February 10, 2005
Window to the Future
It's easy to be a Jew on the Westside or in the West Valley. The nonobservant or even the alienated can be part of the Jewish ambience, especially in places like Pico-Robertson or parts of Ventura Boulevard.
It's different in the Southland's far suburbs. Elections aren't swung by the Jewish vote nor are hotel banquet rooms full of Jewish political contributors. There is a scarcity of Jewish religious, educational and cultural institutions and even delis.
Even so, the suburbs offer a window into the future of the Jewish community, just as they have always done with other aspects of life in the Southland. Nowhere is this more true than in the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys, a vast laboratory of life in the new L.A. County, where middle-class people of many ethnic groups live together, sometimes in perfect harmony but often in dissonance. Among them are about 7,000 Jews, scattered over the 1,200-square-mile area that stretches from Pasadena to the eastern edge of Los Angeles County.
What we can learn from the Jewish community in the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys is something that politics have long struggled with -- how to bring together people in sprawling suburbs, where identity more often than not is rooted in family, house, backyard, neighborhood and the other components of the California suburban dream.
"People can get lost here very easily," said Larry Harris, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. "They can choose not to be Jewish here much more easily than in Los Angeles. They also feel less connected, because of the lack of Jewish institutions."
We talked in the Federation office in Covina, in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley. In the past, I'd roamed the valley, often writing about politics for the Los Angeles Times, fascinated with the way Asians and Latinos were winning elections to school boards and city councils, a prelude to their growing influence in statewide politics.
Their political organizing was not as difficult a task as that facing Harris and other Jewish community leaders in the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys. There are distinct Latino and Asian American communities, while Jews are scattered.
On the plus side, Harris feels that he has a receptive potential audience.
"No matter where Jews are in our area, they feel a sense of connection, because of Jews feeling responsible for one another," he said.
The Federation has developed a plan to mobilize that sense of connection. The synagogues are a key part of this. There are 12 of them in the area served by the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys Federation, ranging from the large Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center to the smaller Temple Sholem of Ontario. In addition, there are two Jewish day schools and thriving Hillels at Cal Poly Pomona and the Claremont Colleges, where Hank Krieger, the Federation president, is a math professor at Harvey Mudd College.
Harris sees the Federation's job as providing a link between such diverse and scattered institutions.
"The way we are approaching our diverse population is to take our services and programs to the neighborhoods," he said. "We have started parlor meetings, where we meet in different homes, opening up a dialogue, finding out what the issues are."
Not too different, actually, than the long established tradition of political campaigns hosting living-room coffee sessions.
In addition, the Federation sponsors events designed to attract Jews from all over the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys. A major one is the Jewish Book Festival, which recently celebrated its sixth year. Events are held in area synagogues, a plan that introduces people to a number of synagogues, as well as exposing them to new books and authors. Programs for seniors, a summer camp for children at Camp Gan Shalom and the annual women's forum also bring people together.
What's lacking are the big day schools, colleges and institutions, such as the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball, which provide focus for the Jewish community on the West Side and in the West Valley.
While the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys Federation has its own Super Sunday to raise money, and the valleys have what Harris called "pockets of wealth," the area does not have the depth of affluence that has built Los Angeles' large and often elaborate facilities.
"We can't expect people to come to us. We have to go the people," Harris said. "It's not 'if we build it they will come,' because they won't necessarily come."
It took years of such outreach for Latino and Asian American political organizers to begin to gain a foothold. But their efforts were a prelude to current success -- a Latino speaker of the state Assembly and a growing number of districts represented by Latinos and Asian Americans.
The current efforts of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys Federation may show how the Jewish community will deal with the inevitable dispersion and potential for defection, as real estate prices drive young Jewish families away from the West Side and West Valley neighborhoods.
Bill Boyarsky's column on Jews and civic life appears each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at email@example.com.