American Jewry’s Comfort Level: The Jewish Communities of the Western United States by Steven Windmueller

Twenty-five percent of all American Jews live in the Western United States, representing a distinctive and growing voice within Jewish life. Participation and identity in these communities show different features from the rest of American Jewry, in part reflecting the social mores of the West. A lack of longstanding communal histories and established behaviors has also made it easier for Western Jewry to develop special creative aspects.

Clearly, not all Jewish communities in the West are the same. The histories and communal cultures of the San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland communities differ from each other to varying extents. As more established centers, these cities show characteristics both consonant with the national Jewish patterns and distinctive to the West. In turn, the communities of the “sun,” including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Diego, are more notably marked by attributes that separate Western Jewry from the rest of the nation:

  1. The pioneering  and  independent  spirit  of  the  West,  affecting  Jewish contributions and choices
  2. The special histories of Western communities
  3. “Distance” from other centers of Jewish life as a factor in shaping Western Jewish behavior
  4. The impact of the “wide open spaces” on the building of communities
  5. The unique role of leaders, especially rabbis, in shaping Western Jewish life
  6. The West as an alternative lifestyle model, affecting communal affiliation and participation


The Statistical Picture

The key Western Jewish communities that were considered in this study include: Las Vegas, Los Angeles (metropolitan area), Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco (metropolitan area), and Seattle.

Excluding Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, these Western Jewish communities were among the largest growth areas. Each of these communities is currently reporting that its population continues to grow, exceeding the last official numbers available.

For example, the 2002 Greater Phoenix Jewish Community Study found a total of forty-four thousand Jewish households in Greater Phoenix. This is an increase of 138 percent from 1984 and considerably greater than the 78 percent growth of general households within Greater Phoenix in the same period.1 The Phoenix study also found that “nearly half of Jewish households have lived in Greater Phoenix less than 10 years; 23 percent—10,000 households—have lived in the Valley five years or less.”2

These statistics reinforce one of the central features of Western communities in general and Western Jewish communities in particular: the absence of an indigenous population base. Few individuals can trace their family ties beyond one or two generations. This leads to a weaker role for religious institutions and other social infrastructures, and, in turn, a lack of leadership and commitment. As a result, communal and religious organizations constantly struggle to recruit new participants and to identify and engage new leadership.

The Pioneering and Independent Spirit

In the various periods of rapid growth, many new residents were immigrants seeking to make a new start. Many had strong commercial motives and the area developed a strong individualistic ethos. Communities were created whose residents shared no prior connection or allegiances. The open land allowed people to live much farther from neighbors than had been possible in Eastern cities, and an ethic of tolerance emerged. California’s state constitutions were largely drafted by groups concerned about personal property rights and freedom, arguably at the expense of ideals fostering civic community.

Western Jewry is best defined in terms of various “pioneering” experiences. Jews were among the original pioneers who during the Gold Rush era helped settle the Western United States and launch the development of key cities such as San Francisco or Carson City, Nevada. Successful businesses and industries were established by Jews over time. In the nineteenth century, for example, the Levi-Strauss Company was formed in San Francisco and has continued to play an important role in the American clothing industry. More recently Starbucks Coffee, a Seattle-based corporation, has revolutionized American consumer habits. Jews were also among the first to make Las Vegas a gambling and entertainment center.

Ava Kahn and Marc Dollinger note regarding California’s Jews:

Jewish immigrants to California took advantage of its physical environment, ethnic diversity, and cultural distinctiveness to fashion a form of Judaism unique in the American experience. California Jews enjoyed unprecedented access to political power a generation earlier than their New York counter- parts. They thrived in the multicultural mix, redefining the classic black-white racial binary by forging relations with a variety of religious and ethnic groups in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.3

Jews were the driving force behind the Hollywood entertainment industry. Jews are also major players throughout the larger Western communities in the real estate and construction industries. They are often responsible for technological innovation, including in Silicon Valley. In the area of medical research, eight universities and teaching hospitals in the West that rank among the top in the nation have a significant presence of Jewish physicians, faculty, and researchers. Political activism is also a trademark of Western Jews. Two of the centers of American Jewish liberalism are in the West, namely, the Bay Area and West Los Angeles. Large communities of Iranian and Russian Jews have supported pro- Israel and hawkish political candidates. As in other areas of the United States, Jews in this region have been active in both political parties and for particular candidates and high-profile issues. Ever since settling in the West, Jews have served in public office at all levels.

Affiliation Levels

Jews of the West turned out to have lower levels of religiosity. Only 5 percent indicated that they were Orthodox compared to 14 percent of Jews in the Northeast. Of Western Jews, 35 percent described themselves as Reform, 19 percent as Conservative. Among Midwestern Jews, 46 percent considered themselves Reform and 25 percent as Conservative.4

By all standards of affiliation and participation, Jews of the West rank lowest. They are also least likely to contribute to federation campaigns or other Jewish causes. Only 22 percent donate to federation campaigns and only 39 percent to any Jewish cause. In the Midwest, more than 37 percent of Jews give to federation campaigns and 48 percent to other Jewish causes.5

Israel is another measure of Jewish engagement. One can define “emotional attachment” as significant engagement with Israeli peoplehood and its political situation, economic support, and travel to Israel. Only 29 percent of Western Jews have traveled to Israel compared to 35 percent of American Jews generally and 49 percent of those in the Northeast. When asked about their emotional attachment to Israel, Western Jews are tied with Southern Jewry (29 percent) as having the lowest, compared to the highest-ranking Northeastern (61 percent) and Midwestern (59 percent) Jewry regions. In addition, only 50 percent of Western Jewry ranked Israel’s need for U.S. financial support as very important. This was the lowest rate for the country.

Jews of the West also give the least to all causes, Jewish and non-Jewish combined. Whereas 78 percent of Midwestern Jews, the highest givers in America, report giving to all causes, the figure for Western Jews is 69 percent.

“Using the Internet for Jewish purposes” produced a higher score among Western Jews (41 percent) than any other regional cohort except Midwestern Jews (46 percent). In contrast, Jews of the West were the least likely to read Jewish newspapers or magazines (62 percent); Midwestern Jews were the most likely (72 percent).

Western Jews are among the nation’s wealthiest based on a number of business surveys, including the Forbes 400 where a significant percentage of all Jews mentioned reside in the West. At the same time, data from both the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) for 2000–2001 and local community studies show a higher percentage of Western Jews living in poverty. The NJPS (2000– 2001) found 46 percent of elderly Jewish households in the West with incomes under $25,000 compared to the national Jewish average of 37 percent.6

Various community population studies conducted in key Western Jewish communities point to a set of defining social characteristics. The key elements are lower affiliation patterns and a larger percentage of adults compared to other regions of the country.7

The Distinctive Histories of Western Communities

Although the West is perceived as a single region, its Jewish communities have had distinctive histories.

In Northern California, the Gold Rush brought Jews who became prospectors and businessmen. To Arizona and Southern California came Jews who were merchants and traders. Among the earliest Jewish settlers in the Seattle area were Sephardic Jews, and they remain a significant part of that community. In general, the early Jewish settlers also became leaders in the public sector. The years surrounding World War II reshaped the Western communities. A population explosion enhanced the role and prominence of the Western cities and, in turn, their respective Jewish communities.

San Francisco’s Jewish community is marked both by its old wealth as well as its newly emergent wealth. The San Francisco Jewish Community Endowment Fund responds to emergencies and provides seed monies for innovative programs to ensure a Jewish future. “It consists of unrestricted, restricted and designated funds, over 880 donor-advised funds, and over 72 supporting foundations…. With more than $2.8 billion in assets, the Endowment Fund is a vital community resource and is one of the country’s most successful Jewish foundations.”8 Two other primary San Francisco Jewish resources are the Koret Foundation, which supports organizations and initiatives in the fields of education, economic development in Israel, and strengthening Bay Area communities, and the Jim Joseph Foundation, which supports programs to enhance identity and engagement among Jewish youth.

The Factor of Distance from Other Jewish Centers

Being far from the “capital” of American Jewry, New York, has had a profound psychological and functional impact on Western Jewry. The greater the distance from the center of Jewish power, the greater the institutional tensions. Many national institutions have had difficulties in organizational relationships with their West Coast affiliates. Western regional structures of synagogue movements, membership organizations, and policy groups have sometimes struggled with their central administration over questions of autonomy and proportional representation within these national systems.

An example is the 1995 decision by the Conservative-affiliated University of Judaism—now the American Jewish University—based in Bel-Air, California, to separate itself from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Similarly, Hadassah in the Pacific Southwest area has created a different organizational and governing model than that prescribed by the national administration.

A 2002 Los Angeles Times article, “American Jews Face East-West Power Struggle,” highlighted the dismissal of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) longtime Los Angeles director David Lehrer. The story noted: “Among some Jews here, the brouhaha has reignited long-simmering resentment over the way national Jewish organizations in New York still treat Los Angeles as ‘a colony,’ as one put it. The same kind of tension—often between national headquarters and regional offices—has surfaced in other American Jewish organizations in recent years.” As Lehrer put it, “my ouster is in part a reflection of the East-West divide in American Jewry. I hope the Los Angeles Jewish community continues to assert its independence and uniqueness.”9

Western federations, for example, have complained that their communities are underrepresented on national policy boards of the federated system and other governing bodies.10 In turn organizational representatives have argued that the leadership in the West has failed to accept greater responsibility for actively participating in these national bodies. Other critics of Western Jewry have pointed to a longstanding absence of committed leaders from these communities who could play major roles in the national agencies.

Indeed, compared to other regions of the country, fewer national Jewish leaders emerge from Western communities. This is true of other Western religious communities as well.

The Impact of the “Wide Open Spaces” on Community Construction

Geographic distance and size play important roles in the West. Vast distances between population centers, extensive urban sprawl, and large general populations create difficulties in creating shared points of connection and providing social and educational services. As a result, Jews who wish to escape the pressures associated with communal participation or synagogue membership can, in many Western communities, move outside the more densely settled and identified Jewish “neighborhoods.” Additionally, since Western communities experience significant population movement, it is difficult for religious and communal structures to define population trends or strategically position core Jewish services.

Unique pockets of Jewish life are another distinguishing feature of the West. These include Hollywood with its high proportions of Jewish actors, writers, directors, and producers, and Silicon Valley with its many Jewish “techies” and entrepreneurs who have helped develop the hi-tech and biotech fields. Jews are also strongly represented in the growing financial sector and in the land development/real estate industry.

The West and Communal Participation

New Communities

Unlike Jewish communities elsewhere in the United States, many West Coast communities are experiencing significant growth. Fifty-four percent of Jewish adults have lived in San Diego for less than twenty years, of which 19 percent for less than five years.11

But in San Diego, as in many other Western locations, rapid growth and geographic sprawl are accompanied by low rates of engagement in the organized Jewish community with only three out of ten Jews reporting that they belong to a synagogue or temple. Only 46 percent report participation in organized Jewish activities, and 35 percent feel “not at all connected” to the San Diego Jewish community.12

Diverse Immigrant Communities

The West has always been receptive to immigrants. Los Angeles and other parts of the West have become new population centers for Iranian, South African, and Latin American Jews. Significant numbers of Israeli13 and Russian Jews have also found the West to be welcoming. In earlier times Sephardic Jews settled in Portland, Seattle, and the Los Angeles. Today, Los Angeles is home to one of the largest Israeli communities outside of Israel.

These communities often create distinctive institutional structures, for example, in the cases of the Sephardic, Russian, and Iranian Jews. Synagogues have been established to serve these constituencies; social and fraternal groups provide various support services; in some cases, umbrella representative bodies address shared concerns and financial priorities. For example, some twenty smaller organizations affiliate with the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles. Similarly, Bay Area Russian Jews have created their own communal infrastructure that enables them to meet their specific needs. There are smaller pockets of Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Moroccan Jews in the Los Angeles area as well.

The Psychological Factor of Moving West

Some Jews come to the West to avoid the burdens of communal participation. They feel they have “done their Jewish thing somewhere else” and, once in the West, steer clear of the formal obligations associated with being a community participant or synagogue member. The results are seen in the low rates of affiliation and giving among Jews.

Alternative Models of Community

Jews take on the characteristics of others living in the West, often seeking alternative lifestyle options. There is a high degree of experimentation with Jewish religious and social practice. Beyond the core denominational movements, throughout Western communities one finds Jewish Renewal, Humanistic Judaism, and an array of unaffiliated synagogues.

Nearly every Western Jewish community holds annual Jewish or Israeli film festivals including San Francisco, San Diego, Palm Springs, Orange County (California), Phoenix, Sacramento, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Other communities, such as Tucson, sponsor Jewish art festivals.

With new  residents  regularly arriving,  most Western communities  also have some type of welcoming system. Examples are “Shalom San Diego”; “Get Connected,” a series of programs sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle; or “Jewish Newish,” a project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.

Increasing numbers of groups have made the West their locus for organizing. Maintaining their home offices in Los Angeles are: Mazon, the Jewish Response to Hunger;14 the Simon Wiesenthal Center (see below); Jewish World Watch, “established in October, 2004 as a Jewish response to horrors perpetrated by human beings against others” and Jews for Judaism, “an international organization that provides a wide variety of counseling services, along with education, and outreach programs that enable Jews of all ages to rediscover and strengthen their Jewish heritage.”

The liberal magazine Tikkun is headquartered in the Bay Area. Toward Tradition, a conservative Jewish-Christian organization founded by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, is based in Seattle.15

Jewish culture as an organizing theme has led to the establishment of Jewish museums, theaters, and arts programs. The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco16 reflect this focus on making Jewish arts and culture a centerpiece of Western Jewish life. Similarly, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI) in Simi Valley, California, was created as a model of melding Jewish camping and culture.17 It has since merged with the University of Judaism to create the American Jewish University.

Yossi Klein Halevi, writing about the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre, captures in his comments some of the features that merge Jewish life with the world of Hollywood and that uniquely reflect the culture of the West:

I’m at the international headquarters of the Kabbalah Centre—the new-age movement that claims to have reached over three million people, including non-Jewish pop stars, such as Madonna, Mick Jagger, and Britney Spears. With its fast-paced prayers and separate seating for men and women, the Centre could be a typical Orthodox synagogue, except for a few oddities—like the fact that some men wear yarmulkes and prayer shawls and phylacteries, while others are bareheaded. Or that some of those wearing phylacteries may not be Jewish. The Centre has transformed Kabbalah—considered by Jews to be the inner sanctum of Jewish devotion and thought—into generic, nondenominational mysticism. It is “the secret” of life, according to the Centre’s website, supposedly studied by everyone from Plato to Shakespeare. In an interview last year with “Dateline NBC,” Madonna, who has donated some $5 million to the Centre, called herself “a Kabbala-ist [sic]” and noted the similarity between Kabbalah and punk rock. Both, she explained, are forms of “thinking outside the box.”18

Numerous institutions related to health, spirituality, and Judaism can be found in the West including the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health, which is based at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College. There is also much institutional innovation among Western communities, including the Lehrhaus Judaica Library, a five-thousand-volume circulating academic Jewish studies library, serving the Bay Area community from its facilities in Berkeley. The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) educates, advocates, and organizes on issues of peace, equality, diversity, and justice, as a progressive voice in the Jewish community and a Jewish voice in the progressive community.

The Role of Leaders in Shaping Western Jewish Life

Lay leaders operate as kingmakers in controlling the distribution of power and personnel. In their history of the Jews of Los Angeles, Vorspan and Gartner identify several generations of such elites.19 However, the peer economic and social relationships that sustain Jewish giving and engagement elsewhere in the United States are absent in many of these Western communities. This hinders building a culture of support for Jewish causes and a tradition of communal leadership. Outside of Los Angeles and San Francisco, this region’s lay leadership has not shown the quality, depth, and capacity for cohesion found in the rest of the nation.

Indeed, rabbis play a far greater role in shaping Western Jewish public life than in any other region. Congregations and, more directly, their rabbinic leadership have emerged as key institution builders and community spokespersons. For example, Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin was the founding rabbi of the Stephen Wise Temple (Reform) in Los Angeles. Considered today to be America’s largest congregation, it serves more than ten thousand individuals and nearly three thousand families through its various schools and programs.

Other Western rabbis have played significant roles beyond their own spheres. Rabbi and author Harold Schulweis (Conservative) helped form the havurah (small religious fellowships) movement, established the above-mentioned Jewish World Watch, and introduced innovative religious practices. Rabbi and author David Wolpe (Conservative) has been invited to teach at a number of universities. Rabbi Steven Weil (Orthodox) formerly of Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, the largest Orthodox congregation outside the New York metropolitan area, is now the national director of the Orthodox Union. Rabbi Elliot Dorff (Conservative), rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy at the American Jewish University, has played a significant national role in the debate over medical and social ethics. Other prominent West Coast rabbinic figures include Seattle-based Moshe Kletenik, president of the Rabbinical Council of America; Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the American Jewish University; and Chaim Seidler Feller, who has served for many years as the director of UCLA Hillel.

Some of the main communal-institution builders have been rabbis. For example, Rabbi Uri Herscher is founding director and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and Rabbi Brian Lurie, who is active in various civic causes, was executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation and later national director of the United Jewish Appeal. Rabbi Marvin Hier established the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Rabbi Hier’s contributions include the visibility and popularity of the Museum of Tolerance as well as the national and international growth of programs on the Holocaust, tolerance, and counteracting anti-Semitism that originate in the Wiesenthal Center.

Western Jewish politicians have long played a prominent role on both the local and national levels. Currently seven members of the House of Representatives and three U.S. senators are Western Jews, including both senators from California, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Summing Up

Jews of the West represent a new breed of American Jewry. Despite such challenges as low affiliation patterns, high intermarriage rates, and limited financial participation, Western Jewry has generated new organizational models. The Western pioneering spirit seems to have made its mark on Jewish communities as well and inspired their leadership.

Some critics have suggested that some of the West’s problems of affiliation and participation will become more prevalent among American Jewry in general. But as the Western communities grow, some of their new institutional and religious models are also likely to find their way to other regions.

Los Angeles and San Francisco anchor and dominate West Coast Jewish life through their financial prowess, institutional creativity, and distinctive cadre of Jewish leaders. Los Angeles in particular, given its size and its status as an entertainment and media center, will continue to influence American Jewish culture overall.

The distance from New York means Western Jews will continue to struggle with questions of autonomy and control. Regarding the special character of the West’s Jews, it has been noted that: “There is a solid tradition of outdoorsy Jews who have abandoned their synagogues for the mountains.”

To some extent both a new type of Jew and a different type of Jewish community are emerging in the West. A distinguishing feature is the alignment of this emergent Judaism with the arts and culture, and with the environment and social justice concerns.

Western Jewry shows the characteristics of the Western United States in general, including innovation, cultural diversity, and mobility. At the same time, the West Coast institutional models in particular integrate traditional Jewish tenets of tzedakah (charitable giving), gemilut hasadim (generosity and kindness), and avodah (worship).

Kahn’s words about California relate to Western Jewry generally: “There’s an idea this is the promised land, with the same climate. I think California has always been a place people can reinvent themselves…. And I think Jews are a part of this. People can come out from wherever they were in the world to California and start over.”20

The story of Western Jewry is still unfolding and is one of the most challenging and interesting American Jewish experiences.


2. Ibid.
3, Ava Kahn and Marc Dollinger, eds., California Jews (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2003),
5. NJPS.
6. Ibid.
7. The 2002 Tucson Jewish Community Study, Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, November 2002; Greater Seattle Jewish Population Survey, 2000, Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, 2000; 2004 Jewish Community Study, Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, and Sonoma Counties, May 2005.
8. ganizations.
9. Teresa Watanabe, “American Jews Face East-West Power Struggle,” Los Angeles Times, 6 January 2002.
10. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
18. Yossi Klein Halevi, “Kabbalah Goes Hollywood,” 4 April 2004, www.jewishworldreview. com/0404/kabbalah_centre.php3.
20. html/displays

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