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From New York to LA: has the epicentre of Jewish America shifted?

Kelly Hartog
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Published: 18 March 2021

Last updated: 5 March 2024

KELLY HARTOG: As Manhattan’s financial hub hollows out and the creative industries keep drifting west, the trend is being driven by spiritual as well as lifestyle factors

LIBERTY ISLAND, WHERE WORDS from a poem written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 are etched into the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Fleeing pogroms and war, Jews embodied those words, flocking to New York’s shores in search of a better life. To this day, if you throw out a request on social media asking New York Jews what makes their city quintessentially Jewish, you’ll get 168 clearly distilled responses.

Many of them surround food — everything from babka and bagels and bialys to whitefish, pickles and pastrami (on rye). Then there’s the iconic places you can buy and fress on these delicacies, including Zabar’s, Katz’s, Russ & Daughters, Yonah Schimmel’s and even Moishe’s Falafel in the Diamond District.

And you can’t forget the cultural touchstones: Woody Allen, Crossing Delancey, The Yiddish Folksbiene Theatre, Seinfeld, The Jewish History Museum and the 92nd Street Y. There’s the shuls: Central Synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, Chabad on Eastern Parkway.

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But is New York still the centre of gravity of Jewish life in America or has that balance shifted to Los Angeles, which has the second largest Jewish population after New York? LA is also home to many Jews who work in Hollywood, where there are experimental synagogues of all denominations, and large cultural institutions including the renowned Skirball Cultural Centre.

The answer is: It depends. Not just on the scientifically proven method of “ask two Jews get three opinions,” but on how you define “Jewish life”.

Los Angeles-based Shawn Landres is the co-founder of Jumpstart Labs, a Jewish philanthropic research and design lab. For him there’s a clear distinction between the organisational versus the individual centre of gravity when it comes to the two cities.

“Industries are absolutely moving to Los Angeles,” he said. “When you look at the fashion industry, the auto design industry, the toy industry, the creative industry —   those are definitely not the New York Jews of the ‘50s. Those are the LA Jews of the 2000s.”

But when it comes to the large national Jewish organisations, those are very much based in New York, Landres said.  “And I think they will continue to be. Endowments are there. There’s no reason for them to move. There is a culture that New York has a responsibility for the [Jews] of the country in a way that way LA doesn’t, with the exception of a few individual funders and organisations like The Righteous Persons Foundation (established by Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw),” he adds.

Jewish organisational funding in America is also heavily driven by each community’s federation. “The federation in New York also sees itself as responsible for all the Jews there, not just the Jews [who are donors]” Landres noted, citing the city’s commitment to a population survey every 10 years, something the Los Angeles federation hasn’t done for almost 30 years but is conducting one this year.

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Immigration patterns have contributed to New York’s largely stable Jewish population, given that its largest modern immigration wave came from Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 90s, Landres said, but Los Angeles has had three massive migrations. “Iranians in the late ‘70s-80s, Russians in the ‘80s- 90s, and Israelis in the ‘70s through the 2000s.

“[LA has] the largest Israeli diaspora in the world. We have this huge Russian population that was never successfully integrated, and with the Iranians there was a cultural disconnect.” Yet the Los Angeles federation has not kept up with these shifting demographics or addressed their needs.

With the forthcoming population study, there is a possibility that LA could become a more robust player with the opportunity to better meet the community’s needs.
As to which city wields more cultural clout, Shawn Landres says it’s definitely Los Angeles: 'Jewish culture creation has shifted west as writers’ rooms and artists have broadly consolidated here.'

On the political front, Landres notes that since 2013, LA’s three city-wide elected officials have been Jews. “Two out of its 15 city council members and its five county supervisors identify as religiously Jewish. Three of our state senators and three assembly members are practicing Jews, and four other LA-area Jewish-adjacent legislators are members of the Legislative Jewish Caucus. All of that at the very least gives New York Jewry a run for its money,” he said.

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As to which city wields more cultural clout, Landres says it’s definitely Los Angeles. “Jewish culture creation has shifted west as writers’ rooms and artists have broadly consolidated here,” he said, but added that some of those also spread to San Francisco.

When it comes to the Jewish power centre, however, Landres says it’s neither New York nor Los Angeles. It’s Washington DC. “A significant number of major Jewish organisations have moved to Washington,” he says. “And I think it’s relevant to say that while the Jewish centre of gravity is moving, it’s not only moving to LA. It’s moving to Washington, too.”
When it comes to the Jewish power centre, however, Landres says it’s neither New York nor Los Angeles. It’s Washington DC. 

WHILE IT’S IMPORTANT to have a clear-eyed look at the shifting data and trends, the lived experience of people in both cities also tells a compelling story. While the traffic is by no means one-way, a steady stream of Jews raised in New York has moved to LA to follow work opportunities in the creative industries and enjoy more freedom in religious/spiritual life, aided by better weather and cheaper housing.

So how do these people, who have lived and worked in both cities, feel about what’s deep in their kishkes?

Amy Klein , a journalist and author of The Trying Game, was born and raised in New York. She moved to Los Angeles for eight years to become the managing editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal but has been back in New York for the past 10. “When you live in New York you think it's the centre of Judaism and that anything that happens, happens on the East Coast,” Klein said. Moving to LA in 2001, “it was definitely a shock to see how vibrant Jewish life was.”

Looking at the two coasts from a religious/spiritual perspective, Klein — who was raised Orthodox but left that world as an adult — said, “I found this amazingly spiritual and emotional Jewish life in LA [from emerging synagogues] to Kol Nidre on the beach on Yom Kippur.”
When you live in New York you think it's the centre of Judaism. Moving to LA in 2001, “it was definitely a shock to see how vibrant Jewish life was.” - author and journalist, AMY KLEIN

Living in LA and working in its Jewish community for many years, Klein said she learned “there’s many ways to be Jewish and to incorporate spiritual practices into your life, and that the West Coast is often the hub for new organisations and ideas that the more staid East Coast can be hesitant to accept.”

Michal Lemberger, the author  of After Abel and Other Stories, also grew up Modern Orthodox in New York but now lives in LA in what she calls a “post-denominational world”. Yet she feels New York is still the centre of Jewish life in America. “It still has the largest Jewish population, and though the number is growing in LA, the roots are deeper [in New York].”

However, like Klein, Lemberger believes that New York is “more hobbled by the past/tradition, so the developments in LA are probably more creative. Outside of Orthodoxy, my sense is that it’s easier to find more openness and creativity in LA.”

Writer, consultant and speaker Esther Kustanowitz lived on New York’s Upper West Side for 14 years before moving to Los Angeles 12 years ago. She, too, noted a shift from a more closed tradition in New York.

“New York Jewish life is dense, compressed and provincial because its geography is,” she said. “In Los Angeles, Jewish life may have mini-centres but it is also spread out because there's more geographical space. Jewish innovation and creativity in New York springs from restriction — having minimal space, being in a loud and crowded marketplace and under NYC's legendary pressured pace, but Los Angeles provides literal open space to create, to stretch out, explore and dream.”

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Fitness trainer Marissa Tiamfook Gee is a native Brooklynite who has lived in Los Angeles for almost 14 years. “I'm still a New Yorker at heart,” she said, “but love my life in LA and will never leave it.”

Tiamfook Gee grew up attending Temple Emanuel of Canarsie in Brooklyn, and later was an active member of the Actor's Temple and B'nai Jeshurun. She also worked at the JCC of Manhattan for a few years.

New York is “still the hub of Jewish life in the United States,” she believes, “yet personally, I have a much stronger, closer-knit and loving Jewish community in LA. Whereas my Jewish life in New York revolved around holiday celebration, my Jewish life in LA focuses on social justice, community and tzedakah.”
New York will always be the centre of Jewish gravity because it's where the Jews first landed. But I feel more comfortable in the LA Jewish community - writer KYLIE ORA LOBELL

Writer Kylie Ora Lobell spent two years living adjacent to the Satmar neighbourhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, before moving to Los Angeles, which she has called home for eight years. She and her husband are Orthodox and she believes that Jewish life in LA is not as robust as it is in New York for Orthodox Jews. “There are many more options [in New York] when it comes to synagogues, kosher restaurants, and Jewish stores,” she said.

For her, New York will always be the centre of Jewish gravity, “because it's where the Jews first landed. The roots go way back there. It's also more conducive to the observant Jewish lifestyle.”

Nonetheless, she feels more comfortable in the LA Jewish community. “[I] appreciate creativity and openness and that's what you get here,” she said. “Many of us came from New York leaving behind the cold weather, depressing buildings, and the close-minded attitude that you have to go into a ‘stable career’ and work yourself like a dog to be successful. Here, you're much more free and less stressed out.”

In a surprising aside, she added: “It feels more like Israel here. It's crazy and chaotic but it's also fun, happy, and diverse.”
There is more of a lightness to Judaism and Jewish life in Los Angeles. Things are more fluid and people are a bit more chill about Judaism - JOSHUA KRUG

Harvard Divinity School graduate Joshua Krug grew up in Los Angeles but lived in New York’s Crown Heights for three years.  For him, Jewish life “tends to feel more conservative and traditional in New York. The numbers of Orthodox communities per capita in the Jewish community is higher in the New York area than in the Los Angeles area.”

Like others, he feels that there is “more of a lightness to Judaism and Jewish life in Los Angeles. Things are more fluid and people are a bit more chill about Judaism.” He cited Jill Soloway’s series Transparent as capturing some of that LA Jewish vibe.

He perhaps summed up the dichotomy of the two cities best. “I think the New York and LA Jewish communities reflect the settings in which they exist,” he said. “That is, the broader cultures pervade local Jewish micro-cultures. Personally, I appreciate the Torah of both places.”

Illustration: John Kron

About the author

Kelly Hartog

Kelly Hartog grew up in Sydney before making Aliyah, where she worked as an editor and reporter at The Jerusalem Post. The former managing editor of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, she moved to LA after surviving an Al Qaeda suicide bombing while on assignment in Mombasa, Kenya.

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