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RELIGION

Debate Rises Over Jewish Census

Population: Figures show Orthodox population has slipped, but members say their ranks are increasing.

July 25, 1998|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At Shalom Hunan, one of the newer restaurants in the mid-Wilshire district, the menu serves all the Chinese standards.

But in a twist, it's strictly kosher. The spring rolls? Vegetarian, not pork. And business is booming.

The kippah-clad crowds that jam into Shalom Hunan--particularly on Saturday nights, after the Jewish Sabbath ends--vividly illustrate a revitalization in recent years in the ranks of Los Angeles' Orthodox Jews. Other signs: a baby boom in Orthodox families, surging enrollment in Orthodox schools and an increase in the number of Orthodox synagogues.

But a census conducted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles says that the proportion of Orthodox households actually has slipped over the last two decades, from 5.2% of the Jewish population in 1979 to 4.3% last year.

Released earlier this month, the federation's figures have sparked a furious debate in Orthodox circles--as well as in the broader Jewish community in Los Angeles and across the United States--over the present import of Orthodoxy and its future vitality.

The debate centers on politics and power, both in Southern California and on the national and international scene. It touches on matters as diverse as the allocation of money to local charities and the provocative "who is a Jew" issue relating to conversions.

The federation's survey shows not only that the Orthodox population is slipping, but also that the more liberal Reform movement is growing--from 37.2% of the area's Jewish population in 1979, the year of the federation's previous census, to 39.9% in 1997. The overall size of the Los Angeles Jewish population has remained roughly stable.

The survey also indicates that nearly half the households surveyed had shifted away from the denomination their parents favored; that shift, according to the survey, has had a "major impact" downward on the size of the Orthodox movement.

The dispute over the federation's numbers offers a telling lesson in the power of perception.

If the reality, according to the census, is that the Orthodox population is slipping, the perception in the Orthodox community is distinctly otherwise. Many Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders view the federation's findings with bewilderment or suspicion, some with outright hostility.

"I find it baffling," Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, head of an Orthodox school, Maimonides Academy, on the Westside, said of the census.

"Numbers can lie. People can lie," said Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute at another Orthodox institution on the Westside, Yeshiva of Los Angeles. "But pizza shops don't lie."

Twenty years ago, he and others pointed out, there were perhaps a handful of kosher restaurants in Los Angeles. Now there are dozens. Not everyone who patronizes kosher restaurants is Orthodox, although most are.

Adlerstein and other Orthodox leaders offered evidence of growth in many other areas as well:

* About 800 women per month use the mikvah in the Pico-Robertson area, said Deborah Goldenberg, an officer of the volunteer society that runs the ritual bath. Five years ago, that number was 550; 20 years ago, it was 80 per month. Jewish women who strictly observe traditional religious law immerse themselves in the mikvah at the end of each menstrual period.

* In 1979, there were nine Orthodox schools serving 1,862 students in kindergarten through grade 12. Last year, according to Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, there were 4,911 children in 20 Orthodox schools. Although Orthodox schools are open to children from the Conservative and Reform movements, Graff said most of the children in those 20 schools are Orthodox.

* While there were a mere handful of Orthodox synagogues on or near Pico Boulevard on the Westside in the late 1970s, now there are a dozen. Similar growth in the number of synagogues can be seen in other Orthodox enclaves in Hancock Park and North Hollywood.

Two years ago, the Young Israel of Century City synagogue remodeled its sanctuary, expanding from 242 to 400 seats. This September, Rabbi Elazar Muskin expects a crowd of 500 for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year and for Yom Kippur 10 days later.

"The biggest problem for us right now is finding a solution to our growth, this constant growth," Muskin said. "It's a blessing in disguise."

With such blessings, the question in the Orthodox community is simple: How can it be that the federation found a population decline?

Or, ask some Orthodox leaders, did it really? Are the figures accurate?

"There's a perception out there that the federation is so distanced from the world of tradition and appreciation of the Orthodox community that they wouldn't know an Orthodox Jew if they saw one," Adlerstein said.

For the most part, the federation--an umbrella fund-raising agency for an extensive social service network in Los Angeles, Israel and around the world--is run by Reform and Conservative Jews. But Miriam Prum-Hess, a senior federation official, said that is irrelevant.

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