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Move Over, Los Angeles

With new residents, housing and an infusion of cash, O.C. Jews work toward building a strong community.


by Karen Alexander

August 30, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Congregants of Chabad of Yorba Linda light a Chanukah menorah.

Congregants of Chabad of Yorba Linda light a Chanukah menorah.

While the kosher butcher prepares her order, a Jewish city councilwoman chats with other customers about her upcoming campaign.

Within a few miles of where she buys lamb chops for her family, ambitious building projects worth at least $30 million are under way -- or recently completed -- at five different synagogues and three Jewish day schools. Meanwhile, community leaders secretly put the finishing touches on their soon-to-be announced plans for a cutting-edge Jewish Community Center and mega-campus for Jewish agencies.

Welcome to Orange County, where the Jewish community is in the midst of a growth spurt unlike anything in its history.

Long considered a distinctly non-Jewish place, Los Angeles County's suburban Southern neighbor is flush with new residents, new housing and an infusion of cash from the economic boom of the last several years.

There are some 24 different congregations in Orange County and an estimated 60,000 to 90,000 Jews. Enrollment at the three Jewish day schools totals more than 1,000 students. And now this growing community is working furiously to create places it can call home.

"This place has blossomed," says Rabbi David Eliezre of Chabad in Yorba Linda. "I think it's a community that is beginning to find itself."

The Jews of Orange County are coming out of the closet.

In cities such as Newport Beach, Aliso Viejo, Mission Viejo and especially Irvine, once scattered pockets of Jewish families are reaching critical mass. Today, all three of the county's Jewish day schools, and nearly every congregation in South Orange County, is under construction or has a newly completed building project.

"We're in the middle of a huge evolution," says Beth Krom, who is currently one of two Jewish members on the Irvine City Council.

Jewish leaders attribute the booming interest to a number of recent changes, particularly the influx of young families to the newly developed Southern reaches of Orange County. In cities such as Anaheim and Fullerton in the North of the county, where the Jewish community has deep roots, some congregations are aging and dwindling in size. As the Jewish population shifts south to newer, more affluent areas, the locus of Jewish life in this sprawling county of about 3 million people has shifted too.

No doubt the changing demographics have played a major role, but so has the arrival of just one family. Call this the Samueli factor.

Broadcom Corp. co-founder Henry Samueli and his wife, Susan, have poured more than $30 million into Jewish causes in Orange County since his Irvine-based company's spectacular debut on Wall Street three years ago. Perhaps most significantly, they quietly gave $20 million this spring to purchase the land for a planned Jewish Community Center and campus adjacent to Tarbut v'Torah, the high-tech Jewish day school in Irvine.

Samueli says he and Susan were surprised by the lack of Jewish infrastructure in Orange County when Broadcom relocated its headquarters from Westwood to Irvine in 1995. "We assumed there would be temples and we would continue life as Jews," says Samueli, a son of Holocaust survivors who grew up in West Hollywood and then the San Fernando Valley. "But most of the Jews in Orange County seemed to be relatively unaffiliated. They just disappeared into society."

When they went looking for Temple Beth El, the only congregation in South Orange County at the time, Henry and Susan drove past the synagogue several times before they realized it consisted of a series of trailers, he says.

Three years later, the Samuelis' fingerprints are on a number of new Jewish facilities in Orange County, including Beth El's lavish new 65,000-square-foot temple in Aliso Viejo.

But intentions for the new Jewish Community Center have so far been kept under wraps. The land was purchased clandestinely at the end of June to head off competing bids, and plans will remain hush-hush until additional donors can be lined up. In all, the project will require some $20 million more to be raised before it is completed in the next two to three years.

"I know we feel very comfortable that the community can support it," says Donna Van Slyke, director of adult services at the Jewish Community Center of Orange County; the center has outgrown its current facilities in Costa Mesa and will relocate to considerably better digs in Irvine when the campus is complete.

"Our Jewish community is somewhat newer here, and we don't have the endowments and the families that have been here for 100 years," Van Slyke said, comparing Orange County to regions with more established Jewish communities. "But we're starting to have families in congregations that are multigenerational. We've grown up together, and I think that is starting to make the difference. People are starting to have roots here, and that didn't used to be the case."

As new young families move to Orange County, their parents and grandparents are following suit with increasing frequency, Bunnie Mauldin, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, says. "While this has not really been considered a multigenerational community, we're kind of coming to it through the back door. People are moving here because they want to be close to their children."

There is surely no shortage of momentum to fuel this growth spurt. The sense of enthusiasm is palpable, as is the construction dust settling over many a temple parking lot. But the Jews of Orange County face formidable challenges before so many architectural drawings can become buildings, before buildings become communities.

Spread out among 33 cities and nearly 800 square miles of land, it's difficult to feel a sense of cohesion in Orange County. And with so many projects and capital campaigns under way at the same time, active participants in the community say it often feels like the same people are called on to contribute or take on leadership roles again and again. Add that to the slowing economy, and some organizations could have a tougher time with their capital campaigns than they have anticipated.

The Jewish Federation of Orange County estimates that only about one-fifth of the county's Jewish population is affiliated with any type of synagogue or Jewish organization. In Los Angeles, by comparison, a Federation study in 2000 revealed that one-third of Jews who were surveyed said they were dues-paying members of a synagogue.

Philanthropic contributions to Jewish causes in Orange County have traditionally paled in comparison to other communities. The Federation consistently raises about $2 million a year. "It's a disgrace," says Rabbi Joel Landau of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Irvine. "Communities that are tiny give more than we do."

This year the Jewish Federation of Orange County's total number of dollars raised was up slightly from the previous year, but the number of donors actually declined, says executive director Mauldin.

"There may be as many as 90,000 Jews in Orange County, but we have in our database only 18,000 households," she says. "It's kind of mind-boggling what this community might be able to do if we can find a way of locating the Jewish people.

"A lot of people who move to Orange County have been active in their local communities, wherever they came from," Mauldin says. "Then they come here, and they don't want to connect. It's a very puzzling situation," she says.

Yet even with a relatively low percentage of active, affiliated Jews, the community has built Jewish institutions and organizations across the denominational and political spectrum -- from a sprawling Chabad network to a growing American Jewish Committee; from the preschool at the JCC in Irvine to the 175-unit Heritage Pointe Jewish Home for the Aging of Orange County and Long Beach located in Mission Viejo.

To Hinda Beral, who moved to Newport Beach more than 30 years ago from Long Beach, the challenge of raising children in a place where there was little in the way of Jewish life was countered by the excitement of being able to build a community almost from scratch.

"You get to leave your mark on it. You get to shape things," says Beral, who started the American Jewish Committee's Orange County branch in 1981. "Generally, people from other places where there were not a lot of Jews thought that was exciting, but people who came from established Jewish communities were disappointed."

"I can't tell you how many times my husband would come home from work and tell me that someone he knew was being transferred down here," Beral recalls. "And inevitably he'd say to me, 'Would you talk to his wife because she's sure there are no Jews here.'"

Over the years, Beral says she has witnessed what she calls "two waves of Jewish immigration" into Orange County, both of which coincide with periods when the county received large numbers of new white residents.

The first wave, she says, came in the mid-1970s, when the business community in Orange County first began to take off and when the Los Angeles Unified School District began busing students around the city in order to better integrate the schools. Many Jewish families fled to Orange County.

The second wave was during the most recent economic boom, when thousands of new housing units were built and a new fledgling technology sector sprang from the ruins of the aerospace industry's collapse in the early 1990s.

Roz Vogelfanger was part of the second wave. A former Hebrew teacher who moved to Newport Beach from Houston to be close to her children and grandsons, Vogelfanger says that being a part of a developing Jewish community can sometimes be more fulfilling than living in a long-established one.

"I think in many ways it is more welcoming," she says. "There may not be an entrenched Old Guard, and I think that people who are interested can probably make their mark. A relative newcomer might not have the same kind of impact in a community that is better established."

While this current momentum is unprecedented, there have been Jews in the county since at least 1870, according to Polly Sloan of the year-old Jewish Historical Society of Orange County. In 1881, she says, Anaheim had a Jewish mayor named Benjamin Dreyfus, who operated the principal winery there.

An Anaheim newspaper article in 1880 stated: "On Wednesday, owing to the closing of many of the stores on account of it being a Jewish holiday, the town was abnormally quiet and dull," Sloan recites.

Small pockets of Jews in Anaheim and Santa Ana organized minyans in each others' homes, or met in churches. They borrowed Torahs from other communities, and some old-timers remember their families driving their live, cackling chickens to Long Beach so they could be properly kashered by a rabbi.

But in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Anaheim. Over the decades, the county's longtime reputation for anti-Semitism and hard-line political conservatism discouraged many Jews from moving to the region. And it kept many of the Jews who were in Orange County from establishing a strong sense of community.

Despite several organized minyans and fledgling Jewish organizations and aid societies in the first half of the century, Orange County's first long-lasting congregation was not formed until 1943. Today it's known as Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana.

"For so many years, Jews here in Orange County felt the need to assimilate and become part of the general society. They felt excluded," Mauldin says. "Over the period of a generation or so, we learned how to assimilate. We did it almost too well, and we were on the brink of possibly losing some of our uniqueness."

But among the young families, especially those who have young children, Mauldin says, there has been a renewed interest in the community. "I've seen a resurgence of the need to connect to Judaism," she says.

Los Angeles native Rabbi Allen Krause, now of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo says, "I surely grew up thinking Orange County was a vast wasteland. But people are coming here not so much afraid anymore. It's a place where you can come and live a pretty good Jewish life right now."

Moshe Zelig couldn't agree more. His grocery and butcher shop, in a strip mall in Tustin, isn't just the most popular kosher market in Orange County. It's the only one.

Zelig, who still lives in Northridge, spent 17 years as a grocer in the highly competitive terrain of Los Angeles' thriving Pico-Robertson Jewish community. He became familiar with Orange County while his son attended UC Irvine. His old store, Carmel Kosher on Pico Boulevard, had customers who drove all the way from Orange County to buy his goods.

Zelig gave up his shop in Los Angeles for one in Tustin almost two years ago. And, he says proudly, business at O.C. Kosher Market is booming. He has customers from San Diego, Mission Viejo, Yorba Linda and Long Beach.

Since he opened, Zelig says he has helped dozens of Orange County families begin keeping kosher kitchens in their homes. "My wife thought I was crazy," he says of the move south, "but I gambled."

Krom, the Irvine councilwoman, chats with Zelig while she shops. "If you had told me 15 years ago that we'd have such a nice kosher market in Orange County, I wouldn't have believed it," she says. "Then again, nobody can believe there are Democrats in Orange County, either."

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