Los Angeles Jewry

The characterization of Los Angeles as “a hundred communities in search of a city” (Phillips 2007, 111) points to the prominent role that the area’s geography has had in shaping its cultural features. Indeed, geography has contributed significantly to the development of Los Angeles Jewish culture as a negotiation of cosmopolitan as well as parochial sensibilities and values. Though Jews across the United States actively negotiate their cosmopolitan perspectives with their parochial concerns (Heilman and Cohen 1989), Jewish life in Los Angeles provides an example of this phenomenon in vivid relief. Choice reigns supreme for the Jews of Los Angeles, where the sense of obligation to conform to religious behaviors and institutional affiliations is not nearly as powerful as it is for Northeastern and Midwestern Jews (Moore 1994, 226). Jews on the West Coast are highly integrated into the larger society; compared to the rest of the country, California has particularly high rates of intermarriage (Lugo, Cooperman, and Smith 2013, 35) and low rates of synagogue affiliation (Wertheimer 2005, 19).

The geographic realities of Los Angeles’ expansive footprint hindered the development and preservation of the sense of tribalism that has historically shaped New York Jewish sentiments toward non-Jewish neighbors (Moore 1994, 58). In contrast to New York, where the trappings ofjewish social, cultural, and religious life tend to be more densely concentrated, these aspects of Jewish life must be sought out in Los Angeles, since the Jewish population is not contained within a particular geographic area (Moore 1994, 59).

The history of Jewish migration to Los Angeles and the nature of the community that Jews found when they arrived there have had a large part in shaping today’s Los Angeles Jewry. As of 2012, Greater Los Angeles (including Los Angeles, Ventura, and Orange Counties) had the fourth-largest Jewish population in the United States, behind New York City, Southern Florida, and the New York suburbs (Tighe et al. 2013). Since the mid-nineteenth century, Los Angeles Jews have relied heavily on their understanding of and ability to navigate differences between themselves and their neighbors (Wilson 2011).

Jews have lived side-by-side with Angelenos from a multiplicity of cultures since they arrived. Los Angeles’Jewish population grew substantially after World

War II due to the migration of East Coast Jews who were drawn by the prospect of a leisurely lifestyle and economic opportunity (Moore 1994, 28). Jews moving to Los Angeles at that time encountered a diverse city in which personal choice and secularism were prominent cultural features, unlike the East Coast cities from which they came (Moore 1994, 54).

Many chose to navigate the diversity by engaging with others from their particularistic perspective. In the mid-twentieth century, the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights was home to interethnic cooperation initiated by its Jewish residents (Sanchez 2004). The value of such Jewish cosmopolitanism was overtly illustrated more recently during the 2013 election of Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti. During his campaign, Garcetti touted his Jewish and Mexican parentage as well as his Italian ancestry to illustrate his ability to relate to and engage with the diverse population of Los Angeles (Finnegan 2013).

As postwar Jewish migrants arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century, they discovered that LA’s Jewish communal structure, which superficially resembled that of Eastern cities, was also significantly distinctive. Like other cities with substantial Jewish populations, Greater Los Angeles has a Jewish Federation (which includes the Valley Alliance, whose work extends from the San Fernando Valley to the Simi and Conejo Valleys in Ventura County). But overall, the city’s Jewish communal agencies tended to be more fragmented and less active than their counterparts in Eastern cities (Moore 1994, 59-60).

Eastern newcomers to Los Angeles encountered the absence of familiar Jewish cultural and communal constraints, alongside an array of organizational alternatives (Moore 1994, 62). The soil in Los Angeles grows non-profit organizations as readily as it produces new religious movements and expressions: Los Angeles County is home to over 39,000 non-profit organizations, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (National Center for Charitable Statistics 2015).

Examples of the tendency to organize abound in the Jewish community. Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, tens of thousands of Persian Jews migrated from Iran to Los Angeles (Kelley 1993), and almost immediately began to form various organizations to cater to their communal needs. In 1980, the Iranian American Jewish Federation was formed in Los Angeles as an umbrella organization with the main objective of defending and protecting the interests and welfare of Jews throughout the world - with special emphasis on Iranian Jews (Iranian American Jewish Federation n.d.). The presence of long-established seminaries (i.e. the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College and the Conservative Movement’s University of Judaism, now American Jewish University) did not deter the founding of an independent Jewish seminary, the Academy of Jewish Religion, in 2000.4

Another example that illustrates the point of LA’s complex and decentralized Jewish culture is found in efforts to organize progressive factions of the Jewish community. In 1999, the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Jewish Congress (an association of Jewish Americans organized to defend Jewish interests at home and abroad through public policy advocacy, using diplomacy, legislation, and the courts) broke away from the national organization to form the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Ultimately, the local, independent organization was not sustainable, and merged with the New York-based national organization Jewish Funds for Justice in 2011 (now called Bend the Arc).

The Jewish community of Los Angeles is both ideologically and ethnically diverse. Substantial populations of Jewish immigrants from Israel, Iran, and the Soviet Union arrived beginning in the 1970s (Phillips 1986, 142). There are Conservative, Orthodox, independent, Humanistic, Reconstructionist, Reform, Sephardic, Traditional, and Renewal congregations (Jewish Los Angeles n.d.). East Coast Orthodox leaders who viewed Los Angeles as a hotbed of intermarriage and assimilation established Orthodox yeshivot in Los Angeles in the mid-to-late twentieth century in an effort the curb such trends (Tavory 2010, 96).

Much of Los Angeles’s Jewish population lives in suburbs. Scholars have often understood suburbanization to mean assimilation, based on the model of East Coast city centers surrounded by concentric rings of suburbs and exurbs (Phillips 2007, 110). However, sociologist Bruce Phillips argues that the association between suburbs and assimilation is not substantiated in the case of Los Angeles (Phillips 2007, 132). The proportion of Los Angeles’Jewish population that lives in the suburban San Fernando Valley (“The Valley”) grew from 26 to 46% between 1968 and 1996 (Phillips 2007, 117). The southern part of the San Fernando Valley, the Valley Hills, grew into a particularly significant Jewish population center during this period, with its overall population becoming 48% Jewish by 1996. This made the Valley Hills the most Jewish area in Los Angeles - more so than West LA, which was 26% Jewish. These two areas also see the highest rate of synagogue membership: 43% and 39%, respectively (Phillips 2007, 118, 121, 130).

Despite these statistics, the assumption that suburbanization leads to assimilation has held sway: The Valley is widely perceived as peripheral to West Los Angeles. This perception is reinforced by the geographic reality: The Valley is separated from the rest of the City of Los Angeles by the Santa Monica Mountains, which are traversed by only a few roads. “Ecologically, historically and logistically |The Valley] is entirely separate from the rest of Los Angeles,” writes Phillips (Phillips 1986, 133).

Los Angeles is arguably one of the most decentralized major urban areas in the United States. It has been called “ungovernable” (Olney 2010), “fragmented” (Fogelson 1967) and famously, “an island in the land” (McWilliams 1946). This geographic and political fragmentation is also a way to understand decentralized religious power in Los Angeles in the latter twentieth and early twentieth century. There is no one location, body or organization that represents religion in Los Angeles.

 
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