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Observance of Holy Days Lags in West, Study Finds

Participation in Jewish rituals is lower than in other U.S. regions. Some say the report doesn't take California's unique ways into account.

September 20, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

The findings of a new population study on Jews in America would seem tailor-made for Rosh Hashana sermons at Southern California synagogues as rabbis prepare for the start of the High Holy Days next week.

After all, the National Jewish Population Study found that a significantly smaller percentage of Jews in the Western United States than those in the Northeast or Midwest will be observing the High Holy Days, which begin at sundown Friday with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

In addition, the study said that as the year goes on, a reduced share of Jews in the West compared to their counterparts in the Northeast will fast on Yom Kippur, light Hanukkah and Shabbat candles, attend a Passover seder, keep kosher at home, and belong to a synagogue or other Jewish organization.

Why then are some Southern California rabbis not rushing to sound the alarm as they enter the High Holy Days?

Some lay and religious leaders here are expressing concerns about the long-term vitality of the Jewish American community facing assimilation and a current 47% intermarriage rate. But they also say they don't believe that things are as bad as the new study suggests, at least not in Los Angeles, which has the nation's largest Jewish population after New York. In a state like California, known for alternative lifestyles and innovative ways to make connections, traditional measurements of Jewish observance don't always tell the whole story, they stressed.

"The obituary for the Jews has been written countless times -- and that obituary has been proven false just as many times," said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada.

Rabbi Robert Gan, president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, said Jews have long worried about their community's survival and taken steps to ensure it. Still, he said playing to fears of "the ever-dying Jewish community" doesn't always reflect reality of how vibrant it really is.

"What I see happening in synagogue life does not necessarily bear out what the studies may say," he said.

In addition to its controversial finding that the U.S. Jewish population had declined by 5%, to 5.2 million, in the last decade, the study looked at 15 "connections" with Judaism. These included performing rituals such as lighting Shabbat candles, and compared the level of Jewish observance in four regions of the U.S.: the Northeast, Midwest, South and West.

The study found that 55% of Jews in the West held or attended a Passover seder, compared to 75% in the Northeast, 67% in the Midwest, and 65% in the South. In the Northeast, 65% of Jews polled fasted on Yom Kippur, compared to 50% in the West. While 28% of Jews in the Northeast kept kosher at home, only 15% did in the West and the South. When it came to synagogue membership, 50% of Jews in the Northeast were joiners, compared to 36% in the West.

Of course, Jews are not the only ethnic groups in the West to experience weaker links to tradition. People had to break family and institutional ties to move West, historians have observed.

However, levels of Jewish observance in the West may be artificially lowered in the study by lumping Southern California in with other parts of the West, according to some Los Angeles rabbis.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple observed, "If this includes Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and La Cruces, N.M., then the reasons for this [low observance rate] are quite obvious. Many communities have a high rate of intermarriage. There are barely enough Jews for a critical mass to sustain Jewish life and give it much energy or appeal." Even San Francisco's rate of Jewish intermarriage and assimilation is higher than Los Angeles', he said. "The joke about the Reform Synagogue in San Francisco is that it was closed for the holidays," Leder said.

The Los Angeles rabbis have a point, said Lorraine Blass, project manager of the $6-million study undertaken by the New York-based United Jewish Communities, which represents 156 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America. In measuring Jewish observances and affiliations in the West, she said the study grouped Los Angeles and California Jews with those in 12 other Western states, including Alaska and Hawaii. Often there is no critical mass of Jews in those areas.

By contrast, Jewish life, faith and culture are strong in Los Angeles, although much of it is not tied to synagogues or the Jewish federation's programs, said Rabbi Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, which is offering courses to meet a demand from people who may not be members of a synagogue. He also noted that the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Skirball Cultural Center attract many unaffiliated Jews.

Moreover, Jews here, like many other Californians, are open to alternatives, Wexler said. "At a given Rosh Hashana in Los Angeles there are almost as many people participating in nonsynagogue services -- from a service in a rented theater to getting together at home," Wexler said.

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