RELIGION / JOHN DART : Milken Site Reopening Signals Move West by Jews

The center of gravity for Los Angeles Jewry has been moving westward for decades, and now is edging to the northwest.

That shift will be especially evident Sunday with the official reopening in West Hills of the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, built in 1987. The two-story, colonnaded building underwent a $9-million reconstruction project after last year's Northridge earthquake.

Though the Milken campus served as a suburban branch of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles through 1993, the onetime outpost now houses the newly semiautonomous Valley Alliance, a dozen agencies serving five valleys--San Fernando, Conejo, Simi, Santa Clarita and Antelope.

"There is no question our Jewish population is moving west," said Jon Cookler, president of the Valley Alliance, which had temporarily set up shop in a warehouse after the earthquake.

Cookler said that the five valleys may have as many as 250,000 Jews, though a research coordinator for the Jewish Federation Council told the weekly Jewish Journal recently that the figure is about 218,000. About 590,000 Jews live in the Greater Los Angeles metropolitan area (including Orange and Riverside counties), according to the 1995 American Jewish Year Book.

The other major tenant of the Milken campus, the Jewish Community Center, is only the second of six regional Jewish Community Centers in Los Angeles County to have an indoor swimming pool and fitness center in addition to a variety of activities and educational programs.

The community center and the Valley Alliance are also gaining footholds in the Conejo Valley with a preschool and family programs, said director Arnie Sohinki.

"We are finalizing a lease on property in the area and plans have been approved by the city of Agoura Hills," said Sohinki. "Sixty children are on a waiting list for the school."

Three synagogues are active in the area. One of them, Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks, will host a Valley Alliance-sponsored lecture series, beginning with producer-director Carl Reiner on Dec. 16. Sohinki noted that Heschel Day School of Northridge also has a western campus in the Conejo Valley, now enrolling 70 children in its second year.

Another sign of Jewish growth in the region is the alliance's year-old handbook of Jewish groups in the five valleys. The 100-page guide, for instance, lists 49 synagogues, but omits Chabad of Westlake Village and a new Orthodox synagogue in Calabasas.

"The guide becomes quickly outdated because new groups keep springing up," Valley Alliance Executive Director H. Jack Mayer said. "There is a vigorous dynamism in Jewish life here."

The Jewish agencies offer job training, crisis counseling, interest-free loans, legal aid, companionship for children from broken homes and learning opportunities, among other services.

To keep up with a moving population, Jewish institutional life has migrated west and north over the last 100 years.

At the turn of the century, the focus was in Boyle Heights, east of the Los Angeles River. When Jewish community organizations proliferated in the mid-20th Century, the Jewish Federation Council building on Vermont Avenue just north of the Hollywood Freeway became a focal point. In 1976, the Federation Council relocated to a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise just east of Beverly Hills.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Sepulveda Pass has provided a link between the Westside and San Fernando Valley Jewish communities through the growth of the Stephen S. Wise Temple and the University of Judaism, which are soon to be joined by Hebrew Union College's Skirball Museum.

On Sunday, 2,500 people are expected to show up for the noontime rededication of the Milken campus. At sunset, the weeklong Jewish harvest festival of Sukkah begins.

An ornately decorated sukkah --an open shed covered with branches, symbolizing the temporary dwellings used by wandering ancient Israelites in the Sinai Desert--will be the centerpiece of festivities that include a musical, an art exhibit, Israeli dancing and tours of the facility at 22622 Vanowen St.

The festive mood has not been spoiled by two potential controversies related to the Milken campus. One never really materialized, and another apparently has faded into the background.

In what officials say has been "a non-issue," the campus bears the name of its major donor, the Milken Family Foundation, which has contributed millions of dollars to a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish charities.

"It was named for the father, Bernard, who was recently deceased," said Cookler, who added that the money was given before the legal problems of convicted junk-bond king Michael Milken, a son of Bernard Milken, surfaced.

Controversy erupted earlier this year when the Milken Family Foundation donated $5 million to the Stephen S. Wise Community High School and the synagogue changed the high school's name to Milken High.

A major, unrelated dispute also arose in December, 1993, when officials of the Milken campus shut down the building over concerns about the building's safety in the event of an earthquake--just weeks before the Northridge earthquake.

The Los Angeles-based Heritage newspapers reported that Jewish Federation Council officials had quietly filed suit months earlier against contractors for shoddy construction, but withdrew the suits during the chaos caused by the quake and through a re-examination of where the blame should fall.

Smaller-scale problems at the Milken campus relate to finding room for Jewish service groups that want office space. The Anti-Defamation League is moving within the building to larger quarters, and the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization will get all or part of the last empty room, Mayer said. Plans also call for creating new offices with undeveloped space in the complex, he said.

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