B'nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester is in the northern tip of the South Bay's small, self-contained Jewish community. Its Manchester Boulevard sanctuary has 204 seats, and as synagogue president Tony Schaffer said, "We bring in a good 40 to 60 people on a Saturday and we will fill the place on bar mitzvah."
The South Bay's four Chabads, four Conservative and two Reform synagogues serve small Jewish congregations in a region near to -- but a 405 Freeway removed from -- Westside and San Fernando Valley boulevards teeming with Jewish life.
Clean air, unclogged streets, horse trails, surf and small, familial synagogues give South Bay Jews their own relaxed rhythm. Redondo Beach's Temple Menorah, for example, has its Reform rabbi's study facing the ocean.
"In a sense we've always been like a stepchild," said Robin Franko, who late last year became the new director of the Torrance-based Jewish Federation South Bay Council, part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. She grew up in Rancho Palos Verdes, where for 40 years she has attended the 620-family Congregation Ner Tamid.
"The reality of Jewish South Bay life is that there's a lot going on at each one of the synagogues," Franko said. "But 90 percent of the Jews living in the South Bay are not affiliated."
There are about 40,000 Jews living between Westchester and San Pedro.
"If you're on the Westside and you drive around, you see Jews all over the place; we have none of that here," said Franko, a retired navigation systems engineer who speaks Hebrew at home with her Israeli-born husband and their three children. "The South Bay, other than the synagogues, lacks physical signs of being Jewish."
To correct this, Franko began various initiatives, including restarting the Federation's long-dormant South Bay quarterly newsletter, mailing it out to 5,500 local Jewish homes. For the Federation's Feb. 22 regional Super Sunday fundraiser, banners are being hoisted in Westchester, Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes and San Pedro to announce South Bay fundraising at Redondo Beach's Crowne Plaza Hotel.
"Everybody in the South Bay seems to be allied in wanting the Federation to do well; it's a close community," said Linda Saper, executive director at the 350-family Temple Menorah. But retirees Ziggy and Roz Gottlieb, active in the local B'nai B'rith chapter for 35 years, expressed skepticism about Super Sunday fundraising because they know longtime South Bay Jewish philanthropists are frustrated at having little locally generated Federation money remain for local projects.
"A lot of these big givers have stopped giving -- the money is not coming back to us," Roz Gottlieb said. "We raise a lot of money here in the South Bay and it's taken into the [San Fernando] Valley and into the Westside and they [L.A.-based Federation executives] don't feel like we need money here."
Franko said South Bay-generated Federation funds are sent elsewhere because the Westside and San Fernando Valley have larger needy Jewish populations, including senior citizens and immigrants. "We don't have tons of poor people, we don't have a tremendous number of neglected people."
"It's also true that the Federation had more of a presence many years ago than it has had recently," Franko said. "There is a very strong desire within the Federation to change that. And that's one of the reasons they hired me."
The South Bay Federation is launching three new outreach campaigns. Through its Jewish Family Service, it is expanding its visits to homebound South Bay Jewish seniors and is also expanding a discussion group for grandparents who find themselves raising their grandchildren.
On April 18, the South Bay will see its communitywide Holocaust commemoration at Temple Menorah. Survivor Klara Halberstadt will be there to see the performance of her play, "I Go Dancing," followed by a dessert reception.
In June, South Bay Jews will start their most ambitious fundraising campaign, raising $900,000 to expand local Jewish community activities.
"Long after all of us have passed," Franko said, "there will still be a viable Jewish community."
This comes after failed Federation efforts in the mid-1990s, when plans were made and then scrapped to build a community center.
Now, the Federation's South Bay Development Project will match the $900,000 expected to be raised with another $900,000 from the trust fund account gleaned from the recent sale of the Federation building in Torrance, creating a $1.8 million endowment by late 2005.
"The South Bay is who we are," said Schaffer, B'nai Tikvah's president. "I've often thought of us as sort of the Diaspora of Los Angeles. We're not a densely populated Jewish community, so we have to program ourselves differently."