Jewish Journal


April 25, 2002

Where We Were


Ten years ago, during the week of April 29, 1992, the city exploded in rioting.

Ten years after the fact, it is easy to remember the terror and the loss, but more difficult for community leaders to assess just how much repair has taken place since.

Rabbi Laura Geller, now leader of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, was at that time director of the American Jewish Congress (AJC). The AJC had prepared a program for the day that the verdicts were to be handed down. That evening found Geller at the First AME Church in the heart of the city.

"We were inside the church and didn't realize what was happening until it was time to leave, and then it was clear it wasn't safe to walk back to our cars by ourselves," she said.

Although police brutality was the spark that touched off the dynamite that April day, several other factors may have made the riots being almost inevitable: The economy was in a recession, jobs had been disappearing from Southern California and the hardest hit were those who were already down.

Some theorists say the historical precedent of the Watts riots in 1965 played a part in the hysteria; some contend the destruction following the acquittal of officers in the Rodney King beating case had its roots in the conflict over busing that divided the city and the Valley in the late 1970s. Others point to cases like that of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old black girl who was shot in the back of the head by a Korean store owner just three weeks after King's brutal arrest.

Then there are those, like radio talk show host Larry Elder, who say even the King trial itself was just an excuse. "Damian 'Football' Williams [whose attack on truck driver Reginald Denny during the riots was widely televised] did not even know the Rodney King verdict came down," Elder recently told The Journal. "People just saw an opportunity to go out and steal. What it means is, if you give a bunch of knuckleheads the opportunity to riot, they will do so."

Whatever the reasons for the 1992 L.A. riots, the results were devastating: more than 50 people were killed, either in attacks by angry mobs, riot-related accidents or in confrontations with police; more than 2,000 people were injured, and approximately 1,300 buildings were either damaged or destroyed, according to figures published in the Los Angeles Times.

"We've always talked about a melting pot in America. Well, the melting pot became a pressure cooker, and the lid was blown off -- literally and symbolically," said Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah.

Many rabbis and their congregants drove down to South Central over the following week, helping with cleanup, bringing groceries and other necessities, testing the waters and trying to make sense of it all.

"We [at the synagogue] had a very close relationship with the Messiah Baptist Church at that time," said Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel in Hollywood. "About 75 of us went down there, and they were very welcoming to us."

That week, Rosove found himself in a heartbreaking situation, torn between his desire to make a connection with the black community and his grief over of one of his synagogue's most loyal families, who had lost a son in the riots.

Howard Epstein was the one confirmed Jewish death in the murderous rage that gripped the city. His death could not have been more tragic or more ironic. Epstein, 44, who had moved his family to what he considered a safer community in Northern California, but flew back the day of the riots.

As he was driving from the airport to his business' warehouse to make sure his employees were safe, he was murdered and robbed by three men (none of whom has ever been arrested, despite the witnesses) at the corner of Slauson and Seventh avenues. It took police 24 hours to confirm his identification, because his wallet had been stolen. He left a wife and two small daughters.

For about a year after the riots, leaders from across the city seemed to pull together in a search for solutions to the problems that set things off. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) did diversity training for various groups, concentrating initially on the Korean community, which was hardest hit by the devastation.

In June 1992, Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple organized Hands Across Los Angeles, which brought together 120 religious congregations in a 10-mile solidarity march from Hollywood to South Central. Groups such as the AJC joined with other minority activists to push for police reform and were successful in getting a Charter amendment passed, giving the Los Angeles Police Commission greater authority over the department.

However, over time, many efforts to unify and heal the city faded. As the economy started to improve in the mid-1990s, other concerns took precedence for both the black community and the Jewish community in Los Angeles.

The political and religious climate became more partisan, even as new coalitions between Jews and Latinos were born. Older leaders of black churches retired and new ones arose, younger men and women with no memory of the civil rights movement. They were less inclined toward interfaith dialogue and more inclined toward concentrating on their own backyard.

"There seems to be less and less interest in the Jewish community in the interests of the city, and that is a concern, because you have to take care of your city first," Geller said.

On the other hand, some efforts have continued. Temple Israel sponsored a Mitzvah Day event April 21. Among the projects was one to paint a mural and make other improvements at the 107th Street School in Watts with the help of 55 religious and secular community groups. Former ADL Director David Lehrer is seeking to put together a new human relations organization, co-chaired by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, to galvanize Los Angeles' corporate and other leadership to work on issues of diversity and tolerance.

The question still lingers, however: Given the current economic climate, could riots happen again?

Doug Mirell, director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, said that where there is great inequity between the haves and have-nots, the condition exists that can lead to renewed strife.

"I don't want to by suggesting it to encourage it, but one worries whether the seeds that sprang to life 10 years ago have been eradicated or are just lying dormant," Mirell said. "Only time will tell.People living in a community as diverse as ours need to be concerned about how do you make this mix work, [but] most communal organizations out there don't regard intergroup relations as very important, and that is an unfortunate development."

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