Thirteen years ago I called my cousin in the San Fernando Valley and announced to her that I was moving to the South Bay.
"Why would you do that?" she said. "There are no Jews in the South Bay!"
I don't know when that rumor might have held a modicum of truth, but it isn't the case now. Jewish life in the South Bay has been flourishing.
According the Jewish Federation/South Bay Council, the area is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in California. From Westchester to San Pedro, the Jewish population has increased dramatically to an estimated 40,000, and there are numerous indicators that this trend will continue.
Robin Franko, director of the South Bay Council and a lifelong South Bay resident, says that the numbers speak volumes about the thriving community.
"Growing up, I had 15 kids in my Hebrew school class. Now the classes at that same synagogue have close to 40. South Bay Jewish preschools are filling to capacity. The presence of young families and children are a huge indicator of an increasing population and growing community," she said.
Franko stresses the importance of youth group participation in creating and maintaining long-term stability and connections within the Jewish community. Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes is home to the second-largest United Synagogue Youth (USY) chapter in the nation with more than 200 members; 14 years ago that chapter had 40 members.
"We have kids joining from all over the South Bay," said Ami Berlin, youth activities director at Ner Tamid. "And active participation is at an all-time high, both locally and regionally. Three of the last five Far West Regional USY presidents have come from our chapter."
Interest in USY participation has grown so much that a second USY chapter opened in Manhattan Beach at Congregation Tifereth Jacob two years ago.
"Those of us who work with Jewish youth in the South Bay are delighted that there are so many Conservative Jewish teens who join USY and stay actively involved in their synagogues and their communities," Berlin said.
According to Franko, approximately 80 percent of South Bay Jews are not affiliated with any synagogue, a statistic that mirrors the national average.
For the thousands of wandering South Bay Jews who want to join a congregation, there are a number of options -- from traditional to innovative. Within the boundaries of the South Bay, there are four Conservative synagogues, two Reform temples and four Chabad locations, as well as a new shul on the block.
Temple Shalom of the South Bay is opening its doors next month. As a temple under the Reconstructionist umbrella, it seeks to reach out to the community and respond to the needs of the population.
"We will be an interactive, multigenerational temple that will welcome all Jews and rejoice in Jewish learning, ritual, spirituality, and community," founding member Roz Bliss said. "Enthusiasm for Temple Shalom has been beyond our expectations. We had an event last month to introduce our director of education to the community. The response was overwhelming, with more than 100 people attending."
Temple Shalom will open a one-day-a-week religious school in October in El Segundo.
Two major rabbinical changes have just taken place as well. In adjacent neighborhoods, Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes and Temple Beth El in San Pedro have hired new rabbis. Both Rabbi Isaac Jeret at Ner Tamid and Rabbi Charles Briskin at Beth El see the South Bay as fertile ground for expansion.
"In the two months that I've been at [Ner Tamid]," Jeret said, "it has become abundantly apparent to me that there is extraordinary potential for development of the Jewish community in the South Bay. And more importantly, there is tremendous thirst for substantive Jewish spirituality."
As the opportunities to affiliate with a congregation continue to grow, regardless of what aspects of Jewish life you are seeking -- spiritual, social, educational -- there truly is something for everyone.
Now all the South Bay needs is a deli.
For a listing of synagogues in the South Bay, visit The Jewish Journal's Congregation Directory online at www.jewishjournal.com/local/directory.php.