"Are there really Jews in Pasadena?" is the question asked of Pasadena Jews, despite the fact that the Pasadena Jewish community is one of the oldest in Los Angeles.
But today that question is asked less frequently. What was once a blue-blood enclave is now becoming a more ethnic-friendly place, and the Jewish community, while not exactly thriving, is definitely growing.
With a new young rabbi at the 83-year-old Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (PJTC), who has ambitious plans to expand the community's influence, and a Chabad House that is building a mikvah and renovating its property to accommodate the scores who will attend High Holiday services there, Jewish life in Pasadena no longer need be a source of surprise.
Home to the Rose Bowl, Pasadena is a tony suburb northeast of Los Angeles. It is located in the San Gabriel Valley, a place that for years accommodated hostility toward blacks and Jews. The American Nazi Party had its headquarters in nearby El Monte. The virulently right-wing John Birch Society made its home in neighboring San Marino. In Pasadena there was a "gentleman's agreement" among real-estate agents not to sell property to Jews in certain neighborhoods, according to Steve Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Los Angeles.
Jews have had a presence in Pasadena since the late 1800s, yet many of the few thousand who lived there preferred to go unnoticed. Even the PJTC, which for years was the only Jewish organization in Pasadena, didn't want to be "too Jewish." It affiliated with the Conservative movement, but was reluctant to impose standards of Shabbat and kashrut observance on its members.
"There was also a perception that the areas east of Los Angeles were places that Jews could go and disappear, and I am sure that happened in terms of affiliation and identification," Sass said.
But things started to change in the latter part of the 20th century. Not only did anti-Semitism die down, but Jewish identity became more fashionable. Now, Pasadena is slowly starting to establish itself as an alternative Jewish address to the city and the Valley. It is no longer solely a home to those with old money -- now it attracts Yuppies, many of them Jewish, with good jobs at places like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the City of Hope Medical Center, Caltech and Occidental College.
"I think that Pasadena has a serious potential of becoming an attractive Jewish community, even in the eyes of those living on the Westside, and even among Orthodox Jews," said Rabbi Chaim Hanoka of the Pasadena Chabad House, which is currently embarking on a $350,000 renovation project. "I am always getting calls from people living on the Westside, inquiring about moving here. It is just a matter of time."
Joshua Levine Grater, the new rabbi at PJTC, said that he hopes that the Pasadena community will not only become more observant, but will form stronger alliances with the city and valley communities.
"If we can raise the level of awareness [of kashrut] then there is no reason that kosher businesses can't come here," said Grater, who started work at PTJC in the middle of August.
Grater plans to attract city attention to Pasadena with scholars-in-residence programs and lecture series.
Both PJTC and the Chabad community said that a large percentage of their congregants are professionals working at JPL or City of Hope, and that there is a lot of room for their communities to grow because of the large number of unaffiliated Jews in Pasadena.
Hanoka moved to Pasadena eight years ago from Los Angeles. His first Pasadena event was free High Holiday services in a hotel. He came knowing no one, and he advertised his services in the local papers. To his surprise, more than 150 people showed up. This year, Hanoka is expecting 200 people for the High Holidays, and he also has plans to build a mikvah and to get more kosher food available in Pasadena.
"There has certainly been growth in terms of numbers, and over time a number of the families became observant," Hanoka said. "And then a number of them moved. As much as I would have liked them to stay, currently we don't have enough for them religiously. But we are growing, and we will continue to grow."
Grater said that he wants to incorporate his interest in sports, popular music and nature into his religious platform, and encourage his congregation to do things "more and more with the Jewish lens."
"We would like to grow, and one of the main reasons I came here is that I saw the potential," he said. "More people are moving to this area, and when they come here and see a beautiful space, a vibrant Hebrew school and committed people, they will want to learn and pray -- and do."
For information on PTJC, call (626) 798-1161. For information on Chabad of Pasadena, call (626) 564-8820.