Ninety-two-year-old Cantor Irving Jacobs is a symbol of vitality for Temple Ner Tamid in Downey, and a warning of what can happen when an area ceases to attract young Jewish families, the lifeblood of a synagogue.
For more than 50 years, Jacobs was cantor of the Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation, which closed last September because of dwindling membership. Jacobs, who will be named Ner Tamid's honorary cantor during a service Friday, is one of the temple's newest members.
"We are resisting the same forces that brought the demise in Huntington Park," said Rabbi Michael D. Mayersohn, who has launched an aggressive public relations campaign to bolster membership at Ner Tamid in Downey.
The changing demographics of Southeast Los Angeles County resulted in declining membership for some area temples, while others have relied on residents from Orange County and outlying areas to maintain their strength.
Older members are dying or moving to places such as Florida for retirement. Young Jews who grew up in the Southeast area are being lured by the attraction of living in more active Jewish communities like West Los Angeles, the Fairfax District, Beverly Hills, San Fernando Valley and Orange County, rabbis said. Few Jewish families are moving in.
Area Lost Its Attraction
"A significant number of Jewish families moved into the Southeast in the 1950s," Mayersohn said. "By the '60s, it was no longer seen as an attractive area by large numbers of Jewish families."
The Huntington Park temple, for example, operated since the early 1930s but closed after its membership dropped to fewer than 30 families. Older Jewish families moved out and were not replaced by young Jews. Latinos were moving in, comprising 85% of the city's population.
"Just like a person lives with vitality, when (temples) lose vitality they die," said Jacobs, a modest man who thinks Ner Tamid is making "too much fuss" over him. "You have to reach out to people to join. It's a natural thing."
Ner Tamid reached its peak membership of about 250 families in the mid-1960s, and dropped to a low of about 125 families in 1984, Mayersohn said. The synagogue now has 140 families, including eight who have joined since July. As used by synagogues, "family" can refer to what is traditionally thought of as a family, or a single person who becomes a member.
Most of the temple's members are in their 50s to 70s, but about 25 of the temple's families have young children, he said.
100 Is 'Critical' Level
Since arriving at Ner Tamid last July, Mayersohn has focused on increasing the temple's membership to keep it from dropping to what he calls a "problem" level of 115 families or a "critical" level of 100 families.
While 90 of the congregation's families live in Downey, the rabbi has resigned himself to the idea that few Jews will be moving into the city.
"If they became successful, their notion of successful places to live became Orange County, the Westside and the San Fernando Valley," Mayersohn said of the young Jews leaving the Southeast. "And it's a notion that feeds upon itself."
He has focused his attention on reaching Downey Jews who do not belong to a synagogue and Jews from other cities who may be interested in the Reform temple, one of two in the Southeast. The other Reform synagogue is Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada. (There are three Conservative temples in the Southeast area and no Orthodox ones.)
A report published by the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles indicates that only 26% of Jewish adults in the metropolitan area belong to a synagogue.
Phone and Mail Campaigns
Mayersohn's outreach campaign included calling people whose telephone numbers were provided by members of the temple, and a mail campaign of 500 letters to encourage Jews to join.
He also has made himself available to Jewish and non-Jewish organizations to heighten the synagogue's visibility. For example, he recently gave the invocation before a Downey City Council meeting and a meeting of the Lakewood Rotary Club.
"Even if there aren't any Jews there, there may be people who will mention it to their Jewish neighbors," he said. "Fortunately our numbers this year have gone up, and hopefully with some aggressive outreach we'll be heading to the 150 and above numbers."
Membership at synagogues in Whittier, La Mirada and Montebello also reflects the changing demographics that have left Jewish populations in the area declining or stagnant. The congregations are looking to Jews in outlying cities for worshipers.
Membership Decline in Montebello
Membership at Temple B'Nai Emet in Montebello, a city that is heavily Latino and experiencing an influx of Asians, is about 175 families, down from close to 500 families in the mid-1960s, said Abe Baron, president of the Conservative temple. Attendance at the temple's school has dropped to about 20 children.