Behind the façade of Hollywood lights and beach balls, there are approximately 700,000 Jewish people in Los Angeles County. We comprise approximately 7 percent of the county and 17.5 percent of the city’s population, making our Jewish community the largest in the world outside of New York City and Eretz Yisrael. This always seems to surprise people, perhaps because the Los Angeles community is inclusive of so many different types of Jews. With so many vantage points from which to describe Los Angeles, I can only share my personal perspective about this vibrant Jewish community.
Growing up on the Pico-Robertson side of town, we were part of a fairly small, primarily modern-orthodox community. Sunny days were the norm (although snowy mountains are less than two hours away). Most of my childhood memories are of my siblings and me playing in our garden, which was a treasure trove of fruits and vegetables, or jumping in the waves and playing in the sand at the beach.
LA used to be a very small community, and I remember that feeling of excitement upon seeing another Jewish face or a kippa on someone’s head in the market—that feeling of, Hey, I know you!, even if we’d never met before. Most of the children in the Jewish day school I attended were not shomer Shabbos, but the community kept growing, in size and in observance. Later, in high school, I was joined by other girls who had transferred from public school looking for a closer connection to Judaism.
Over the next thirty years, I saw my community transform in many ways. At first, we only had a handful of kosher markets, a bakery, a little pizza shop owned by two very sweet Holocaust survivors, a deli, a kosher restaurant and a few shuls. Slowly, more restaurants, shuls, yeshivos, and Jewish stores began appearing. Pico Boulevard physically and spiritually became the place to go for any of your Jewish needs.
Our community grew like a family. When my daughter was two, I started teaching a ‘Mommy and Me’ group, where mothers and toddlers could come together to make art projects, sing songs and play games. Over time, as our families grew, we fund ourselves filling in for each other when needed. Even though we lived in a big city, we created a suburban feel. If anyone had a baby or was not well, we created a meal train. We learned to rely on each other in so many ways. Over the years, I taught Navi and Parshah and soon began opening art classes to the community. People found a way to paint, draw and create figures and forms in a kosher, tznius environment, with separate boys’, girls’ and women’s classes.
However, during the last couple of years, when Covid-19 hit, life became much different here, as it did everywhere. Although it was a bit more challenging, people found ways to daven together in small, backyard minyanim and other safe, outdoor venues. The year before, we felt so excited as we planned my son’s bar mitzvah in Eretz Yisrael. We soon realized that this was not going to happen, and we were simply grateful to have our son read the Torah while wearing a mask in our shul (Adass Torah) on Shabbos. The next Sunday, his class drove by with signs wishing him mazal tov. We were also allowed back in shul for Simchas Torah last year, but our celebration and dancing were limited. Only one family at a time was able to dance around the bimah with a sefer Torah. It was still nice, but difficult for me to see everyone having to contain their joy.
This year, Simchas Torah returned to being an explosion of joy at our shul. After minchah, they auctioned off hakafos, and the simchah began. Looking over from the women’s side, I enjoyed watching the leibadig dancing of my boys and other young bachurim with their suits and black hats, dancing with sifrei Torah around the bimah. Young parents sang, danced and threw their giggling children up in the air every time they sang ‘Moshe Emes’. Children waved flags, and Persians, Russians, Americans, Litvaks and Chassidim all danced together!
Once finished, we headed outside, where I saw something, I would never have imagined as a child. The entire Pico Boulevard, one of the busiest streets in Los Angeles, was completely shut down and filled with Jews of every type. The police had blocked off all of the side streets leading to Pico. A group of modern-orthodox high school boys sang and danced around their rebbe. The young Sephardic minyan made Kiddush and the Persian shul laid out tables with food, while the kollel were still finishing hakafos. People sang and danced through the streets. Like a Jewish Disneyland, all flavours could be seen. Whether you attended the kiruv shul, the Chassidishe shul, the Israeli, Carlebach, Moroccan, Yemenite, Yeshivish, Chabad or Persian shuls, there was a bond that held us all together there on Pico Boulevard.
Los Angeles is not without its pressures: the cost of living and exposure to content, activities and lifestyles is not consistent with religious Jewish tradition, among others. Perhaps the greatest success factor for the Los Angeles community in recent times, though, has been its broad commitment to nurturing the spiritual growth of every member of the community. Our shul, Adas Torah, is always offering chaburos by various community members, shiurim and even a quarterly publication called Nitzachon that has diverse Torah insights. One can see the obvious commitment to growth in observance, growth in learning, growth in chessed and growth in yiras Shamayim. To see this happening on a community-wide scale has been truly remarkable. It is my sincere hope that, until we are all in Eretz Yisrael together, we will continue to enjoy and benefit from the very special place our Los Angeles Jewish community has become. I want to express my hakaras hatov to all of the gedolim and balei battim who had the foresight and commitment to bring just the right mix of rebbeim and leaders to our city.
While attending my son’s siyum at Yeshiva Gedola of Los Angeles, the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Eliezer Gross, mentioned that the Chofetz Chaim said the last station for Torah is America, and that later the Ponovitcher Rav said that Los Angeles is the last station for Torah before Mashiach comes. With the amount of Torah learning, the striving to be better and the achdus that can be seen here in Los Angeles, I think we are almost there!