Jewish Journal

Uniting Community

by Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel

Posted on May. 31, 2001 at 8:00 pm

As the Jewish community gathers for the Valley Jewish Festival, we must ask ourselves whether there is, in fact, a Los Angeles Jewish community to speak of. If we define community as "a group of people defined by a geographical area," then we can refer to the Jewish community of Los Angeles as such. But if we wish to imply that a community is "a cohesive yet diverse group bound together as one," then I do not believe that Los Angeles fulfills this qualification.

This is not to say that we do not come together for the needs of our geographical community. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is the primary address of the geographical Los Angeles Jewish community. It strives to address our multifaceted needs, set an agenda and bring together diverse elements for some sense of unity. Its agencies, affiliates and myriad activities are to be commended for its monumental work.

But even The Federation has acknowledged that real community is not created by fiat or budgets. Much like the growth pains of Los Angeles that created the birth pains of a Valley-secessionist movement, The Federation wisely heard the Jewish voices of the Valley and created the Valley Alliance to address the unique needs of the "valleys" beyond the city limits.

It is more than just an administrative detail that half of the Jews of greater Los Angeles live north of Mulholland. And it is more than just an issue of equal representation. It is the knowledge that community is created through the tangible and meaningful connections between individuals and institutions. While it is essential that people establish relationships, equally important to the equation of community is for institutions to work together.

Just as it is difficult for someone to feel part of a synagogue community by coming once a year to services and being inundated by congregational mailings, a Jew in Los Angeles will not identity as a Jewish Los Angeleno simply by visiting a Jewish festival and reading The Jewish Journal.

If we really wish to provide a Jewish communal identity for the Jews of Los Angeles, we must divide into smaller communities and share more personal experiences. The congregants of my synagogue cannot possibly feel connected to every fellow Conservative synagogue member in Los Angeles, let alone the synagogue members of the other movements and the unaffiliated.

We need to divide the megatropolis of Los Angeles into neighborhoods. It was the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and Fairfax that felt a sense of community, and today it is felt in the Pico-Robertson area. We must create, even if it is artificial, neighborhoods that help people feel this connection.

In the west San Fernando Valley we have begun to build what I believe should be the model for the entire area of greater Los Angeles. We have created rabbinic and lay task forces that meet on an ongoing basis to establish relationships and joint programs for "our community."

Thanks to the vision of people like Jack Mayer, the executive director of the Valley Alliance, we bring together the leadership from synagogues, the Valley Alliance, the JCC and other Jewish agencies to utilize the strengths of each organization and meet the needs of the community.

During the past eight years, we have created many programs including Chanukah festivals and Yom Ha'Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) programs. Temple Aliyah, Temple Solael (now Temple Judea), Shomrei Torah Synagogue and the Calabasas Shul have gathered together for several years to perform tashlich during the High Holy Days.

And this year, with a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, these synagogues, joined by Or Ami of Calabasas, participated in a joint educational program. The five-week Winter Kallah program brought together the congregants from across the spectrum of Jewish life, thereby breaking down the stereotypes about "Jews who don't care" and "Jews who are intolerant."

We have succeeded in creating our community because each organization is willing to surrender its individual ego for "our community." Rather than viewing each other as competitors, we view each other as partners with a mission to serve the Jewish people. Too often territorialism or the desire for recognition creates boundaries to unity. There are still a couple of synagogues that do not participate actively in our programs. Sadly, I believe that they are so egocentrically motivated that their leadership and congregants hardly notice.

I would like to challenge Federation, the Southern California Board of Rabbis and all Jewish organizations to establish Jewish communities throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Where possible, I believe that these communities should be built around the neutral sites of Jewish Community Centers. Like the political districts designed for voter representation, we should sit down and devise an intelligent restructuring of Los Angeles Jewry into meaningful communities. The biblical command to "love your neighbor as yourself" is a reminder of where community begins.

While the Valley Jewish Festival might acknowledge two distinct Jewish communities comprising "the city" and "the valley," I believe that even these are too cumbersome and impersonal. Let us challenge our leaders to establish more personal communities that can better address our needs and provide the feeling of community we all dream of.

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