Jewish Identity : Group Fears the Loss of Community, Hopes to Bring Families Back to Fold

Community Correspondent

Jews in the South Bay are less likely than those in other parts of the Los Angeles area to affiliate with a synagogue, say leaders of a group that fears loss of identity among Jews in the area.

The group, the Southern Region of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, says the problem would be eased if more services were provided by Jewish institutions. The regional group issued a report last month identifying services needed by the area's Jews, and hopes to eventually find ways to provide them.

If Jewish institutions meet the social service needs of unaffiliated Jews, their "next logical step" will be to join a synagogue, said William Bernstein, director of the southern region.

But Rabbi Eli Hecht of the orthodox Chabad of South Bay in Lomita does not agree that lack of services or institutions is causing Jews in the area to drift away from organized religion. Hecht sees non-affiliation as part of a Southern California phenomenon that puts extraordinary stress on families to gain material possessions at the expense of religious commitment.

"People who were busy getting involved going up the ladder had to sacrifice certain things," Hecht said. "When you go up the ladder, there's sometimes not enough time to re-evaluate what your needs are until it's too late. Now that the community is assimilating so much, they're getting very guilt-ridden because of all of these tragedies that are happening--of intermarriages within the community and the high percentage of divorce. They think the federation will be able to fill this void, which I doubt."

Hecht said he believes the report is aimed primarily at getting more funding. Bernstein acknowledged that more money will be needed to implement the report's recommendations.

The report includes statistics gathered by the federation in a 1979 study of the nearly 40,000 Jews then estimated to be in the area, which encompasses 960 square miles bounded roughly by El Segundo, Palos Verdes, San Pedro and Huntington Park.

900 Households

Surveying 900 Jewish households by phone, the federation found that:

- Only 20% were affiliated with one of the seven synagogues in the area.

- 48% had never belonged to a synagogue.

- 75% were not members of any other Jewish organization.

- 38% of the respondents had married a non-Jew. That is significant because among Jews in general there is an extremely low affiliation rate among the intermarried, Bernstein said.

- Median income, $28,823 in 1979, was about 15% higher than that of other Jews in the Los Angeles area. "The more affluent you are, the less likely you are to affiliate," said Lisa Kalson, a federation spokeswoman.

- 15% were divorced or separated, more than the proportion found among Jews in other parts of the Los Angeles area.

Although the statistics are six years old, Bernstein said the regional group believes they are still accurate. "I think we're on solid ground," he said.

The report was prompted by plans for a new southern region office building at Palos Verdes and Lomita boulevards in Lomita, scheduled for ground breaking in August and completion in December, said Rabbi David Lieb of the reform Temple Beth-El in San Pedro. It will house the offices of Jewish social service organizations like Jewish Family Service, Jewish Big Brothers and the Jewish Community Centers Assn., and will have room for classes and other activities.

"When you build a new physical structure, you kind of step back and analyze what you're going to put in it and (how to) make use of that facility," Lieb said.

Jewish Identity

Kalson said the new building--which will be much more visible than the current regional office in a building at Hawthorne Boulevard and Carson Street--might help establish a Jewish identity in the southern region.

Lack of Jewish affiliation is a problem throughout the area, Kalson said, but the southern region in particular has "always had a problem."

"It's a traditionally non-Jewish area. You get a lot of affluent people who don't want to affiliate, who are not interested," she said.

Most Pressing Needs

In working on the report, a committee of 18, representing a variety of southern region Jewish agencies, synagogues and organizations, found that the "most pressing needs" were an increase in social services, improvement of Jewish education and the establishment of child-care facilities. the committee said the increase in social services would alleviate the special problems of the elderly, families and teen-agers and encourage participation in Jewish religious services. No preferential order was assigned to that group of needs. "We couldn't come to a consensus as to what was the most important," said Vicki Burdman, a San Pedro resident and Northrop Corp. pricing manager who headed the committee. Rather, the report "sets an agenda of priorities for the region," she said.

A second set of needs considered less urgent by the study group includes the problems of single-parent families, single adults and the poor. The group also recommended that transportation to Jewish activities be improved and that communication within the Jewish community be strengthened.

The committee offered no specific recommendations on how to improve services, other than calling for further study and more cooperation among existing agencies. For example, the needs of elderly Jews--who, according to the report, "need transportation assistance, domestic help, shut-in visitation, and the development of a multiservice day-care facility"--could be addressed with the establishment of an "inter-agency council," the report said.

Establish Priorities

The study was "a way to establish priorities and pool resources," Kalson said, and was not intended to develop specific solutions. Specific problems were discussed, however.

The elderly, for example, suffer from a "a lot of isolation, a lack of transportation, a lack of resources in general," said Suzette Abend, a Jewish Family Service social worker. She said elderly Jews typically seek "some sense of identification with the Jewish community" and often find it through regular attendance at religious services. But the region is so widespread, without any "Jewish neighborhood," many find it impossible to realize a "sense of connectedness," Abend said.

To illustrate, Abend told of a couple in their 80s who moved to a Torrance retirement home. They have no contact with the Jewish community and feel "totally isolated," she said.

"One of their greatest needs is to go to a synagogue for service," she said. "They have no transportation. They have no way to get there." She said they are afraid to use public transportation at night.

"Having a program in the Jewish community specifically for seniors, I think, would bring out a lot of seniors that typically would not go to a nonsectarian kind of situation," Abend said.

Day-Care Services

The report also recommends that Jewish-oriented day-care services be established for children in the southern region.

Rabbi Hecht said that suggestion indicates that the federation's study ignored Orthodox Jews.

Calling the report "malarkey," he noted that his Chabad runs a state-licensed day-care facility.

"Every working Jewish mother (in the area) who has a child from 12 months to 5 1/2 years has a place for their child from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.," Hecht said. "Now, for some reason the federation committee just blatantly disregarded this.

"If they think there's no day-care center, that shows you how far they are off base," Hecht said.

Orthodox Adherence

Burdman countered, saying some Reform and Conservative Jews are uncomfortable leaving their children in an Orthodox day-care center where Orthodox principles, such strict observance of the Sabbath and stringent adherence to dietary laws, are taught and practiced.

She said the group knew about Hecht's preschool and is simply calling for "enhancement" of such services.

Hecht maintains that problems faced by Jews in the southern region are no different from those faced by any other group in Southern California, where, he said, the American "melting pot" has become a "pressure cooker" that puts great financial stress on families.

"When you're under pressure to make a living," Hecht said, "you have a lot less (time) for your spouse, your children and especially for your religious needs. The federation wants to put in a Jewish community center building. They think it's going to be a panacea for all the ills in the community.

"The Jewish community center will not alleviate the problems," he said.

Justify More Funding

Hecht claimed that the real goal of southern region officials is to justify more funding from the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.

Bernstein agreed that more money is crucial. "The report is for naught if we don't raise more money," he said. "We're going to need between $750,000 and $1.5 million if we're going to do everything we think we need to do."

Bernstein said it would take five years to implement the kinds of social service programs called for in the report.

The southern region is one of five geographical areas under the auspices of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, Kalson said. A major fund-raising campaign is conducted annually by the United Jewish Fund through the federation to raise money for social services in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and for Israel. All donations are funneled to the council, where a planning and budgeting committee of representatives from the five regions determines how the money will be distributed.

Israel Gets 55%

Bernstein said 55% of the money raised by the United Jewish Fund goes to Israel.

Last year $41.5 million was raised in the five regions, Bernstein said. The southern region raised only about $700,000 from about 2,100 contributors, "which is something we're trying hard to improve upon," he said. About $450,000 was distributed to federation staff and social services in the southern region last year.

By specifying the area's needs, the report could "have an effect on the amount of funding the southern region gets," Kalson said.

According to Bernstein, $700,000 was allocated by the federation in 1983 to the southern region for the new building, and regional officials are hoping for an additional loan of $150,000 to pay for increased construction costs.

Unaffiliated Could Gain

While affiliated Jews will benefit from the new building and social services offered there, some suggest the unaffiliated may gain more from it. Stanley Winston, president of the Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, believes the center will attract "some of the unaffiliated families that don't feel they want to be religious, but want a place to go."

Bernstein agreed. "When they become interested in what we do, they begin to seek participation in synagogue life," he said.

Those who are already affiliated with a synagogue can find a center and its social services will be able to provide what the synagogue can't because of limited budget and staff. "The competition that people think may exist between the two doesn't.

"Any entree to Jewish life is important," Bernstein said. "There ought to be a lot of hooks out there for people to get involved in."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World