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JewishJournal.com

May 30, 2012

Can millions of dollars power a new kind of community?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/can_millions_of_dollars_power_a_new_kind_of_community_20120530

The “Down to the River” High Holy Days program is one of East Side Jews’ events that has caught the attention of both hip, young Jews and the mainstream looking to engage them. Photo courtesy of East Side Jews

The “Down to the River” High Holy Days program is one of East Side Jews’ events that has caught the attention of both hip, young Jews and the mainstream looking to engage them. Photo courtesy of East Side Jews

In a not-so-quiet corner of Café Stella at Sunset Junction in Silver Lake, Jill Soloway and Ayana Morse look around and see a model for Jewish connection. The café, wedged into an outdoor shopping/dining complex at the bottom of a steep hill, feels at once makeshift and homey — moms and kids work on plates of eggs and cones of fries at tables balanced on uneven asphalt on the tarp-shaded patio. Business acquaintances, old friends, couples share burgers and salads at dark wooden tables squeezed into an oddly shaped room. Newcomers stop by multiple tables to greet friends, and the owner and waiters schmooze, too.

Soloway, an author, comedian and television writer, switches tables three times to find a quiet place to talk — not because she’s fussy, but because she feels enough at home here to do that.

The small-town vibe of Café Stella is what Soloway and Morse want to replicate at the Silverlake Independent JCC (SIJCC) a few blocks up Sunset. Morse is the associate director of the SIJCC and Soloway is the founder of the alternative-Judaism group East Side Jews, which recently became part of the SIJCC.

The SIJCC’s small brick and concrete building, not much updated since it was built in 1951, needs a lot of love, but they think that just knocking out a few walls and reshaping the angular, strangely partitioned building can help it become a new center for an endlessly diverse, hip, young crowd that has already demonstrated its interest in meaningful Jewish connection.

[Fueling the jFed generation: How the mainstream is staking its future on young innovators]

“We want to be the Skirball of Silver Lake — but more Silver Lake than Skirball,” Soloway said, referring to the Jewish cultural center on Mulholland. “We can be a space for other people to use. They’ll get inspired and come to us with ideas, so if someone wants to do a great Havdalah, we provide the building, and they can simply sign up. It’s like a living laboratory.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angles — historically unhip and not so youthful — is setting its sights on investing millions of dollars in centers of innovation like Silverlake, in hopes of generating hubs for a new kind of Jewish activity across the region, one that will appeal to Gens X, Y and Next. To that end, Federation is also negotiating a partnership with the midcity spiritual community IKAR, and in the late summer or fall plans to invite synagogues and cultural institutions throughout the region to seed other programs. Federation leaders envision a network of as many as a dozen Federation-linked hubs that would blanket Los Angeles with vibrant Jewish innovation. Federation has hired Rabbi Alyson Solomon as vice president of special projects to oversee the initiative.

The goal is to help revivify Jewish life for a generation of Jews many had already written off as too independent, too multifaceted, too current to care much about being involved with Jewish institutions.

“One assumption that we made about this generation was that they were do-it-yourselfers, and they didn’t want to be in the community, they wanted to do things on their own, on their iPads, in their living rooms,” Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Federation said in a recent interview. “But the truth is, we’re seeing a resurgence of a desire to be in the Jewish community, and an interest in things in and around Jewish space.”

The Jewish community’s job now, Sanderson said, is to help create multiple points of entry, backed up by substance and meaning. He wants to see a continuum of Jewish programming that does not drop off after kids graduate college and that lasts until they send their own kids to preschool.

That period between adolescence and settling down is getting longer and longer, New York demographer Steven M. Cohen said in an interview, leaving more time for young adults to forge identities without any Jewish content. Because people are also making life decisions during that period, they could be permanently pulled away from Jewish life.

“What we’ve seen historically is we lose Jews at a certain moment, and we’re lucky to get them back. But what if we never lose them?” Sanderson asked.

The network of hubs is still just an idea — and not a penny has yet been raised to fund it.

But Federation does have some facts on the ground when it comes to engaging 18- to 40-year-olds. Over the last year, Federation has implemented an infrastructure of staff, programming, grants and collaborative efforts to reach young adults, an effort that has already begun to have an impact (see story on Page 16).

The focus on young adults emerged from two years’ worth of conversations with community members and leaders, according to Jonathan Jacoby, The Federation’s senior vice president of Programs for Jewish Life, who is leading the new initiatives.

“Let’s say there are 100,000 young Jews in this city,” he posits. “How many are doing something Jewish? 20,000? Maybe 30,000? What happens to the other 70,000? What happens to Jewish life if, let’s say, even just half of our future doesn’t have a Jewish home in our community? What does it look like in 20 years?

“The question for us, as a central institution of Jewish life, is, what is our responsibility? Is it to perpetuate what we have now or is it to pay attention to the fact that we are losing most of our people?”

The hub concept, however, is still a work in progress, so much so that Federation staff routinely refers to it as “Jhub, or whatever we end up calling it.”

While the details change every day, the goal is taking shape. Federation wants to see seven to 12 nodes of young-adult activity that will power a grid of Jewish life across the sprawl of Los Angeles. The hubs will be connected to one another and to Federation, which will provide partial financial support for activities and operation, and will conduct some joint programming, mentoring and professional resources.

In addition to working on agreements with IKAR and SIJCC, Federation also plans to renovate the Israel Levin Center, a senior day center it owns in Venice, so that it will continue to serve seniors by day, but also young adults by night.

None of these partnerships is final yet, and other potential partners also have been in on the negotiations, according to Sanderson.

Sanderson said he hoped that all the details would be ironed out by the fall.

Establishing the new centers in Silver Lake, Midcity and Venice, along with funding programs at existing institutions, would require a minimum of $10 million, probably more, Sanderson said.

Federation chairman Richard Sandler said the funding for the hubs would come from a second-line campaign, not yet launched, separate from Federation’s annual fundraising, which last year raised close to $47 million.

New programs at existing institutions would be supported through a fund called Chadesh (renew in Hebrew), a multimillion-dollar pot that institutions would be able to tap into to bring their programming to a wider audience.

Sanderson imagines that the Chadesh Fund hubs will expand the network across Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley (Conejo and South Bay would come in a later phase, he said) and promote cultural diversity and inclusiveness by bringing in the Orthodox, Persian, Russian and Israeli communities, and the LGBT population.

The hubs would tap into a variety of interests — one hub might focus on the arts, while another might focus on Jewish studies. One might be geared toward 20-somethings, another toward young families. What, exactly, the network will look like in the end depends on who presents the most compelling visions.

“We have to design this as much as a laboratory as anything else, because we really don’t know what is going to work,” Sanderson said.

He is aware that it is a risky venture.

“Part of the problem nationally is we have been risk averse, so we don’t take any chances. So you have lots of emerging social entrepreneurs, and young organizations that are actually getting some traction, but the Jewish community hasn’t supported them because we’re afraid they’ll fail, and we don’t want to show donors we make mistakes.”

For the past year, Federation has been holding focus groups with lay people and professionals, and the slow roll-out of the ideas has left a lot of room for grumbling and rumors. Still, no one would go on the record shooting down a concept that is not fully realized, especially when doing so could poison a pot they might dip into.

Some critics wonder if money is well spent focused on young adults, when things like Jewish education need funding. They also ask how Federation could justify bestowing large amounts of money on some congregations and not on others. And they wonder if new buildings are really the answer.

Sanderson says Federation will continue to fund its other programs, including social service, education and community-building, at high levels, and warns against looking at the hub project as a zero-sum game.

He points out that Federation has also opened new partnerships with synagogues, and has launched two new task forces to address other intractable issues: access and affordability of Jewish life, and inclusion — from special needs to interfaith families.

The community has been able to raise millions of dollars for emergencies, Sanderson said, and he believes they will step up in the same way for an innovative opportunity.

“This is the No. l priority at Federation, because if we can change the paradigm, then we’ve actually made sure there is a community 35 years from now,” Sanderson said. “The logic is, if we care about Jewish social services, if we care about Jewish education, if we care about Israel, this is partly an insurance policy.”

Rabbi David Wolpe, who has built a vibrant young-adults program at Sinai Temple, says he believes grousing about unfair allocations is unworthy of the community. He sees Federation’s hub idea as bold, and necessary, and he doesn’t see it as competition for traditional synagogues, but rather an opportunity for real change.

“The money should go to work where the work is being done well, and you’ll be able to kill this initiative if everyone says, ‘What about my percentage?’ ” Wolpe said.

“I sympathize with the people who will have to distribute the money because they are taking the risk of offending others. But this is really important stuff, and we should band together and try to support whoever is doing it well. And I say that as someone from a large institution not likely to benefit like some of the startups.”

One synagogue, Rabbi Mordecai Finley’s Ohr HaTorah, already has implemented its own “Hub on Venice” in its newly renovated building on Venice Boulevard and Barrington Avenue. The project is not connected to Federation’s hub idea, though Sanderson said Ohr HaTorah could potentially tap into the Chadesh Fund.

Executive director Meirav Finley said The Hub on Venice is intended as a neighborhood center, open to both Jews and non-Jews, that includes a synagogue, a preschool, a Jewish community center, a community center for the wider neighborhood, a spiritual institute and Sophos Café, which is currently open Saturday and Thursday nights for poetry, open mike and philosophical discussions. Most of the programs will launch in the fall, she said, but some neighbors are already paying attention.

“The idea is that the building can be an umbrella organization that houses different entities that stand for creating community and sustaining a life of harmony,” Finley said. 

Jill Soloway of East Side Jews says Federation’s seed money has come at a key moment for her organization, which had a precipitous launch two and a half years ago, attracting dozens, then hundreds, of people to events such as “Down to the River: A High Holy Days Tranformative Experience,” “Stupid Questions: A Jewish Comedian, a Muslim Comedian, a Rabbi and a Muslim Professor Walk Into a Bar” and this 2010 Saturday night happening at the Spice Station On Sunset: “Sacred/Profane, Spices-Frites-Beer-Havdalah, With Guest Nina Hartley on Sacred Sensuality.” 

A few months ago, Federation granted SIJCC $45,000 to partially fund a full-time program coordinator for East Side Jews, until now all volunteer-led.

Now, the group is seeking funding for the remodel of the SIJCC. The 18,600-square-foot brick building, covered in bougainvillea and — like most things in Silver Lake — built on a steep slope,  currently serves primarily as a preschool that is a focal point for young Jewish families in the area; it also houses an alternative Hebrew school program.

A gymnastics club rents out a large gym, but the old locker area is used for storage.

That is where Morse and Soloway see potential.

If they knock out a few walls and rip out the cracked marble stalls and the ’60s-era grid of tiles, they can create a 1,200-square-foot gathering space that can also be partitioned off into smaller rehearsal or recording rooms.

The multiuse space would open up to a courtyard — now a playground — and the roof would be a garden deck.

The old sauna, with benches already installed, can be a screening room. And a windowless storage room has already been designated as a studio for the artist-in-residence, Jonas N.T. Becker, a photographer and video artist who will create programming for SIJCC.

Weekdays, the open space can be partitioned as flexible workspace for people who don’t want to work at home. Sort of like a Starbucks, but not at Starbucks.

The workspace, like the program space, would be shaped by the people using it.

“Neither Ayana nor I want to be some visionary who says, ‘This is what it’s about,’ but rather we want to be people who harness a vision that is already there,” Soloway said.

Converting the locker room would cost somewhere around $300,000. That, and perhaps more, may or may not be covered by whatever agreement is worked out with Federation, but Morse said SIJCC hopes to go ahead with the project whatever the final agreement.

Meanwhile, SIJCC has already raised $140,000 to renovate the entryway of the building, redoing the parking lot and the front patio to create an inviting gathering space. The ultimate vision is to renovate the entire campus, which would be a multimillion-dollar project and likely would require that Federation partnership.

The status of Federation’s agreement with IKAR is likewise unfinished.

Last spring, Rabbi Sharon Brous shared with Sanderson and other Federation officials that she was ready to launch the next phase of IKAR’s growth — building a physical space to expand and more fully realize IKAR’s mission. Because Federation’s and IKAR’s vision dovetailed, they began exploring a collaboration.

IKAR, founded eight years ago, has more than 500 members, a large percentage of them previously unaffiliated Jews attracted to IKAR’s soulful spiritual services and the commitment to social justice.

IKAR meets at the Westside JCC (WJCC), and while Federation, IKAR and WJCC sat down several times in the spring to try to create a hub at the WJCC, the visions didn’t mesh, according to leaders from all three organizations.

So IKAR is searching for a building near its current location on the east end of L.A.’s Westside, an area with limited inventory and high prices. Brous says the project is estimated at around $25 million, but it depends on the property.

She imagines a new home with what she calls a “sacred assembly space,” where the community can gather for religious services, lectures, performances and political rallies. There might be an art studio, a music room, gallery space and small rehearsal areas. A café would provide an unthreatening location for open mike night, poetry slams and walls lined with great reading material.

She wants to see many organizations sharing the building —a way to optimize community resources and foster collaboration and creativity.

Last fall, IKAR did a soft launch of a $3 million fundraising campaign but has held off on fundraising as the partnership with Federation was hammered out.

IKAR and Federation both declined to release details of the agreement until it is final. Brous says she believes the agreement with Federation will be completed in the next month or so, but she understands that Federation has not yet raised the money to fulfill any agreement. IKAR is ready to move forward, whatever happens with Federation, she said.

“IKAR needs a home, and the home we build is going to be a center — a hub,” she said. “We’re going to build this with community partnership, and we’re hoping Federation is a major and significant partner.”

Brous says she doesn’t have concerns about partnering with an establishment organization, but Soloway admits that a young upstart getting cozy with Federation could present questions about whether Federation might get squeamish at the group’s edgier offerings.

“The people at Federation are great,” Soloway said. “They may be on Wilshire and in a building and have parking and elevators, but they come to Silver Lake, and they get what we’re doing, and they respect what we want to do. They haven’t asked us not to do anything.”

Sanderson said Federation doesn’t want to get in the way of what has already become a successful Jewish enterprise in Silver Lake.

“Silver Lake is the most interesting Jewish community in America. The diversity there is staggering — all kinds of blended families based on sexual preference, intermarriage, Jews of color. But there is a real energy happening there,” Sanderson said. “I think if we can figure out Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Echo Park, that is a model for Brooklyn, for Boston — for all over the country.”

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