County's Jewish Population Rising


Finding kosher food in the east county was once an ordeal that often ended with a trip to the San Fernando Valley. And during the holidays, Christmas trinkets were plentiful but Hanukkah decorations scarce.

Today, with a growing number of Jewish residents making their homes in east Ventura County and Los Angeles' westernmost cities, kosher frozen chicken can be found at many major supermarkets. And a number of boutiques and The Oaks mall decorate for Hanukkah.

"Right now, people accept there's a vigorous Jewish population, and people are going to be sensitive to that," said Michael Lotker, executive director of the Conejo Valley Consortium for Adult Jewish Education. "It's a growing realization."

Rabbis in the east county and westernmost cities of Los Angeles report a significant growth in synagogue membership--largely, they say, because of residents relocating from the San Fernando Valley the past few years.

"It's kind of the consistent move west," said Rabbi Gershon Johnson of Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills.

Membership has increased more than sixfold in a decade at Temple Beth Haverim, from 70 to 440 families. At Thousand Oaks' Temple Etz Chaim, membership has more than doubled since 1985 from 300 to 700 families. And at Thousand Oaks' Temple Adat Elohim, membership has about doubled from 300 families in 1984 to about 610.

Sensing that numbers were growing significantly, the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, which disburses grants to Jewish organizations, conducted a survey on the Jewish population in Conejo Valley in 1996.

The study--encompassing Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Moorpark, Westlake, Newbury Park and parts of Agoura Hills--found more than 38,000 Jewish residents. No previous studies for comparison exist.

Many Jews say they moved to the area for the same reason as the general population: good public schools, safe neighborhoods and, for some, to escape from the San Fernando Valley after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

With the increasing numbers, it is becoming easier to live a Jewish lifestyle, said Debra Laskow of the federation's Valley chapter.

Laskow often answers questions from residents in the San Fernando Valley or other states about Jewish life in the Conejo Valley.

"Initially they were moving out there because it was a good, healthy environment, not because there was a significant population," Laskow said. "Now it's become an attractive place to live . . . because there are Jewish institutions to support [Jewish life]."

In response to the growing population, many of the existing Jewish organizations are expanding and new ones are emerging. Synagogues are remodeling to create more space.

And opportunities to learn more about Jewish history and culture have expanded significantly. The Conejo Valley Consortium for Adult Jewish Education last fall began to offer one-day lectures and courses on Jewish history, philosophy and culture at synagogues in Agoura Hills and Thousand Oaks.

Even a Jewish catering company based in Encino is feeling the effects of the increased population.

Starlite Caterer, which specializes in kosher foods, works events such as bar and bat mitzvahs, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies. The company already has bookings for the year 2001 at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks.

Young parents often cite schools as a reason for moving into Ventura County.

"We felt the public schools were better here than they were in the San Fernando Valley," said Gary Polson, who moved his family to Thousand Oaks six years ago.

And since then, new opportunities have been created for Jewish education.

Several years ago, some Jewish families began asking administrators at the Northridge-based Heschel West school to create a campus closer to the Conejo Valley.

"We decided for the amount of population, it's enough to support a day school," said Jerome Friedland, a Thousand Oaks resident whose children now attend the Heschel West campus built in Agoura Hills four years ago.

The campus recently purchased some land in Agoura Hills so it can build a permanent building rather than renting, and it plans to add sixth grade to its current preschool to fifth-grade offerings.

When Friedland talks to parents of Heschel West students about why they moved from the Valley, he frequently hears that it is to be closer to the school.

The hub and center for Jews is still mainly in the metropolitan areas, Laskow said, but she expects the migration of young families to the Conejo Valley to increase.

And for the most part, Jews say they feel welcome in the community.

"By and large, people out here are incredibly receptive," said Lotker, of the Consortium for Adult Jewish Education. "I teach in Catholic schools . . . and I think by and large Christian Americans, especially in our area, are open to Jews and Judaism. Christians are very interested in knowing about Judaism, and I am welcome."

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