Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin can't stop laughing.
No really, I tell him, according to the numbers, the Orthodox community is shrinking.
He takes a deep breath.
"I'm trying not to get upset here," says Cunin, sovereign of West Coast Chabad for the past 36 years. "But you have to be blind to say that.
"Have you counted the kosher restaurants? The schools? And the mikvahs - just look at the mikvahs!"
Actually, I have counted, and the numbers are pretty impressive. About 130 kosher restaurants, bakeries and markets, 5,200 kids in Orthodox day schools and about 80 shuls, from Chasidic to liberal Orthodox. And that's stretching from the Beverly-La Brea community all the way out to the Ventura County line in Conejo, and down through Irvine and Long Beach.
I grew up in the '70s and '80s in Los Angeles, and I remember the days of Nosh N'Rye and Kosher Nostra - and that was it. And that's not even going back as far as Hartman's, the only kosher restaurant in town till the early '70s. There were three day schools, North Hollywood was the only Valley outpost, there were a dozen or so Orthodox shuls, and when you saw a shtreimel or even a black hat walking down the street on Shabbos, it was odd enough to make you stop and point.
And you're telling me - and the rest of this flourishing and vibrant Orthodox community - that our numbers have shrunk since the late '70s?
Yes, says Pini Herman, principal investigator of the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey, presented by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Close your collective jaws and look at the evidence. In a 1979 survey, those defining themselves as Orthodox constituted 5 percent of the Los Angeles Jewish population, at 11,400 households.
Today, Orthodox households number 10,600, making up just 4 percent of the population of 248,000 Jewish households in Los Angeles, the Valley and South Bay. Compare those numbers with about 18,000 Orthodox households, out of 104,000 Jewish, in 1953.
"I can't understand what they mean. It defies reason," says Rabbi Gershon Bess, a leader in the Beverly-La Brea area. "On just one street, on Detroit Street, we counted, Baruch Hashem [thank God], over 200 children."
Exactly the point, says Herman. It's a classic case of ecological fallacy - when you are part of a community, you assume everyone is like you. "When you live in Chinatown, you think everyone is Chinese," he says. Outsiders might also tend to overestimate the number of Orthodox Jews because they are more visible. For example, says Bruce Phillips, a sociologist who also researched the study, Americans estimate that 20 to 25 percent of the population is Jewish, when it is in fact 2 percent.
The rightward shift of Orthodoxy could explain some of the perception that more people are Orthodox - more people dress the part, and as such stand out. Still, even if the perceptions are inflated, how do you explain the number of institutions? Let's just look at kosher restaurants.
"When I was dating in the '60s, we had Hartman's on Fairfax and Sixth. That was where you had business meetings, dates - that was it," says Michelle Harlow, whose parents, Anne and the late William Bernstein, were pioneers of the Los Angeles Jewish community.
Today, there is a menu for every taste and occasion, in about six distinct geographic areas. "That just shows that the leisure activity has changed. That shows socioeconomically what the Orthodox community can afford," counters Herman, which also might explain why attendance at Orthodox day schools has more than doubled in the last 20 years.
And, he adds, clusters of Orthodox establishments - shuls, restaurants or bookstores - can just signify a geographic shift rather than actual growth. A new mikvah in the Pico area might mean the death of one in Fairfax.
Miriam Prum Hess, director of planning and allocations at the Federation, adds another explanation for the restaurant phenomenon. Not everyone who utilizes an Orthodox establishment, whether it be a pizza shop, a mikvah or a day school, is necessarily Orthodox.
"I think we're seeing more observance in the Conservative community, as well as the observant ethnic community of Persian Jews," she says.
Certainly, the conservatively estimated 30,000 Persian Jews in L.A. add an interesting factor to the analysis.
Like Sephardic Jews, Persians don't define themselves within the standard American slots of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist.
"Back home we had one monolithic community in terms of worship and belief, so we didn't have these names," says Rabbi David Shofet, leader of Nessah Israel Congregation, a 700-family cultural and educational center in Santa Monica. That pattern persists here, where even if observance levels differ, no one labels anyone else.
Today, many of the kosher establishments, especially on Pico, are owned by Persian Jews. "We needed the special spices and greenery, and we couldn't get them here. That was the kernel for the huge markets like Pico Glatt and Eilat Market," Shofet says. Persian-owned establishments have effectively changed the face of kosher cuisine in L.A. Cunin takes issue with these labels altogether. "Calling myself Orthodox doesn't mean I am any holier and calling myself Reform doesn't release me of the responsibility I have to God, the Torah and the Holy Land of Israel," Cunin says. Rather, Judaism is Judaism, Torah is Torah, and people's observance is a personal matter of where they are in their journey.
"If you approach a Chabadnik on the street and say 'Are you Orthodox?' they would laugh in your face," he says. "If you asked one of the Russian immigrants who come to our schools, they would just walk away."
My unresearched intuition is that the 1953 survey, which found about 18,000 Orthodox households in L.A., included a good number of first-generation Americans who knew only Orthodoxy from back home, who attended an Orthodox synagogue two or three times a year, who sent their kids to the only day schools around. They were more Orthodox by default than by conviction.
That might explain why the 1997 survey also found that three out of four people who say their parents were Orthodox are not now Orthodox. Perhaps it was not a meaningful Orthodox upbringing they left. Perhaps those same families who called themselves Orthodox in 1953 would call themselves Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist today.
So if the rosters have shrunk, maybe it is because they are no longer padded with people who never enjoyed a fulfilling Orthodox life. And if that is true, maybe the converse is as well. Those who define themselves as Orthodox today do so with pride and conviction, with a dedication to creating a rich, meaningful life for themselves and their children.
That is certainly true of the ba'alei teshuvah, the 30 percent of the Orthodox community who grew up outside of Orthodoxy.
A qualitatively stronger, if quantitatively smaller, community could also explain the boom in schools, eateries and shuls.
The boom goes well beyond the basics: Los Angeles is now home to an active bikur cholim society, which tends to the needs of the ill and their families; adult education for men and women at all levels; women's tefillah groups; kollels, where the community supports men who study Torah all day long. None of these institutions is absolutely necessary.
Rather, they indicate that the community has matured beyond subsistence and is flourishing. So in the end, is their any harm in overestimating our size?
Phillips, who with Herman now runs Phillips and Herman Demographic Research, says there is grave danger.
"If they believe their own propaganda, they are going to make communal and financial decisions that endanger existing Orthodox institutions," he says. "That means creating an overly ambitious building plan, that means you hire teachers you can't pay. A distorted image stretches resources too thin." And he says that can hurt not just the Orthodox but the wider community that uses the valuable services the Orthodox provide.
Meanwhile, on Pico alone, the Orthodox Union just opened a new building, YULA and Aish HaTorah are under construction and Chabad just purchased another couple of sites on Pico adjacent to its existing preschool-through-high-school buildings.
As for Rabbi Cunin; "It all depends on what kind of glasses you are wearing, what type of outcome you intended before you started," he says. "Shrinking?" He laughs. And laughs, and laughs, and laughs.