Jewish Journal

Jewish In OC

After a slow start, the Jewish community to the south has exploded in recent years

by Ilene Schneider

Posted on Apr. 27, 2000 at 8:00 pm

When my husband and I told my relatives in the San Fernando Valley in 1978 that we were moving to Orange County, they responded, "Why would you want to live in such a place?" What they meant, of course, was why were we moving to a place which had such a gentile stamp on it and, indeed, which had the reputation of being home to advocates of the John Birch Society.

Our initial visit to the Orange County Jewish Federation only confirmed their view. We learned, among other things, that there were no neighborhoods that could be identified as Jewish.

Nonetheless, we found a synagogue -- one of 14 in the area at the time -- and managed to replicate our existence in my native Cleveland by joining groups such as B'nai B'rith, B'nai B'rith Women and ORT. Within a few months we attended the annual Orange County Israel Cultural Fair, along with 8,000 to 10,000 other Southern California residents. That phenomenon, which began in 1972 and continues today, brought more Jewish people together in one place than I had ever seen.

While Orange County may not have the geographically cohesive nature of a mature Jewish community in the Northeast or Midwest -- or even in Los Angeles or San Francisco -- demographers describe it as typical of the new Jewish communities of the West. As compared to other places, Western Jews are less likely to live in Jewish neighborhoods, have primarily Jewish friends, belong to a synagogue or contribute to Jewish charities. They tend to be less observant and less concerned about intermarriage or Israel. In short, they seem less ethnically identified.

This tends to make it difficult to track the number of Jews in Orange County. While a 1994 survey by the Council of Jewish Federations and another by the Maccabee Institute place the figure at 75,000, the American Jewish Year Book and the Orange County Jewish Federation estimate the Jewish population of Orange County to be 70,000, though less formal recent estimates place the total much higher.

Still, there are 50 Jewish institutions, including 26 congregations representing Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Chassidic Judaism, three Jewish day schools and a Jewish Federation campus that serves as the home of eight Jewish agencies. The numbers are misleading though. In reality, the Jewish presence, while growing, is nevertheless fragmented. Many Jews in the County are not involved in Jewish organizations. The Jewish Federation of OC reaches at best 20 percent of the Jewish community and its annual fundraising drive last year raised just over $2 million, a relatively small figure compared to cities with even smaller Jewish populations. The question remains an open one: Does OC represent the Jewish wave of the future?

If there is a central Jewish address in Orange County, it has moved south from Santa Ana and Anaheim to Irvine, Newport Beach and Laguna Hills. Mirroring this movement of the Jewish population is the location of Jewish institutions. By the end of the 1960s, for example, temples began to dot the Orange County landscape -- Temple Sharon in Costa Mesa, Harbor Reform in Newport Beach (now Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine), Temple Beth David in Westminster, Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton and Temple Judea in Leisure World/Laguna Hills. The Orange County Board of Rabbis was founded in 1965. Meanwhile the new University of California at Irvine (UCI) and new industrial centers were attracting more and more people, including Jews, to southern Orange County. They comprised a new generation, some of whom eagerly turned to the synagogues. According to Rabbi Bernard King, who has been spiritual leader of Shir Ha-Ma'alot since 1969, "In 1969 Jews were generally skittish.

There were still areas restricted to Jews -- the Santa Ana Country Club, Emerald Bay and Crystal Cove. UCI changed the complexion of Orange County. It was a magnet for attracting Jewish faculty."

Rabbi King added that his congregation wanted to join the Harbor Council of Churches in 1969 and was refused. However, when the organization disbanded in 1978 and became the Newport Mesa Irvine Interfaith Council, it elected King as its first president.

Elsewhere in south Orange County, Jews were establishing homes -- and feeling isolated. "We discovered that we had moved to a Jewish desert -- no temple, no Jewish center, no kosher deli, no place to buy Pesach goods, not even a bagel store," Polly Sloan of the Jewish Historical Society said of Laguna Beach in the 1970s. She joined the Women's Division of the Jewish Federation and traveled to Garden Grove for meetings and socializing. Her family joined the Israel Academy, an experiment in Jewish education created in Irvine by Rabbi Robert Bergman, but it lasted only a few years.

When the Women's Division held a tea in Laguna Niguel, people began to talk about creating a Jewish community center. Nine couples put up $100 each to rent a storefront in Laguna Beach, and "Jews came out of the woodwork, "Sloan said, to attend the center's grand opening in 1973. The Jewish Community Center in Laguna Beach attracted 500 people to its first Chanukah party in 1973. Meanwhile, other community-wide institutions -- Federation, Jewish Family Service and the North Orange County JCC -- shared space with Catholic Welfare Services in Garden Grove.

General migration to the Sunbelt boosted Orange County's Jewish population in the1970s. Overall prosperity in the county brought new industrial centers, new homes and new Jewish residents in the 1980s and 1990s, with growing concentrations of Jewish population in Irvine, South Orange County and East Orange County.

The early 1990s saw a major turning point for the Orange County Jewish community with the gift of a building and campus in Costa Mesa by the families of Ruth and Arnold Feuerstein and Sandy and Allan Fainbarg. Over the next few years and after significant renovations, it officially opened as the Jewish Federation Campus in 1995.

Indeed, the irony is that as many Jews became more accepted within American society, and more distant from Judaism, other Jews began asserting their ethnicity.

Another boom has increased the number and kind of Jewish institutions during the past 10 or 15 years, according to Hazel Dyer, coordinator of travel and tours at the JCC. Dyer said more than 75,000 South Africans have emigrated to Southern California in recent years and estimates that 30,000 of them are Jewish, with a large concentration of them in Irvine. "They are used to Yiddishkeit and brought it here," she said. "They have supported Orthodox congregations and Jewish day schools."

Penina Bergman, who tutors B'nai Mitzvah students for Temple Beth Sholom, Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach and Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin, notes the impact of another trend -- a lower birth rate. "In the 1960s our temple had only 450 families but 600 children. Today, with 650 families, we have far fewer children."

"There has been a real dichotomy between strongly identified Jews with leadership abilities and other Jews wanting to isolate themselves in Orange County," King said. "While there still is no real center of Jewish population as of yet, we're just beginning to create a real community."

The Demographic Jewish Factor

As the Orange County Jewish community matures, second- and third-generation families are assuming leadership roles in their synagogues and other organizations.

Dale Glasser is director of the UAHC Ida and Howard Wilkoff Department of Synagogue Management in New York and the grandson of Orange County Jewish community pioneer Sam Hurwitz. "Temple Beth Sholom [in Santa Ana] continues to provide a strong sense of community for my father, who proudly proclaims that he has been a member for over 50 years," Glasser said.

Meanwhile a 1992 U.S. Jewish population study by the National Council of Jewish Federations affirmed that Jewish education is one of the most effective tools for producing strongly identified Jewish adults, and education programs for children and teenagers are on the rise in Orange County.

Since its formation more than 22 years ago, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) has attempted to ensure the continuity of Jewish life in Orange County through education, according to Joan Kaye, who is in her ninth year as BJE director. Young people who participate in the BJE programs often resurface as camp counselors and other community leaders, she says.

BJE programs include weekend retreats for elementary and middle school students from all over Orange County; the Adat Noar program for ninth graders; the Teens are Leaders-in-Training (T.A.L.I.T.) program that prepares Jewish teens in grades 10 through 12 for leadership roles in their schools and youth groups, as well as in daily camps, synagogue classrooms and other community settings; the TIES (Teen Israel Experience for the Summer) program, which offers five-and-one-half weeks of living, learning and exploring Jewish life in Israel to high school students; and family education programs for teenagers and their parents.

However, overall demographics in the Jewish community make it difficult to identify and understand the preferences of secular Jews in Orange County. According to the American Jewish Year Book (1998), of the 5.5 million core Jewish population in the U.S., 1.1 million, or approximately 20 percent, say they have no religion.

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