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Jewish Journal

Santa Barbara Sees Growth Spurt

by Gaby Wenig

June 10, 2004 | 8:00 pm

The home of UC Santa Barbara Hillel is the Milton Roisman Jewish Student Center

The home of UC Santa Barbara Hillel is the Milton Roisman Jewish Student Center

It's Friday night at Young Israel of Santa Barbara, and an enthusiastic chorus of seven men and eight women sing Shabbat prayers while banging on the tables in rhythm to the melody.

At least two of the 15 in this Orthodox storefront shul are not Jewish, but that doesn't appear to be issue enough to dampen their enthusiasm for davening or the in-shul Shabbat meal that follows.

"The title on my autobiography is going to be '12 Men and No Minyan,'" joked Rabbi Zev Schwarcz, who moved to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles nine months ago to assume leadership of the tiny congregation.

Schwarcz is eager to realize the development potential in Santa Barbara's Jewish community. Non-Jews notwithstanding, in this community of 7,000, his rabbinate is one of several recent signs of growth:

  • A new Chabad opened up at UCSB, and the regular Santa Barbara Chabad is planning a large expansion of its three-acre property, including a new synagogue;

  • Later this month, Reform Congregation B'nai B'rith, the oldest and largest of Santa Barbara's five synagogues, will appoint a new rabbi -- Steven Cohen -- formally of UCSB Hillel;

  • Thanks to Schwarcz, there are now at least two kosher establishments in town: The Chocolate Gallery and Our Daily Bread, with possibly more to come;

  • A record increase of enrollment in B'nai B'rith's preschool and confirmation classes and in the religious school of The Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara, which is an alternative congregation that meets once a month in different people's houses.

  • This weekend, the Jewish Federation of Santa Barbara, which has tripled in size over the past five years, will celebrate its 30th anniversary with an open house on Sunday and a $1,000-a-plate dinner on Saturday night.

    "It is thriving," said Karen Schloss Heimberg, the president of B'nai B'rith, said of the Jewish community. "Twenty years ago when I came here it wasn't like that at all. There were no young families at temple, I was the only newlywed and there were four or five kids in confirmation class. This year there were 29 kids. It's so much more vibrant than it was."

    But while the Jewish world welcomes communal growth, city growth is a contentious issue in Santa Barbara. It's a city that inspires serious devotion to its status quo and, consequently, a fear of messing with the formula.

    Nestled on the craggy but verdant coastline slightly more than 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles, enveloped by a temperate climate all year round, Santa Barbara and the nearby cities of Montecito, Hope Ranch and Goleta have long been places that want to keep themselves small so as to provide respite for those tired of the maddening hustle of the city. Santa Barbara's reputation of exclusivity is only bolstered by its real estate: the median price for houses is more than $900,000. And while locals are quick to point out that not everyone who lives there is affluent, and that UCSB is one of the biggest employers in the city, Santa Barbara and its environs still attract wealthy retirees and has enough Hollywood A-list homeowners, like Ivan Reitman and Oprah Winfrey, to make it several cuts above your average neighborhood.

    "It's heaven," said Bruce Corwin, a past member of B'nai B'rith and the president of Metropolitan Theaters, which has operated theatres in Santa Barbara for more than 50 years. "The weather is perfect, the community is small and they keep it small. You can't build too much, you can't build huge homes, you can't expand your business too much. In Santa Barbara less is more."

    And so the Jewish community makes more from less, working together and trying to avoid turf wars.

    At UCSB, Chabad works with Hillel on campus. Hillel is pleased that Cohen, its rabbi of 19 years, will be moving to B'nai B'rith, because it will unite the on- and off-campus communities. And B'nai B'rith, which had some trouble with rabbis coming and going in the past 10 years, is looking forward to having a local rabbi who is popular and well-known.

    "Santa Barbara is a small Jewish community, so it's very common for people to belong to [a few] different groups," said Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer of The Community Shul.

    But sometimes growth will stir up cohesiveness and unity issues. The Federation's dinner this weekend, which will honor Adam Bronfman, the son of World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman, and Ruth Harter, former head of the Santa Barbara Anti-Defamation League, will start at 6 p.m. on Saturday night -- before Shabbat has ended. That caused some consternation on the part of the Orthodox community and Santa Barbara's Jewish Secular Society, which found the dinner's timing disrespectful and contrary to the Federation's policy of pluralism. Federation representatives did not return The Journal's calls.

    However, community members are hopeful that despite conflicts like the dinner on Shabbat, the community will continue to move forward.

    "Even with that situation occurring, we as a community are working hard to come together and find the common ground between us," Schloss Heimberg said.

    For more information on Jewish Santa Barbara, visit www.ucsbhillel.org .

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