Jewish Journal

Wave of the Future

by Ruth Stroud

Posted on Aug. 14, 1997 at 8:00 pm

If there's an image of the South Bay, it's this sun-drenched visionof perpetual summer and youth. But does this picture contain anyJews? For years, the myth has been that it didn't, or, if there wereany, they were passing as something else.

But it turns out that there are more Jews in the South Bay thanmany had imagined -- about 45,000, according to a just-releasedpopulation study by the Jewish Federation Council of Greater LosAngeles. It is the Southland's fastest-growing Jewish communityoutside the Westside and parts of the San Fernando Valley. And moreJews, particularly young families, are moving in to the South Bay,which extends roughly from Westchester to San Pedro. They're drawn bythe beaches, clean air, low crime rates and highly rated publicschools.

And instead of running from their Jewish roots, many now want toplant them even deeper -- in their new community.

"I get five to 10 calls a week [from people] wanting to learn moreabout the Jewish community here," says Rabbi Yossi Mintz, head of theChabad Jewish Community Center in Redondo Beach, which opened itsdoors just more than a year ago to serve the beach communities. Thecalls also come into the area's six synagogues and into the JewishFederation-South Bay Council in Torrance.

Jewish life in the South Bay is thriving but not always visible,says Federation Director Shira Most. "I call it the Diaspora," saysMost, who has lived on the South Bay's Palos Verdes Peninsula for 10years. "It's much easier to take your Judaism for granted on theWestside and in the Valley. People have to work a little harder here,where there's not a synagogue and a kosher butcher on every corner,and your neighbors usually aren't Jewish."

Jewish life in the South Bay isn't as easily found as in otherparts of Los Angeles, says Rabbi Ronald Shulman, whose CongregationNer Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes, a 600-family Conservative shul, hasdoubled in size since he arrived in 1983. "Here, [Jewish community]is based in the synagogues and communal organizations. It's veryaccessible if you look for it. But it gives people the impressionthat it isn't here."

Jewish and Alone

Growing up Jewish in Palos Verdes was a lonely experience for29-year-old Stephanie Asch, who left the South Bay for the heavilyJewish Fairfax area some years ago. "Even when I was a kid, I waswondering why we lived there," says Asch. "I really loved mynon-Jewish friends, but I found it very isolating." Asch, who becamea bat mitzvah at Temple Beth-El and Center, a Reform temple in SanPedro, is now Orthodox and works for the Jewish Federation.

Before she and her husband moved to the Palos Verdes Peninsulalast year, Adrianne Kaufman, who grew up in the Fairfax area of LosAngeles and attended Orthodox day schools, worried that there wouldbe few, if any, Jews in the South Bay. Now, happily settled in a homeoverlooking the sea, and awaiting their first child, Adrianne, 25,and Richard, 33, take walks around the neighborhood, keeping alookout for mezuzahs. There aren't as many as there are near Fairfax,but many more than she had expected. Teaching a class at Ner Tamid,joining a chavurah and connecting with Jewish friends of her in-lawshave certainly helped. But her parents still have to bring the couplekosher meat from uptown.

Of course, for many Jews who live in the South Bay, finding Jewishcommunity wasn't the most important goal. Steve Kahan, a mortgagebroker who lives in Hermosa Beach, ran into a bunch of surf-lovingJewish professionals such as himself at the Spectrum Club, a healthand fitness club in El Segundo. The five Jews, plus one non-Jew,began to meet regularly on Saturday mornings to go surfing along thecoast. When several of them also began getting together informallywith Chabad's Rabbi Mintz, they jokingly referred to themselves asthe Jewish Surf Club. The membership runs the gamut from those suchas Kahan, who culturally identify as Jews, to those whom he calls"stealth Jews," a variety that he says is typical to the South Bay."They're people who live here because they really enjoy the lifestyleand environment and don't have a Jewish identity," he says.

"I would say our common bond is surfing, and a side benefit is thefact that the majority are Jewish," says Eddie Efron, a 44-year-oldRussian-born sales manager at a semiconductor company and a member ofthe Jewish Surf Club. Efron, though not religious, wears his Star ofDavid to the beach every single day and says that he some day hopesto marry a Jewish girl who "surfs and isn't worried about breakingher nails."

Building a Community

There are plenty of challenges to building a sense of Jewishcommunity in this area. Geography is one. The two "bookends" of theSouth Bay Jewish community are Manhattan Beach and the PV Peninsula.The latter includes four cities -- Palos Verdes Estates, Rancho PalosVerdes, Rolling Hills Estates and the gated community of RollingHills, said to have the highest per capita income in the UnitedStates.

The South Bay's distinct communities foster a sense ofneighborhood -- but also a certain provincialism, says Shulman."There are people in Manhattan Beach who won't go to Palos Verdes,and people in Palos Verdes who just won't go to Manhattan Beach," hesays.

Despite what some call "white-bread" or "Waspy" enclaves in theSouth Bay, most Jews don't find anti-Semitism a problem. LastDecember, school officials at a Manhattan Beach elementary schoolremoved a Christmas tree from a classroom after several Jewishparents protested that it was a Christian religious symbol. Christianparents complained, and the matter made headlines in the Los AngelesTimes. After commenting on the matter, Rabbi Steven Silver of TempleMenorah, a Reform synagogue in Redondo Beach, received a few piecesof hate mail. But Silver and others said that the media blew thematter out of proportion.

Membership of the Manhattan Country Club, which once had fewJewish names, is now, by some counts, about 20 percent Jewish. "Iused to joke that I could get a minyan easier there than at thetemple," Rabbi Mark Hyman of Congregation Tifereth Jacob in ManhattanBeach says.

A much more serious concern for South Bay rabbis is the highdegree of intermarriage -- about 75 percent, by some estimates. "It'snot simply a reality of the South Bay. It's a reality of wherever welive," says Beth-El's Rabbi David Lieb, whose 75-year-old temple issaid to be the area's oldest. Lieb doesn't officiate at mixedmarriages, but Beth-El, like other area synagogues welcomes mixedcouples and their children. "My agenda is to get their children inour religious school," he says. Of the 30 families with children inthe temple preschool, at least half are products of mixed marriages,Lieb estimates.

Lack of Infrastructure

The lack of Jewish infrastructure is still a pressing problem inthe South Bay. Each synagogue has to create its own Jewish services,then reach out to the community. Menorah has tried to do that byadding a day school, a summer camp, adult and senior programs, andchavurot. Ner Tamid, in the first phase of a $5 million expansion, isadding a youth center, a community center and an industrial kosherkitchen. "This congregation functions as its own JCC. We do sobecause there's no other JCC," Shulman says.

Building a stronger communal presence in the South Bay has beenthe primary goal of the reconfigured Jewish Federation Council-SouthBay Council. Formerly known as the Southern Region, it wasreorganized two years ago, shortly after the demise of the area'sJewish Community Center. (Over the years, the JCC, which had put onan annual festival and other community events, had lost support andmoney.)

In general, there was a need for the Federation to attract new,more active leadership, as well as do outreach to the vast numbers ofunaffiliated Jews in the area, says Most, the director. "We needed tobuild in some functions that would be responsive to the community,"Most says. "That wasn't there before."

In an unusual move, Most was given funds to hire a part-timecommunity program coordinator, Marsha Rothpan, whose job included notjust the usual fund raising but outreach and organizing to help bringthe diverse community together.

Together with Most and an active group of lay people, Rothpan, whohas since moved on to another Federation position, initiated severalcommunity-building festivals, lectures and Shabbat dinners. Now, Mostis planning a gala celebration of Israel's 50th anniversary for April26 at the Torrance Civic Center with the help of area synagogues, anda South Bay contingent led by Shulman and Eva Piken will join theFederation's 50th-anniversary mission to Israel this November. All ofthis, Most says, is breathing new life into the South Bay Jewishcommunity.

Spirit of Cooperation

What helps, she added, is the unusual spirit of cooperation amongthe rabbis at the area's four major synagogues: Ner Tamid, TempleBeth-El, Temple Menorah and Congregation Tifereth Jacob. In thissmall, spread-out community, the rabbis all know and seem to likeeach other, although they sometimes compete for members. There aretwo other South Bay synagogues: B'nai Tikvah, a Conservativecongregation in Westchester, and Southwest Temple Beth Torah, a smallConservative shul in Gardena with a part-time cantor and a fiercelyloyal but dwindling group of congregants. In the spirit ofcooperation, CTJ and Temple Beth Torah sometimes hold joint Shabbatservices. A $2,000 Federation grant will fund a joint teachereducation program at area synagogues.

There may not be kosher restaurants, a JCC or a Skirball, butthere is Jewish Family Services, Hadassah and B'nai B'rith chapters,a day school and two Jewish summer camps. And there are growingnumbers of places to find perfectly palatable challah and bagels.There are even a few kosher bakeries and a Jewish deli.

As for the future of the South Bay Jewish community, many just seeit getting stronger -- with its nontraditional underpinning nobarrier to growth. The lack of an entrenched, multigenerationalJewish community makes the community all the more exciting, saysCTJ's Rabbi Hyman.

"This is the first generation residing in this neighborhood. Noone's grandparents lived here," he says. "I'd rather be in theprocess of building Jewish memories and traditions than reflecting onthe past."

When we moved to Manhattan Beach a year ago, our realtor, alongtime local resident -- and a Jew, as it turned out -- assured methat there were not only plenty of Jews in the South Bay, but therewas a lovely haimish synagogue to which he belonged. I mightwant to check it out, he said. He called it "Con-surf-ative" --Conservative with a relaxed attitude apropos for a congregation justa few blocks from the Pacific.

Located in part of an old elementary school near a wooded ravinein Manhattan Beach, Congregation Tifereth Jacob, or CTJ, attracts adiverse membership of about 150 families, ranging from liberal Reformwho border on secular, to traditional Conservative. Rabbi Mark Hyman-- Rabbi Mark to most -- is a "great guy," our realtor told us, with,until recently, a part-time travel business, a taste for vintageCadillacs and, as I found out later, a deep-rooted desire to buildhis little "beach" shul into a more respected and visible Jewishentity, while still retaining its appeal to the broad spectrum ofJews in the South Bay.

Indeed, speaking the language of the surfing and skateboarding setwhile somehow bringing an awareness and love of Judaism into people'slives -- even those who didn't think they had much use for it -- isRabbi Mark's goal. Bearded and down-to-earth, with a yarmulke and asmile, he's aiming to be a new kind of rabbi for a new kind of Jew."You've got to dance a lot of steps," he told me.

Hyman joined CTJ in 1979, when it had only a few families, nopermanent rabbi and a member-run school. After the rabbi who washired by the temple to work part time opted to take a job inStockholm instead, Rabbi Mark, who had attended rabbinical school butstopped short of ordination (he is now pursuing that goal at theZiegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism),stepped up to the bimah. "I was real rusty at first," he said. But hesoon warmed to the task, which, for a while, involved serving asrabbi, cantor and school director.

When Rabbi Mark was hired in 1987, the congregation had only 45families. Now, with more than triple that number, it's stillvolunteer-driven; almost everybody serves on some board or other.Like other South Bay shuls, CTJ has a high number of intermarriedcouples -- about a quarter of the congregation, of which about halfof the non-Jewish spouses have converted. Outreach to families,whether intermarried or not, is an important function of the temple,Hyman said.

CTJ also has a growing school, with about 120 children, and,starting this summer, a full-time director of education and programs,Debi Rowe.

Most importantly, for the first time in recent years, CTJ hasfinally acquired a permanent facility on Sepulveda Boulevard. It willleave its current location by September.

"We're acknowledging the temple's inevitable growth and need togrow more," the rabbi said. "We've been a kind of poor cousin downhere because we didn't have the physical visibility."

As for my family, after attending a chavurah event on the beach,we decided to join CTJ. And while we're happy about its new home, myson, Sam, and his friends Matt and Al will definitely miss chasingeach other, with yarmulkes askew, up and down the wooded slopesbehind the school.

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