Jewish Journal

Can millions of dollars power a new kind of community?

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

May 30, 2012 | 12:50 pm

The “Down to the River” High Holy Days program is one of East Side Jews’ events that has caught the attention of both hip, young Jews and the mainstream looking to engage them. Photo courtesy of East Side Jews

The “Down to the River” High Holy Days program is one of East Side Jews’ events that has caught the attention of both hip, young Jews and the mainstream looking to engage them. Photo courtesy of East Side Jews

In a not-so-quiet corner of Café Stella at Sunset Junction in Silver Lake, Jill Soloway and Ayana Morse look around and see a model for Jewish connection. The café, wedged into an outdoor shopping/dining complex at the bottom of a steep hill, feels at once makeshift and homey — moms and kids work on plates of eggs and cones of fries at tables balanced on uneven asphalt on the tarp-shaded patio. Business acquaintances, old friends, couples share burgers and salads at dark wooden tables squeezed into an oddly shaped room. Newcomers stop by multiple tables to greet friends, and the owner and waiters schmooze, too.

Soloway, an author, comedian and television writer, switches tables three times to find a quiet place to talk — not because she’s fussy, but because she feels enough at home here to do that.

The small-town vibe of Café Stella is what Soloway and Morse want to replicate at the Silverlake Independent JCC (SIJCC) a few blocks up Sunset. Morse is the associate director of the SIJCC and Soloway is the founder of the alternative-Judaism group East Side Jews, which recently became part of the SIJCC.

The SIJCC’s small brick and concrete building, not much updated since it was built in 1951, needs a lot of love, but they think that just knocking out a few walls and reshaping the angular, strangely partitioned building can help it become a new center for an endlessly diverse, hip, young crowd that has already demonstrated its interest in meaningful Jewish connection.

[Fueling the jFed generation: How the mainstream is staking its future on young innovators]

“We want to be the Skirball of Silver Lake — but more Silver Lake than Skirball,” Soloway said, referring to the Jewish cultural center on Mulholland. “We can be a space for other people to use. They’ll get inspired and come to us with ideas, so if someone wants to do a great Havdalah, we provide the building, and they can simply sign up. It’s like a living laboratory.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angles — historically unhip and not so youthful — is setting its sights on investing millions of dollars in centers of innovation like Silverlake, in hopes of generating hubs for a new kind of Jewish activity across the region, one that will appeal to Gens X, Y and Next. To that end, Federation is also negotiating a partnership with the midcity spiritual community IKAR, and in the late summer or fall plans to invite synagogues and cultural institutions throughout the region to seed other programs. Federation leaders envision a network of as many as a dozen Federation-linked hubs that would blanket Los Angeles with vibrant Jewish innovation. Federation has hired Rabbi Alyson Solomon as vice president of special projects to oversee the initiative.

The goal is to help revivify Jewish life for a generation of Jews many had already written off as too independent, too multifaceted, too current to care much about being involved with Jewish institutions.

“One assumption that we made about this generation was that they were do-it-yourselfers, and they didn’t want to be in the community, they wanted to do things on their own, on their iPads, in their living rooms,” Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Federation said in a recent interview. “But the truth is, we’re seeing a resurgence of a desire to be in the Jewish community, and an interest in things in and around Jewish space.”

The Jewish community’s job now, Sanderson said, is to help create multiple points of entry, backed up by substance and meaning. He wants to see a continuum of Jewish programming that does not drop off after kids graduate college and that lasts until they send their own kids to preschool.

That period between adolescence and settling down is getting longer and longer, New York demographer Steven M. Cohen said in an interview, leaving more time for young adults to forge identities without any Jewish content. Because people are also making life decisions during that period, they could be permanently pulled away from Jewish life.

“What we’ve seen historically is we lose Jews at a certain moment, and we’re lucky to get them back. But what if we never lose them?” Sanderson asked.

The network of hubs is still just an idea — and not a penny has yet been raised to fund it.

But Federation does have some facts on the ground when it comes to engaging 18- to 40-year-olds. Over the last year, Federation has implemented an infrastructure of staff, programming, grants and collaborative efforts to reach young adults, an effort that has already begun to have an impact (see story on Page 16).

The focus on young adults emerged from two years’ worth of conversations with community members and leaders, according to Jonathan Jacoby, The Federation’s senior vice president of Programs for Jewish Life, who is leading the new initiatives.

“Let’s say there are 100,000 young Jews in this city,” he posits. “How many are doing something Jewish? 20,000? Maybe 30,000? What happens to the other 70,000? What happens to Jewish life if, let’s say, even just half of our future doesn’t have a Jewish home in our community? What does it look like in 20 years?

“The question for us, as a central institution of Jewish life, is, what is our responsibility? Is it to perpetuate what we have now or is it to pay attention to the fact that we are losing most of our people?”

The hub concept, however, is still a work in progress, so much so that Federation staff routinely refers to it as “Jhub, or whatever we end up calling it.”

While the details change every day, the goal is taking shape. Federation wants to see seven to 12 nodes of young-adult activity that will power a grid of Jewish life across the sprawl of Los Angeles. The hubs will be connected to one another and to Federation, which will provide partial financial support for activities and operation, and will conduct some joint programming, mentoring and professional resources.

In addition to working on agreements with IKAR and SIJCC, Federation also plans to renovate the Israel Levin Center, a senior day center it owns in Venice, so that it will continue to serve seniors by day, but also young adults by night.

None of these partnerships is final yet, and other potential partners also have been in on the negotiations, according to Sanderson.

Sanderson said he hoped that all the details would be ironed out by the fall.

Establishing the new centers in Silver Lake, Midcity and Venice, along with funding programs at existing institutions, would require a minimum of $10 million, probably more, Sanderson said.

Federation chairman Richard Sandler said the funding for the hubs would come from a second-line campaign, not yet launched, separate from Federation’s annual fundraising, which last year raised close to $47 million.

New programs at existing institutions would be supported through a fund called Chadesh (renew in Hebrew), a multimillion-dollar pot that institutions would be able to tap into to bring their programming to a wider audience.

Sanderson imagines that the Chadesh Fund hubs will expand the network across Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley (Conejo and South Bay would come in a later phase, he said) and promote cultural diversity and inclusiveness by bringing in the Orthodox, Persian, Russian and Israeli communities, and the LGBT population.

The hubs would tap into a variety of interests — one hub might focus on the arts, while another might focus on Jewish studies. One might be geared toward 20-somethings, another toward young families. What, exactly, the network will look like in the end depends on who presents the most compelling visions.

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