Los Angeles — “This is the most exciting and frustrating Jewish community in the country,” proclaimed Jay Sanderson, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, the site and showcase of the annual Jewish Funders Network international conference held here over three days this week.
“Everything good — and challenging — is moving from west to east,” he said, including highly innovative Jewish projects as well as “assimilation, in powerful ways.”
With its diverse Jewish communities stretching over many miles, Sanderson said Los Angeles represents a “huge challenge,” and a test case for the rest of the country, Jewishly, in keeping with the expression, “L.A. is America, only sooner.”
A self-described “out of the box” federation executive whose previous post was founder and head of the Jewish Television Network, Sanderson spoke of the remarkable Jewish culture, content and creativity in the place Dorothy Parker called “72 suburbs in search of a city.”
Speaking at a plenary on “21st Century Lessons From Jewish Los Angeles,” he observed that “our grandparents moved west to escape Jewish community, and to build new ones,” making L.A. a “great Jewish laboratory” for the rest of American Jewry.
The session featured a conversation with Jill Soloway, a Hollywood director/writer/producer (“Six Feet Under,” “The United States of Tara”), and leading L.A. philanthropist Peter Lowy, focused on how lay leaders are changing the Jewish landscape of the community through innovative involvement.
Soloway, a Chicago native, described how she was inspired Jewishly five years ago by Reboot, a cultural group that seeks to spark Jewish identity in young, primarily alienated artist types, making it “hip and fun” to do Jewish, in her words.
“It’s about joy — not sadness, the way it was when I grew up.”
Living in Silver Lake, an L.A. community with many artists, writers and other creative types, she co-founded the East Side Jews collective, committed to “reinventing” Jewish traditions and experiences in ways that would attract other young Jews largely turned off to traditional forms of religious life.
“Everything works for us from the bottom up,” she said, adding that success came from understanding two strongly held beliefs among young people: “you only live once” and you “don’t want to miss out” on a great experience.
Soloway said the collective sought to create events around Shabbat and holidays that would provide “joy, meaning and fun, where you’d feel that if you didn’t show up you’d really miss out.”
The key, she said, was to provide “a mash-up of the traditional and the secular in an irreverent but serious way,” resulting, for example, in Torah portion study through comedy, holiday retreats in the desert, havdalah services on a rooftop and a Rosh Chodesh event entitled “Once In A Jew Moon.”
She now serves on the board of a local Jewish Community Center in Silver Lake that had a successful preschool program but was “defunct” as a community center. She is working to bring in young people like herself who “crave community.”
Lowy, who made his fortune in building malls as co-CEO of The Westfield Group, said he typified his native Australia in that he “hates authority and the status quo,” and has used a business approach to improving Jewish life in L.A.
His big push, he said, is against “the misuse of resources,” and reallocating them. He described the local federation of a few years ago, pre-Sanderson, as “still in the 20th century,” with a central budget that no one questioned. Today, he noted, it is “smaller, tighter and more effective.”
Noting that the L.A. community was spread out over very wide and diverse areas, and difficult to connect, Lowy said the goal was to create successful institutions in local areas and then expand regionally.
Among his success stories was helping to work out a “complicated merger” between the University of Judaism and the Brandeis Bardin Institute, which ran a camp on a large piece of land in Simi Valley, but was underutilized.
The resulting institution, the American Jewish University, now has a $90 million endowment and is building a conference center in the valley, he said.
A number of existing Jewish institutions, Lowy said, were built in the 20th century, when the community was not as diverse as now, and were created to respond to the Holocaust or the State of Israel.
There was little attention given to the needs of the L.A. community itself, he observed. “I like to rebuild [the institutions] and change the thought process,” he said, comparing Jews to consumers who have needs, and the question is how to bring them in.
As moderator Joshua Avedon, cofounder of Jumpstart, noted, the implicit theme of the discussion was about questioning assumptions and continually reinventing institutions and, in so doing, the community itself.
“A businessman who rejects authority and a filmmaker working for the JCC,” he mused about Lowy and Soloway. “Welcome to L.A.”
Andres Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, said in an interview that part of the planning for the conference was to capture “the vibe” of L.A., including its diversity, blurring of boundaries and bringing in presenters from outside the organized Jewish community.
He emphasized the need for networking, more cooperation among foundations and “working toward a philanthropy of excellence, being smart and strategic” so as not to “face a new world with old philanthropy.”
Other highlight sof the annual conference, the largest ever, with more than 325 donors attending from around the country as well as Israel and other countries, included:
n the presentation of the J.J. Greenberg Award, for outstanding young Jewish professionals, to Charlene Seidle, senior vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego;
n an inspiring talk by Sinai Temple Senior Rabbi David Wolpe, who encouraged donors to give not only to programs touting innovation but to the synagogues, schools, camps and other institutions that are “the lifeblood” of the community, noting: “I worry for the maintenance of the places that do the day-to-day work”;
n and a stand-up routine by comedian Elon Gold, who truly knew his crowd, observing that when he performs for Jewish audiences, they laugh, “but it’s a short laugh and then they’re thinking and planning and saying, ‘you know, he’d be good for a fundraiser.’”