When I began working in the Jewish community in 2002, my colleagues at the Israeli Consulate General told me that there were two things that united every Jew in the city: a war involving Israel and the Holocaust. After attending this morning’s public dedication of LA’s relocated Museum of the Holocaust (the nation’s oldest), I’m tempted to scratch that last one off the list. With the exception of Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan and Jewish Federation head Jay Sanderson, I did not see one other member of the organized Jewish community in attendance. No one from the ADL, the AJC, the Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance, or any of the many other Jewish organizations that fill the pages of the Jewish community directory. Only one rabbi (Rabbi Larry Scheindlin, headmaster of Sinai Akiba Academy) was there. A choir from Shalhevet, a modern Orthodox high school, sang the opening song, but no student groups from any of the city’s other Jewish day schools bothered to show up. Their absence was all too evident when LA Schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines was applauded by the crowd. The city’s non-Jewish chief educator apparently found the time to come and honor a Holocaust museum, but Jewish educators couldn’t be bothered. The museum is located within walking distance of a huge Orthodox community with hundreds of families, but I guess they all had more important things to do this morning.
I made a few phone calls afterwards to former colleagues in the Jewish community to find out why they hadn’t come to the dedication of their city’s Holocaust museum. Their uniform responses left me cold. Yes, the Holocaust was very important to them. Yes, they were all for having a Holocaust museum in the city. Yes, they had a great deal of respect for the museum’s backers. Yes, Thursday mornings are usually good for them. However, they all cited the same reason for not coming: they had not received a personal invitation. I don’t know about you, but I find this laughable. I didn’t receive a personal invitation either, but when I saw the ads in Jewish media for the dedication of a Holocaust museum, I made it a point to be there. If the Prime Minister of Israel were coming to speak at a public event in this city, something tells me that Jewish leaders who had not received gilded invitations would somehow manage to be there. We all make time for people and events that are priorities in our lives.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time that I have observed this apathy dynamic in the Jewish community. While the community’s size (around 600,000) would appear to be a blessing, in reality it is a community of many smaller communities, movements, organizations and synagogues, many of which have little to do with each other. When I attended the memorial for the Chabad rabbi and his wife who were slain in Mumbai, India, my colleague and I joined the head of the Jewish Federation as the only representatives from the organized Jewish community (we were working for the American Jewish Congress at the time) in attendance at the moving ceremony held at the Chabad house in Westwood. Almost everyone else at the public event was Orthodox. On the other hand, almost everyone who gathered at a public memorial to honor gay Jewish teens who were gunned down in Tel Aviv was gay or lesbian. This time there were no Orthodox Jews to be found.
The hierarchical LDS Church doesn’t have movements and a plethora of organizations to deal with, so the social dynamic is markedly different. Tomorrow night one of our apostles is coming to rededicate the Visitors Center next to our temple, and hundreds of Mormons from around the region are expected to attend the ceremony with their friends. Very few members will have received personal invitations (many of which are earmarked for interfaith leaders and other prominent non-Mormons), but seeing an apostle is important enough to them that they will fight traffic on a Friday evening to be there when he speaks.
I hope that Jewish leaders will prove me wrong on Sunday night, when the Museum of the Holocaust holds its gala dinner in Beverly Hills. For all I know, they may in fact have skipped today’s ceremony because they’re planning to buy tickets to the $500/plate dinner instead. Whatever their plans are, the fact that there were as many Mormon leaders in attendance at the dedication of a Holocaust museum as there were rabbis and executive directors from a 600,000-member Jewish community should give everyone pause for reflection. And shame.