For Jews, Northern Exposure : Neighborhoods: Good schools, affordable housing and a ready-made community are attracting more Jewish families to the North Valley.
Richard A. Macales still remembers being one of the few Jewish children during the late 1950s in his Northridge neighborhood of ranch-style homes and orange groves.
“Our family definitely felt different, because we were an island of Yiddishkeit” or Jewishness, he said, “in an area that had very little Jewish communal life.”
Macales, 34, was born there, went to the public schools from kindergarten to college there and still lives there with his wife, Beverly, and their two children.
But things are a little different today. As he and other Jews celebrate the High Holidays this week, he will worship at Young Israel of Northridge, the first Orthodox synagogue in the North Valley, which he helped found in 1983.
That’s not the only change in the Jewish landscape of the North Valley--which is bounded by Hayvenhurst Avenue to the east, Corbin Avenue to the west, Roscoe Boulevard to the south and Rinaldi Street to the north, according to Macales. Beginning in the 1950s and accelerating in the last decade, many Jewish families were attracted to neighborhoods in Sepulveda, Northridge and Granada Hills because of their affordable housing and open spaces. Originally, they moved to the area not particularly to live in a Jewish community, but, like thousands of others, to find safe, suburban homes for their families.
Now they tend to move to the area because of the thriving Jewish community. These neighborhoods now are home to five synagogues and temples and other facilities catering to Jews.
Louis and Joan Bersin grew up in Beverly Hills and Benedict Canyon, respectively, and moved to Northridge from West Los Angeles 2 1/2 years ago.
Louis first heard of the North Valley when he began studying Jewish religious texts with Ralph Alpert, a pioneer in developing the Orthodox community in the area.
Alpert, who died last year, “convinced me and my wife to take a drive to Northridge to see the community,” said Louis, who works at Golden State Health Centers in Sherman Oaks in community relations and program development.
The Harvard-educated couple were surprised at the affordable housing prices and soon bought a townhouse.
The price of houses in the North Valley--where condominiums or townhouses can still start as low as $100,000--"has drawn many young Jewish couples to the area in the last few years,” said Yelena Shaposhnik, an agent with S. J. Heritage Realty in Northridge, who helped the Bersins find a house. In fact, she said, seven of her last 10 sales were to Jewish couples.
“Many want to be near synagogues and Jewish schools, and some Jewish couples are now even coming from the city to buy homes here,” she said.
Since their arrival, the Bersins have become active in the area’s Jewish community. Louis serves on a committee that plans to establish an eruv , an area in which traditional Jews are permitted to do certain things otherwise not allowed on the Sabbath. Joan, who works as an educational therapist in Northridge, has organized religious classes for women.
The Bersins are among a growing number of young Jewish professionals who have discovered the North Valley religious community. And the influx of this highly educated population will be a boon for the Orthodox synagogues in the 1990s, said M. J. Colwell, a Cal State Northridge sociologist who studies the upward mobility of minorities.
“These affluent and professional Jews will find that Orthodoxy will serve their needs the most by giving them structure and legitimacy, because it is very family-oriented, with a strong emphasis on education,” he said.
Colwell, who is not Jewish, has seen the area’s Jewish community evolve since coming to CSUN in 1964.
“Many Jews first moved here years ago because of good public schools, and it was a place where you could go from renting to buying an affordable house,” he said. “Now you have a diverse community offering many things to all Jews.”
That diversity includes two Orthodox synagogues, Young Israel of Northridge, which has 60 member families, and the Hasidic Chabad, which was founded in 1987 and has 50 members; one Conservative temple, Ramat Zion, which was started in 1960 and has 600 members; two Reform temples, Beth Torah with 62 families, which moved to Sepulveda from Arleta in 1976 and in 1988 to Granada Hills; and Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, which was established in 1966 and has 750 members.
In addition, there is an independent Jewish community school, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. The school, with an enrollment of 460 youngsters from kindergarten to ninth grade, has a three-year waiting list.
The North Valley community is beginning to draw retail concerns as well. The first kosher bakery in the area, Unique Pastry, opened in March in Northridge.
Owner Avi Stein, who was a professional baker in New York, said he saw a great opportunity in the community. “It was an area that was ready to grow fast, so I bought a non-kosher bakery and converted it into a kosher one,” he said.
Stein said he gets customers from all over the Valley, from Agoura Hills to Simi Valley. “I get Conservative and Reform Jews and non-Jews who want to eat kosher pastries,” he said.
Other area retailers report an increase in kosher sales. Hughes Market in Granada Hills ranked fourth among the chain’s 52 stores in 1990 in the amount of kosher products it sold
“During Passover this past year, there was a 30% increase in the kosher products sold over the 1990 figures at the Granada Hills store, and we expect that to definitely increase over the next few years,” said David Wolff, a company vice president who is in charge of buying kosher products for the chain in Southern California.
Although there is no kosher meat business in the area, “a lot of people coming into my store,” said Joe Simon, owner of Ventura Kosher Meats in Tarzana, “tell me that they have moved to Northridge or Granada Hills, so the amount of kosher meat I sell in that area has definitely increased.”
Area Jewish leaders expect the population of young Orthodox Jews to increase dramatically in the North Valley over the next few years, after the installation of the eruv. According to ancient Jewish law, this communal boundary will extend the area that Jews consider private domain, thereby allowing them to use or carry household items such as baby strollers, food and keys on the Sabbath. Without an eruv, Jews are prohibited from carrying anything outside of their homes on the Sabbath.
The eruv is defined by wires that run along poles on streets in the proposed area, which will be bounded by Parthenia Street to the south, the Simi Valley Freeway to the north, the San Diego Freeway to the east and Tampa Avenue to the west. The North Valley eruv, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year, will cost about $10,000. The money, which has already been pledged by the community, according to Macales, will cover the installation of the poles and wires along streets that border the area and the weekly maintenance of the eruv to be sure it is still in place.
It is only the second eruv in the San Fernando Valley; the other was installed in North Hollywood in 1987. After the eruv was completed there, real estate prices increased dramatically, as did the population of Jewish families. Colwell said he expects the same thing to happen in the North Valley after the eruv is completed.
“There are a number of couples in North Hollywood who have told me that they are only waiting for the eruv to move to our community,” said Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. The synagogue just opened a social hall, a library and a playroom and expanded its sanctuary and parking lot to accommodate the young Orthodox congregation’s growth. Young Israel will open a ritual bath, a mikva , for married women in about 18 months, Macales said.
Not only are American Jews moving to the North Valley, but Israeli, Russian and Persian Jews as well. There is even a 20-family contingent of Cuban and Argentine Jews who are active in the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills.
The center, which has grown from 1,000 members in 1983 to 1,500 today, has become a focal point for communal activities. A 4,000-square-foot child-care facility, which accommodates 100 children from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., opened this fall.
“When I came here seven years ago, most of the members were self-focused,” said Director Jerry Wayne. “Now we have many community-oriented events, such as picnics and social events. There’s a new spirit in this community.”
Michael Nissenson, the executive director of the San Fernando Valley region of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said the Valley has about 300,000 Jews, although there is no breakdown of the number in the North Valley.
“There is no question that the North Valley area will continue to grow as more Jewish couples look for affordable housing and good schools and a desire to live in a Jewish community,” he said.
Macales said he is glad he never moved out of the North Valley, even though he has to commute to his publicist job at UCLA Extension in Westwood.
“This is home,” he said, “and now we have a booming Jewish community that my family loves.”
Silver is a North Hollywood writer.