Is This ‘the Face of the Future of Judaism’ for a New Generation in Los Angeles?
TV and film director Jill Soloway has been running a de facto Jewish community. The question is whether it can outlast her success.
But the glacial pace of nonprofit life put a damper on Soloway’s parade. “It was like, ‘No, Jill, slow down. We’ve got to get you on the board. We’ve got to put together a strategic plan committee to make a strategic plan,’ ” she said, rolling her eyes. Things don’t work that way in the movie business, where you get a green light on a project and all of sudden it’s go, go, go!, and the sets and costumes are constructed in a week. But in the Jewish world, she laments, “It’s unbelievable how quickly things slow down as ideas get bigger.”
Sometimes talking to Soloway is like that old saw, “Two Jews, three opinions.” One minute, she’s laying out her vision for the JCC as a rabbi-free haven for creativity and acting out the anxiety people feel in a synagogue: “I’m on the wrong page. I’m not doing it right. I’m supposed to be standing. What’s the Barchu?” The next minute, she’s switched gears: “In the past few years it’s become really clear that we need a spiritual leader. What do we do when someone’s father passes away? When it comes down to it, Judaism might need that visionary rabbi to give people something to magnetize around.”
That visionary rabbi would be Susan Goldberg. There’s a lot of excitement around Goldberg in L.A. At Temple Beth Israel in the eastside community of Highland Park, she grew from rabbinic intern to pulpit rabbi and presided over a newly flourishing, progressive community of worship. Last year she was ordained as a rabbi, and then she was hired away by Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Wilshire Boulevard is a Reform synagogue in the heart of Koreatown—not exactly the east side, but in Los Angeles those terms of direction are relative and mutable. The oldest congregation in L.A., it’s known as a very Hollywood gathering spot (you might recall its appearance on the HBO series Entourage). It’s also in the midst of a $150 million restoration and in need of new congregants. That’s where East Side Jews comes in.
Goldberg and Soloway became friends around the time East Side Jews began. “It was love at first lunch,” said Goldberg. “We have similar motivations for community-building. We’re looking for meaning and comfort.” Goldberg has become East Side Jews’ de facto rabbi, and they’ve built up a new partnership between the two entities.
The first official East Side Jews event at Wilshire Boulevard Temple was LoveFest—the one with the yentas. “Tu B’Av totally worked as a collaboration,” Goldberg said. “The question is, How did the singles feel?” Open-minded and eager to learn about what people really want, she answered her own query: “Some people felt it was fun and light-hearted, others felt put on the spot.”
Indeed, one woman there who wants to be anonymous for fear of insulting her friends, laughed uncomfortably at the memory of LoveFest. “The thing is, singles events are awful, no matter how you dress them up,” she said. “I’m not sure what you can do to make it not awful. They tried, but it didn’t work.” It’s not necessarily a problem with one event, she added, calling East Side Jews happenings “hit or miss,” especially lately: “I feel like that’s the life cycle of these kinds of groups. They’re a strong presence for a few years, and then that’s it. I think East Side Jews is either going to morph [into something more synagogue-based], or it’ll die out.”
Joshua Avedon is a cofounder and COO of Jumpstart, which works with Jewish nonprofits around issues of sustainability; he hasn’t worked with East Side Jews, but he’s been to some events. “East Side Jews is a great example of the meta-phenomenon of people having some frustration with the Jewish world and building something themselves that’s of their values,” he said. “It works so well because the various people creating it built something that is in their reflection and feeds their own needs. And it turns out their friends are turned on by the same thing, so there’s a shorter feedback loop.”
Avedon is particularly impressed by how Soloway markets events: “She understands her community clearly. She doesn’t overthink it. Those flyers are the best examples of why what they’re doing is so smart. They’re like trailers for movies. They give you a vibe.”
But when he learned of the Wilshire Boulevard relationship, Avedon was skeptical. “It doesn’t seem consonant with their overall brand,” he said. “And the Federation is old-school, too. I think the Federation sees East Side Jews as a gateway drug to Judaism. But if people are attracted to East Side Jews, they’re getting something meaningful to them that doesn’t make demands of them in a way that a synagogue does.”
All these are issues Soloway wrestles with. “I feel like synagogues might be like monogamy,” she said. “Like, not the best system, but the one we’ve got.” As for her role in all of this in the months and years to come, “I feel like it’s not my destiny to run a JCC, or to build this building,” she said while standing outside the Silver Lake JCC. Although Hollywood is lousy with Jews, it’s still rare for writer-directors on the rise to do the kind of Jewish work Soloway does. “I don’t know if I need Hollywood thinking about me as a Jewish organizer person,” she mused candidly. “My destiny is to make television and create content. That’s what I like to do. I happen to be here right now while this is happening.”
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The poem ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ reminds us that we can change our own character, even if we cannot completely control our future