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BACK TO THE FOLD : More and More Jews Are Heeding Call of Tradition

October 04, 1987|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

Their numbers are small, probably no more than 1% of the Jewish population. But their impact can be seen in neighborhoods around the Westside.

Some have dubbed them Juppies, short for Jewish yuppies; fruppies, short for frum (Orthodox) yuppies, or BTs, short for ba'alei tshuva (returners or repenters).

They are young and middle-aged men and women, well educated and affluent, who are returning to Judaism with a passion and are banding together in their commitment.

Saturdays Off

One such group will share more than religion. Some members of the Pacific Jewish Center, a strictly observant synagogue, are building a kosher housing development within walking distance of Venice Beach. Eight families each have invested upwards of $300,000 to become part of the community on a cul-de-sac off Ozone Avenue.

At first glance, the construction site--where workmen are under strict orders not to work on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath--and Cape Cod-style houses do not look unusual. But a second look reveals a cabalistic good-luck charm protecting the site and interiors that are being customized for traditional observances.

The eight houses on 10 lots near Lincoln Boulevard will have double sinks and dishwashers--one for dairy food, one for meat--to help homeowners follow the complex rules for keeping kosher. Instead of the wet bar in the architect's original plans, the dining room will feature a sink for ritual hand-washing.

Almost all of the new homeowners have come to traditional Judaism for the first time or are finding their way back after years of alienation.

They say they have found a sense of community and meaning in life that runs as deep as it is new.

Opposite Directions

The growing membership in organizations such as the Pacific Jewish Center, which attracts more than 400 people to its weekly classes on the Bible and Jewish tradition, indicates that the new homeowners are not alone.

"You see things moving in directly opposed directions simultaneously," said Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am, a large Conservative synagogue on La Cienega Boulevard just south of Beverly Hills.

"We (in Los Angeles) have one of the lowest synagogue-affiliated rates in the country, but at the same time that percentage seems to be affiliated with a higher degree of commitment, and the reasons why are hard to know for sure," he said.

Rembaum was one of the founding members of the Library Minyan, an alternative congregation that holds its services for the High Holy Days in Beth Am's basement social room. That group has grown to more than 200 families from 20 in 1970.

Founded by professors and non-practicing rabbis and professors, the congregation has attracted a number of members who did not grow up in traditional homes.

Seeking to explain the return to orthodoxy, Rembaum cited the isolation of life in the nation's second most populous city, where only one Jewish household in three is home to a traditional nuclear family.

'Need for Community'

"There's a need for community, and one way of satisfying that need is to affiliate with a synagogue and participate in Jewish living," he said.

He also said that American Jews now may be more comfortable with their ethnicity than previously. "You don't need to cover up your Jewishness to be accepted," he said.

Additionally, "People are on a spiritual quest, and I think that there is a recognition of the limitation of human beings," Rembaum said. "We can blow ourselves to bits. We could never do that before. Maybe there's a sense that we need some higher wisdom to keep us from doing that."

According to Joel Grossman, a lawyer who got his job through the Library Minyan when a senior partner at the firm where he now works heard him give a talk on the Torah, the mechanization and computerization of modern society is also a factor.

"I think the more computerized we get, the more important it is to find a sense of spiritual enrichment," he said. "I think it's very, very hard to live in a society like ours without God and the concept of a higher spiritual dimension.

"Those of us whole been through the '60s and '70s and experienced all sorts of sensuality and sexuality and drugs are left with the feeling that there's got to be something more.

"And by the '80s, we've got a nice house and couple of cars and Rolex watches, and there's the feeling that there's got to be more than this too. A house in Beverly Hills but there's still something missing in your life.

"And that's where I think religion comes in. And I think it does provide you with a sense of finding a place for yourself in the universe."

It has also provided some members with new friends and spouses. According to Michael Medved, a film critic who is president of the Pacific Jewish Center, there have been 67 weddings in the congregation since it was founded 10 years ago.

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