Jewish Journal

Social Justice gets new address on Pico

by Amy Klein

Posted on Dec. 14, 2006 at 7:00 pm

When Max Webb was interned at 18 different concentration camps during the Holocaust, he made a promise.

"If he survived, he would make sure he would contribute to the advancement of the Jewish people and Judaism in any way he could," said his grandson, Greg Podell, the director of the Max Webb Family Foundation.

Webb has made good on that promise, donating to causes in Israel and to local Jewish charities, including The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. And now, as he's about to turn 90, his foundation has purchased a plot of land for $3 million for a center to house two socially conscious Jewish organizations: Ikar, a Jewish spiritual community that "stands at the intersection of spirituality and social justice," and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), which "connects Jews to critical social issues of the day."

These two groups, which often work together, have until now had temporary homes at the Westside JCC on Olympic Boulevard, but in two years -- the projected date for the project's completion -- they will share The Max and Sala Webb Center for Progressive Judaism, as it has been tentatively named. The 20,000 square-foot center -- price tag unknown -- will be located at Pico Boulevard and Alvira Street (between Crescent Heights and La Cienega boulevards), on the eastern edge of the Pico-Robertson religious community and, the organizations hope, will serve as a nexus for a spiritual, socially conscious community.

PJA's founding executive director, Daniel Sokatch, loves the location of the new center, on the eastern border of where Pico- Robertson merges with Korean, Latino and African American Los Angeles.

"How appropriate it is for a building like this," he said. "It nicely symbolizes the coalitional nature of our work, of being a Jewish voice in the progressive community and a progressive voice in the Jewish community."

PJA was founded in 1999, and with the newly opened San Francisco branch, has a membership list of 4,000.

The donation came about after Podell attended Ikar and became involved in PJA; he introduced his grandfather to the leaders of both organizations.

"We're inspired by the fact that they're able to get both young people and grandparents interested, not only in Judaism but in social justice," Podell said. "We decided we wanted to give them a home -- we wanted them to have this space to have their visions and dreams."

Those dreams include a center that's "bigger than our individual organizations," said Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar. "We want it to be about the vision."

The vision is of a progressive Jewish spiritual outreach center.

"It will be a place where the spiritual, social, and political will intersect," she said. "It will be a concrete spot on the map where we can engage ideas and people spiritually, politically and intellectually -- not only impacting the Jewish community but playing a really significant role in the life of the city."

Brous and Sokatch plan to use the center for many of the activities in which they are already engaged, from services on Shabbat and holidays, a beit midrash learning center, children's education programs and lecture series, as well as community action programs, such as mediation training for PJA volunteers working with juvenile offenders, conducting Muslim Jewish Dialogue, hosting food drives and helping to organize low-wage workers.

"To have a physical space in which to educate and organize the community is beautiful thing," said Sokatch, noting that one of their biggest challenges is explaining to the Jewish community "why we do the things we do."

Brous, who founded Ikar in the spring of 2004, was completely taken off guard by the donation.

"I'm stunned by it," she said. "We didn't have anything when we started. We didn't have any money. We didn't have a location. We just had this vision."

That vision emerged from conversations Brous had in 2000 with young Jews around the country "who were expressing a profound lack of connection to synagogues and their modes of Jewish engagement," she said.

Brous wanted to create a new model of a Jewish spiritual community (she doesn't like Ikar to be referred to as a "synagogue") "that would address the alienation and dissatisfaction and create opportunities for really rich, compelling Jewish experiences."

From an initial Shabbat service with more than 100 people, Ikar today has 275 member-units, with about 900 people at their High Holiday services.

Ikar is one of a number of emerging "spiritual communities" -- social action-oriented, nondenominational synagogues that are often "homeless," i.e. without permanent facilities. But now that it's about to get a permanent home, how will that change things for Ikar? Will the "community" become part of the very institutionalized system they were formed against?

"I've thought about that quite a lot," Brous said. "We're not going to be a scrappy startup forever. A deep commitment to innovation and creative risk-taking are much easier to do when you're starting from scratch. But when you become a more substantial organization, it becomes harder to hold those values at the center, but it's something we're really committed to."

The new space is wonderful, she said, but the challenge is not to value "form over substance."

The Ikar community can rise to that challenge, Brous said.

"It's not a community that emerged because we had a space and we wanted to fill the pews. It emerged because we had a vision of what it means to be a Jew, and we had a mission in the world and it resonates with people," she said. "It becomes harder to hold those values, but it's something we're really committed to. Call me in five years and we'll see if we've done it."

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