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L.A.'s Jewish Community Looks Inward for Answers

October 02, 1994|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Center for the New West and international fellow at Pepperdine University School of Business

When Stanley Treitel was growing up four decades ago, Fairfax Avenue was the center of Los Angeles' Jewish world. But as he walks down the avenue today, he sees just another urban strip in decay.

"We never had these vacancies, this graffiti, until the last three or four years," Treitel says. "People are down, people are economically down. They feel if the graffiti is taken off today, it'll be back tomorrow."

In general, the graffiti marks the spot of an abandoned or declining business, of which there are many between Beverly and Melrose, the heart of the Fairfax District. Second- and third-generation Jews who own businesses are barely surviving because their clientele is either aging or has moved elsewhere. The children who continue to run family concerns seem to care less and less about keeping the enterprise going. What economic vitality there is on Fairfax is traceable to recent Jewish immigrants, mostly Israeli and Iranian.

Indeed, it may be the immigrant who now represents the most dynamic economic element in the Jewish community. Persian, Israeli and North African Jews have become players in the Downtown garment and jewelry districts, replacing earlier generations of East Europeans. Similarly, in contrast to Fairfax's decay, there is a plethora of Israeli- and Persian-owned businesses in retail districts along Pico and Ventura boulevards. Russian entrepreneurs are the economic engines along Santa Monica Boulevard.

Still, in many ways, Fairfax's fate raises the distinct prospect of decline in what is one of Judaism's wealthiest and most powerful communities. Long a dominant force in entertainment, the garment industry, the artistic and political life of Southern California, the Jewish community faces a difficult period of change in the increasingly multicultural reality that is Los Angeles.

At the core of this change is a weakening embrace of the liberalism at the heart of New Deal coalition politics, which has characterized much of Los Angeles Jewry. It is also a turning inward, toward a deeper spirituality and interest in the social health of the community.

This change, in part, is the product of demographic trends. After rapid growth in the first two decades following World War II, the Jewish population in the county has plateaued at about 500,000, according to studies conducted by the L.A. Jewish Federation. If immigration from overseas had not occurred, it would almost certainly have declined during the past decade. The most severe population losses are in Beverlywood and Fairfax, the traditional centers of the community.

This decline in numbers coincides with the lessening urgency of the three obsessions that have dominated the diaspora for 50 years--the preservation of Israel, the building of Holocaust monuments and the maintenance of the New Deal liberal coalition. At the same time, mainstream Jewish politics seems increasingly unresponsive to the challenges of ethnic survival in Los Angeles.

Neither strong community institutions, an affluent business elite or such powerful Jewish politicians as Rep. Henry A. Waxman and Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, for example, seem willing to tackle the decay of neighborhoods like Fairfax. "No one takes responsibility for the street anymore," laments Treitel, who headed a briefly successful Fairfax revitalization campaign in the 1980s. "There's a lack of commitment on the part of the merchants and the politicians."

The rethinking among Jews in Los Angeles is, in large part, driven by the changing interests of younger, working Jewish families. Much of the Jewish Establishment here traditionally supported the liberal causes of busing and affirmative action. One result of these policies, however, has been "conscious leveling" in public schools, according to the Anti-Defamation League's David Lehrer. The once highly regarded Fairfax High School, for example, has suffered under a doctrinaire multiculturalism.

More than any one factor, decreasing confidence in public schools is pushing many of the younger Jewish families northward to Calabasas and the Conejo Valley in Ventura County, whose public schools have top-quality reputations. At the same time, Jews who remain here are choosing private non-denominational or "Hebrew day schools" to educate their children. Two decades ago, there were hardly any such Jewish parochial institutions. Today, the Jewish Federation estimates there are more than 30, with a rising student enrollment that tops 8,000, about twice the number of pupils 10 years ago. Even the most powerful mainstream temples are either planning or are already building new and ever more elaborate full-time schools to keep their younger families in their congregations.

Another powerful force behind changing Jewish attitudes is deepening anxieties about crime. "There's a greater perception of crime than ever before among Jews," says Alan Fisher, a political scientist at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

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