The New Jews of L.A.: The City That's a Lab for Jewish Life

Los Angeles revels in its diversity. No wonder it's become a testing ground for innovative ways of being Jewish and for funding those cultural 'startups.' Part one in a seven-part series.

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LOS ANGELES - The old rules and East Coast traditions just don’t apply in America's second-largest city. That goes for Jewish life, too.

“Los Angeles operates as a lab. New things are starting up here all the time,” says Esther Kustanowitz, who coordinates the L.A. Jewish Federation's NextGen Engagement Initiative and serves as a consultant to innovative Jewish programs.

The L.A. Jewish community is in a state of flux thanks to a constant deluge of newcomers: Persian Jews, Russian Jews, Israelis, a large population of openly gay and lesbian Jews and a constant stream of creative young Jews from around the world lured by the entertainment industry.

The many kinds of Jews here are living among an even more varied stew of ethnicities. “It’s a diverse Jewish population living among a diverse general population,” says Kustanowitz.

Even the city's mayor, Eric Garcetti, personifies this ethnic mosaic, with a Mexican-American father, a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish wife.

As a member of IKAR, a non-denominational, progressive, egalitarian Jewish community, Garcetti also exemplifies another trend that characterizes Jewish L.A. : Post-denominationalism. That is, rabbis and congregations that refuse to put themselves in a box and feel beholden to a "movement," whether that be Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.

One rabbinical college in L.A., the Academy for Jewish Religion, has strongly influenced this trend, by turning out a different breed of rabbi. Founded in 2000, with a faculty culled from all different streams of Judaism, the school aspires “to produce a new kind of Jewish spiritual leader; one who could effectively serve the 21st century American Jewish community in all its diversity.”

Much of the new dynamism here has had to do with geographic patterns. Many of the new hubs of Jewish life lie far from Beverly Hills, West L.A. or Hollywood, where Jews had traditionally clustered in past decades.

With a surge of young Jews pioneering the eastern and central parts of L.A. -- hipsters, gays and other young people looking for more affordable living and working space -- new programs and centers of Jewish life are sprouting up. With the city spread over such a large geographic area and bogged down by infamous traffic jams, residents loathe going to events across town.

In areas where there are few synagogues or Jewish community centers, Jewish events take place everywhere from bars to basements or even yoga studios like one L.A. establishment called Om Shalom, where one can go on a Friday night to “celebrate Jewish prayer through the moving meditation of a Vinyasa flow yoga class, weaving Jewish text and philosophies with yogic wisdom.”

Much of the "disruption" of classic Jewish institutional life is a result of the Internet. The ability to connect through social media has made it easy for young Jews dissatisfied with the options around them to look around and organize their own events. Finding fellow hipsters in Silver Lake interested in a Shabbat dinner followed by a jam session of klezmer and Middle Eastern music is only a few clicks away -- they don’t need to join a synagogue or JCC to make it happen.

Still, none of this activity comes cheap and every startup needs investors. For the myriad out-of-the-box initiatives to grow and thrive, the mainstream Jewish community that holds the purse strings needs to be on board.

Toward that end, the Jewish Community Foundation has a special category of "Cutting Edge grants" for programs with unique, innovative elements that have "the capacity to transform the Los Angeles Jewish community."

I asked Lisa Greer, a member of the Beverly Hills Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-el, how the established Jewish community regards these new startup efforts. We meet at the tony Hillcrest Country Club, an upscale golf and tennis club with a breathtaking view, right next to the Fox Studios.

Hillcrest was founded in the 1930’s by Jews in the entertainment industry who weren’t invited into the non-Jewish country clubs. In order to be a member, a certain percentage of income has to be donated to charities, traditionally the Jewish federation. They still give but, she adds, that the approach to giving has been transformed.

“It is old-school to get people to give money to Jewish causes out of guilt, as it was to join Jewish organizations because you couldn’t join anything else,” said Greer, “People used to write checks -- huge seven figure checks and say ‘just don’t ever call me.’"

Not anymore. For the new generation of L.A. philanthropists, she says, it’s no longer about making fat public pledges, making a big show of handing over the check, and considering their job done. “They find that offensive.”

In fact, the relationship between the new Jewish startups and the donors that support them sounds like the relationship between startup companies and venture capital funds: There are “cutting-edge grants,” “angel rounds” and “mezzanine funding” -- the Jewish organizational version of a startup nation, spawning initiatives with names like “NuRoots” and “Reboot.”

Both Greer and the federation's Kustanowitz welcome and encourage these small new initiatives, which they hope will be effective at reaching unaffiliated Jews. Still shaken by the news of the Pew Study which showed high rates of non-affiliation and disaffection among many young Jews, these savvy investors in Jewish life, like Greer say they welcome fresh approaches.

But if these donors are going to keep backing such initiatives, they want to see them contribute to maintaining a strong distinctly Jewish presence in L.A. -- a place where ethnic diversity and multiculturalism are the order of the day.

This article is part of a special Haaretz series called "The new Jews of L.A.," about Jewish life in and around Los Angeles.

Hollywood Boulevard (illustration)Credit: Dreamstime
The L.A. Jewish community is in a state of flux thanks to a constant deluge of newcomers.Credit: Bloomberg

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