said that Wilshire Boulevard can “fill an important community niche.”

Still, the question remains that when the renovations are completed, will people come or will they continue to attend synagogues on the Westside?

“It is a gamble, but Los Angeles cannot sprawl forever,” Breuer said. “The city is having an internal renaissance, and this [renovation] is a commitment to the future. We trust that there will be people to come. If you build it, they will come. That is the vision at least.”

Wilshire Boulevard Temple will “Celebrate the Life of a Building and the Building of a Life,” with a Mandy Patinkin concert on Nov. 21 at the Magnin Sanctuary, 3663 Wilshire Blvd. The event will commemorate the sanctuary’s 75th birthday and Steven Breuer’s five decades of service to the temple. For more information call (213) 388-2401 ext. 521, or visit

American Jewry By Numbers

The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-01, dubbed “Strength, Challenge and Diversity,” offers key findings on demographics, intermarriage, Jewish “connections” — that is, communal behavioral trends — and such “special” topics as the elderly, immigration and poverty.

Among the study’s key findings:


  • There are 5.2 million Jews in the United States, down from 5.5 million counted in the 1990 NJPS. Those Jews live in 2.9 million homes, with a total of 6.7 million people. So in Jewish households, two out of every nine people are not Jewish.
  • Jews are older, on average, than the American population as a whole. The median age for Jews is 42, compared to age 35 for Americans generally. So while 14 percent of Americans are age 9 or younger, only 10 percent of Jews are. And 23 percent of Jews are over age 60, compared to 16 percent of Americans as a whole.
  • A majority of Jews — 57 percent — are married, but they tend to marry later in life than other Americans. For instance, while 59 percent of American men in the 25-34 age bracket are married, only 48 percent of Jewish men are. Among women in that age bracket, 64 percent of Jews are married, compared to 70 percent of Americans generally.
  • Jewish women’s fertility rates are lower than most Americans. Ninety percent of Jewish women ages 18-24 and 70 percent of those 25-29 do not have children, compared to 70 percent and 44 percent of U.S. women in those age groups. Jewish women had 1.86 children on average overall, versus 1.93 children by all U.S. women.
  • Forty-three percent of Jews live in the Northeast, 23 percent in the South, 22 percent in the West and 13 percent in the Midwest. But while 77 percent of Jews born in the West still live there, only 61 percent of Jews born in the Northeast and just half of those born in the Midwest do, signaling a continued migration westward.
  • That migration was offset by immigration to the Northeast, where nearly 60 percent of Jews from the former Soviet Union live.
  • Jews are more affluent than Americans generally. More than one-third of Jewish households report an annual income of $75,000 or higher, compared to just 18 percent of U.S. households. The median Jewish household income is $54,000, compared to $42,000 for Americans generally.
  • Only 61 percent of all Jews are currently working, compared to 65 percent of all Americans, reflecting the higher median age of Jews.


  • Among all married Jews today, 31 percent are married to non-Jews. The intermarriage rate, which had been rising since 1970s, leveled off in the late 1980s and early 1990s to about 43 percent. Since then, it has climbed again slightly, with 47 percent of Jews who wed since 1996 choosing non-Jewish spouses.
  • Intermarriage runs highest among the young, with 41 percent of Jews under 35 who marry choosing non-Jewish spouses. By comparison, only 20 percent of married Jews over 55 have non-Jewish spouses.
  • The intermarriage rate is higher among men than women — 33 percent, compared to 29 percent.
  • The greater one’s Jewish education, the less likely one is to intermarry. Forty-three percent of those who lacked any Jewish education intermarried, compared to 29 percent among those who had one day per week of Jewish education. The rate dropped to 23 percent for those who had part-time Jewish education, and to 7 percent among those who attended Jewish day school or yeshiva.
  • Mirroring some earlier studies, NJPS also showed that intermarriage breeds intermarriage, with the children of intermarried couples three times more likely to intermarry. Intermarriage was 22 percent among those with two Jewish parents, versus 74 percent of those with just one Jewish parent.
  • Children of intermarried couples raised in a Jewish household were less likely to intermarry, though a majority still did. Nearly 60 percent of children raised Jewish by an interfaith couple intermarried, compared to 86 percent who were not raised as Jews. But only 33 percent of intermarried households raise their children as Jews, compared to 96 percent of homes with two Jewish parents.
  • Those who intermarry may experience alienation from the Jewish community. Just 24 percent of the intermarried say they have close Jewish friends, compared to 76 percent of those in all-Jewish marriages.

Jewish Connectivity

  • Among all Jews, 52 percent have close Jewish friends, 77 percent attend or hold Passover seders, 72 percent light Chanukah candles, 35 percent have visited Israel, 63 percent are “emotionally attached” to the Jewish State and 41 percent have contributed to a Jewish cause outside of the federation system.
  • NJPS further identified 4.3 million Jews, or 80 percent of the total Jewish population, as more “Jewishly connected” than others. These Jews replied to a more detailed NJPS survey, by first saying they either had at least one Jewish parent; were raised as Jews; considered themselves Jewish culturally, ethnically or nationalistically; or practiced no other religion. Those who practiced a non-monotheistic religion, such as Zen Buddhism, but still considered themselves Jews and practiced some “residual” Jewish activity were also included, said Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, the NJPS research director.

Of the remaining Jews in the overall population:

  • 800,000 met all those criteria but did not consider themselves to be Jews. The previous 1990 survey cast a wider net and counted these people as Jews in measuring rates such as intermarriage and other Jewish connections.
  • Another 100,000 Jews were estimated to exist, living largely in senior-citizen homes, prisons or as part of the U.S. military — the same number used in the 1990 study.

Of the more Jewishly active 4.3 million:

  • Forty-six percent said they belong to a synagogue, while 27 percent said they attend a Jewish religious service at least once per month.
  • Of those who said they were synagogue members, 39 percent identified as Reform Jews, 33 percent as Conservative, 21 percent as Orthodox, 3 percent as Reconstructionist and 4 percent as “other,” such as Sephardic.
  • Fifty-nine percent said they fast on Yom Kippur — meaning four in 10 Jews do not.
  • Twenty-eight percent said they light Shabbat candles, while 21 percent said they keep kosher at home.
  • Twenty-one percent said they belong to a Jewish community center, while 28 percent said they belong to another Jewish organization.
  • A fifth of all Jews said they have visited Israel two or more times, and 45 percent said they have Israeli relatives or friends.
  • Fifty-two percent said being Jewish is very important.
  • Thirty percent of these Jews said they contributed to a Jewish federation.
  • Sixty-five percent said they read a Jewish newspaper or magazine; 55 percent read books on Jewish topics; 45 percent listen to Jewish tapes, compact disks or records; and 39 percent use the Internet for Jewish purposes.
  • Nearly one-quarter said they attend Jewish education classes.


Secular and Jewish education plays a key role among American Jews.

  • Jews are highly educated compared to the population generally, with 55 percent having earned a college degree, compared to 29 percent of all Americans, and 25 percent of Jews holding graduate degrees, compared to 6 percent of the general population.
  • Seventy-three percent of the more “connected” Jews received some kind of formal Jewish education growing up, including 79 percent of those between age 6 and 17 at the time of the survey.
  • Twelve percent of the more “connected” subset attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva growing up, 25 percent had one day per week of Jewish education and 24 percent went to a Jewish school part time. In fact, NJPS found a dramatic rise in Jewish day school and yeshiva education, with 29 percent of those between the ages of 6 and 17 — and 23 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds — saying they have attended day school or yeshiva. By comparison, only 12 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds, and 10 percent of older Jews, say they had a day school education.
  • As for more informal Jewish schooling, 23 percent of children ages 3 to 17 attended a Jewish day camp in the year before the survey was taken, between August 2000 and 2001; 19 percent of those aged 8 to 17 went to a Jewish sleepover camp in the previous year; and 46 percent of those aged 12 to 17 participated in Jewish activities or organized youth groups in that period.
  • Among current college and graduate students, 41 percent reported taking a Jewish studies course, while only 11 percent of those 55 and older did so; 28 percent of those between 35 and 54 attended such courses; and 37 percent of those under age 35 took a college-level Jewish studies class.

The Elderly, the Poor and Immigrants

  • Nearly one-fifth of the total Jewish population is considered elderly (65 and older), with 9 percent age 75 or older. Fifty-four percent of the elderly are women.
  • One third of elderly Jews live alone, with 67 percent being widows or widowers. More than one-third report their health is poor or fair, three times the rate of those under 65.

Because the 1990 NJPS did not track poverty levels, the study could not spot any trends. It did, however, find that:

  • Nine percent of the Jewish elderly live in households below the federally defined poverty line; 18 percent of the elderly live in households with incomes of less than $15,000; and 43 percent of the elderly claim total assets of $250,000 or more.
  • Nearly 8 percent of all American Jews immigrated to the United States since 1980, amounting to 335,000 people. Of these, 227,000 — or slightly more than two-thirds — came from the former Soviet Union. The remaining immigrants came from 30 other countries, with those from Canada, Iran and Israel accounting for more than half of those 109,000.
  • Ninety-one percent of immigrants from the FSU were married to other Jews.

The study will be available at “>

Setting the Record Straight

As authors of the oft-cited research study titled “Will Your Grandchild Be Jewish?” we have more than a passing interest and familiarity with the Jewish demography of Los Angeles and America. The following points outline some of the fundamental flaws in the L.A. Jewish Population Survey of 1997 not reported by other respondents:

  • The L.A. survey shows an increase of Orthodox population from a maximum of 25,030 in 1979 to at least 27,878 in 1997. This increase of at least 12 percent is never directly referred to in either the L.A. survey or in demographer Pini Herman’s many public statements defending the survey. Instead, the demographic comparisons were always made by households. This allowed both the L.A. survey and Herman’s representations to obscure the growth of large, young Orthodox families that the L.A. survey itself had uncovered.

  • No previous population study (whether targeting the general population or the Jewish population) based its findings primarily on house-holds rather than individual people. Orthodox Jews generally have more people per household, but they have fewer households per person. The L.A. survey results and Herman’s defenses seemed to have been designed to mask the growth of Orthodox Jews whose numbers grew between the last two community surveys. The 1979 survey, as is typical, reported the total number of individuals, not households.

  • Additionally, the figure used to illustrate the average size of Orthodox families in the L.A. survey (2.7 persons per family) is well below what has been found elsewhere as the average size of Orthodox families.

  • The upcoming CJF 2000 national population study took pains to include Orthodox activists and scholars (including ourselves) in order to ensure an accurate count. No such efforts were made in con-nection with the L.A. survey. Besides the lack of intellectual honesty displayed, clearly the Ortho-dox denomination was placed at a disadvantage.

  • Both the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey and the 1991 New York Jewish Population Study, as well as every significant population survey over the past 20 years, have made both the raw data as well as methodologies available to interested parties after the results have been published. True social scientists have nothing to hide. In spite of repeated requests to share the raw data and methodology of the L.A. survey, Herman refused to release any information. Moreover, several calls to him remain unanswered.

The L.A. survey, spearheaded by Herman, went out of its way not to consult leaders of the Orthodox community; utilized at best an unconventional method of counting so-called respondents; and hid the growth of numbers of Orthodox Jews by counting families, not individuals. Then, to add insult to injury, Herman refused repeated requests from baffled members of the Orthodox community to check the supposed figures by examining the raw data and methodology.

Who is really trying to fool whom?

Expanded synagogues and day schools, new construction, sold-out events, mushrooming of kosher stores versus a flawed study with obscured conclusions. The question is only the rate of growth of the Orthodox community, not whether it is in fact growing.

We strongly encourage those who invested funds in the apparently flawed L.A. survey to produce, in conjunction with the CJF 2000 population study, an accurate assessment of the Los Angeles Jewish population spearheaded by a nonbiased source so that our community can deal with the real composition of Los Angeles Jewry.

Growing or Shrinking?

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin can’t stop laughing.
No really, I tell him, according to the numbers, the Orthodox community is shrinking.
He takes a deep breath.
“I’m trying not to get upset here,” says Cunin, sovereign of West Coast Chabad for the past 36 years. “But you have to be blind to say that.
“Have you counted the kosher restaurants? The schools? And the mikvahs – just look at the mikvahs!”

Actually, I have counted, and the numbers are pretty impressive. About 130 kosher restaurants, bakeries and markets, 5,200 kids in Orthodox day schools and about 80 shuls, from Chasidic to liberal Orthodox. And that’s stretching from the Beverly-La Brea community all the way out to the Ventura County line in Conejo, and down through Irvine and Long Beach.

I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s in Los Angeles, and I remember the days of Nosh N’Rye and Kosher Nostra – and that was it. And that’s not even going back as far as Hartman’s, the only kosher restaurant in town till the early ’70s. There were three day schools, North Hollywood was the only Valley outpost, there were a dozen or so Orthodox shuls, and when you saw a shtreimel or even a black hat walking down the street on Shabbos, it was odd enough to make you stop and point.

And you’re telling me – and the rest of this flourishing and vibrant Orthodox community – that our numbers have shrunk since the late ’70s?
Yes, says Pini Herman, principal investigator of the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey, presented by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Close your collective jaws and look at the evidence. In a 1979 survey, those defining themselves as Orthodox constituted 5 percent of the Los Angeles Jewish population, at 11,400 households.

Today, Orthodox households number 10,600, making up just 4 percent of the population of 248,000 Jewish households in Los Angeles, the Valley and South Bay. Compare those numbers with about 18,000 Orthodox households, out of 104,000 Jewish, in 1953.
“I can’t understand what they mean. It defies reason,” says Rabbi Gershon Bess, a leader in the Beverly-La Brea area. “On just one street, on Detroit Street, we counted, Baruch Hashem [thank God], over 200 children.”

Exactly the point, says Herman. It’s a classic case of ecological fallacy – when you are part of a community, you assume everyone is like you. “When you live in Chinatown, you think everyone is Chinese,” he says. Outsiders might also tend to overestimate the number of Orthodox Jews because they are more visible. For example, says Bruce Phillips, a sociologist who also researched the study, Americans estimate that 20 to 25 percent of the population is Jewish, when it is in fact 2 percent.

The rightward shift of Orthodoxy could explain some of the perception that more people are Orthodox – more people dress the part, and as such stand out. Still, even if the perceptions are inflated, how do you explain the number of institutions? Let’s just look at kosher restaurants.
“When I was dating in the ’60s, we had Hartman’s on Fairfax and Sixth. That was where you had business meetings, dates – that was it,” says Michelle Harlow, whose parents, Anne and the late William Bernstein, were pioneers of the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Today, there is a menu for every taste and occasion, in about six distinct geographic areas. “That just shows that the leisure activity has changed. That shows socioeconomically what the Orthodox community can afford,” counters Herman, which also might explain why attendance at Orthodox day schools has more than doubled in the last 20 years.

And, he adds, clusters of Orthodox establishments – shuls, restaurants or bookstores – can just signify a geographic shift rather than actual growth. A new mikvah in the Pico area might mean the death of one in Fairfax.

Miriam Prum Hess, director of planning and allocations at the Federation, adds another explanation for the restaurant phenomenon. Not everyone who utilizes an Orthodox establishment, whether it be a pizza shop, a mikvah or a day school, is necessarily Orthodox.

“I think we’re seeing more observance in the Conservative community, as well as the observant ethnic community of Persian Jews,” she says.
Certainly, the conservatively estimated 30,000 Persian Jews in L.A. add an interesting factor to the analysis.
Like Sephardic Jews, Persians don’t define themselves within the standard American slots of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist.
“Back home we had one monolithic community in terms of worship and belief, so we didn’t have these names,” says Rabbi David Shofet, leader of Nessah Israel Congregation, a 700-family cultural and educational center in Santa Monica. That pattern persists here, where even if observance levels differ, no one labels anyone else.

Today, many of the kosher establishments, especially on Pico, are owned by Persian Jews. “We needed the special spices and greenery, and we couldn’t get them here. That was the kernel for the huge markets like Pico Glatt and Eilat Market,” Shofet says. Persian-owned establishments have effectively changed the face of kosher cuisine in L.A. Cunin takes issue with these labels altogether. “Calling myself Orthodox doesn’t mean I am any holier and calling myself Reform doesn’t release me of the responsibility I have to God, the Torah and the Holy Land of Israel,” Cunin says. Rather, Judaism is Judaism, Torah is Torah, and people’s observance is a personal matter of where they are in their journey.

“If you approach a Chabadnik on the street and say ‘Are you Orthodox?’ they would laugh in your face,” he says. “If you asked one of the Russian immigrants who come to our schools, they would just walk away.”

My unresearched intuition is that the 1953 survey, which found about 18,000 Orthodox households in L.A., included a good number of first-generation Americans who knew only Orthodoxy from back home, who attended an Orthodox synagogue two or three times a year, who sent their kids to the only day schools around. They were more Orthodox by default than by conviction.

That might explain why the 1997 survey also found that three out of four people who say their parents were Orthodox are not now Orthodox. Perhaps it was not a meaningful Orthodox upbringing they left. Perhaps those same families who called themselves Orthodox in 1953 would call themselves Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist today.

So if the rosters have shrunk, maybe it is because they are no longer padded with people who never enjoyed a fulfilling Orthodox life. And if that is true, maybe the converse is as well. Those who define themselves as Orthodox today do so with pride and conviction, with a dedication to creating a rich, meaningful life for themselves and their children.

That is certainly true of the ba’alei teshuvah, the 30 percent of the Orthodox community who grew up outside of Orthodoxy.

A qualitatively stronger, if quantitatively smaller, community could also explain the boom in schools, eateries and shuls.

The boom goes well beyond the basics: Los Angeles is now home to an active bikur cholim society, which tends to the needs of the ill and their families; adult education for men and women at all levels; women’s tefillah groups; kollels, where the community supports men who study Torah all day long. None of these institutions is absolutely necessary.

Rather, they indicate that the community has matured beyond subsistence and is flourishing. So in the end, is their any harm in overestimating our size?

Phillips, who with Herman now runs Phillips and Herman Demographic Research, says there is grave danger.
“If they believe their own propaganda, they are going to make communal and financial decisions that endanger existing Orthodox institutions,” he says. “That means creating an overly ambitious building plan, that means you hire teachers you can’t pay. A distorted image stretches resources too thin.” And he says that can hurt not just the Orthodox but the wider commun
ity that uses the valuable services the Orthodox provide.

Meanwhile, on Pico alone, the Orthodox Union just opened a new building, YULA and Aish HaTorah are under construction and Chabad just purchased another couple of sites on Pico adjacent to its existing preschool-through-high-school buildings.

As for Rabbi Cunin; “It all depends on what kind of glasses you are wearing, what type of outcome you intended before you started,” he says. “Shrinking?” He laughs. And laughs, and laughs, and laughs.