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

July 14, 1985|ANN JOHNSON | 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.

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