by Liz Safirstein Leshin

Why L.A.? Why Women? And Why Now?

Los Angeles women are changing Jewish life right now

From left: Rabbi Susan Goldberg, Racelle Rosett, Jill Soloway. Photograph by Daniel Sawyer Schaefer,

From left: Rabbi Susan Goldberg, Racelle Rosett, Jill Soloway. Photograph by Daniel Sawyer Schaefer,

“Everything loose rolls west,” my mother observed when I moved to Los Angeles 22 years ago. People have always gravitated here to escape conformity, create provocative innovations in the arts and explore spiritual aspects of themselves. Increasingly, these explorations include Jewish identity.

Los Angeles Jews are borrowing the best from other cultures — a little like the hybrid Korean tacos so prevalent in our city’s food trucks — to create something new, relevant and delicious in the ways we worship and connect. Most of these new initiatives, often attracting elusive unaffiliated Jews, are led by women who are altering the way Jewish Angelenos eat, pray, love and live —  and creating waves across the country.

In a city that boasts some of the largest “mega-shuls” in the country, people are craving more personal connection. Women rabbis and leaders are paying attention and creating communities offering intimacy and inclusion, all without sacrificing intellectual rigor.

There are proudly gay observant Jews, drum circles on the beach during Tashlikh at the new year and unprecedented collaborations between Jewish organizations of different denominations. And there’s Rabbi Sara Brandes, who leads the Minyan Kol Chai (an hour of yoga, davening and study) in the Los Angeles suburb of West Hills, where yoga is “a wonderful tool to prepare for Jewish prayer.”

Here’s what else is in the mix. Rabbis Sharon Brous, Naomi Levy and Susan Goldberg are creating welcoming places of worship, reflection and social action for “disconnected” Jews. Rabbi Laura Geller, in the pulpit at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills since 1994, paved the way for women to be taken seriously as leaders of major Jewish religious and spiritual entities in this town where tradition is suspect. Yiddishkayt, a new Yiddish cultural organization that draws inspiration from L.A.’s diversity, proudly identifies as “outside the confines of academic and religious institutions.” Los Angeles is home to the largest community of Jewish Iranians (or “Persians,” as they call themselves) in the world, many of whom moved here after Iran’s 1979 revolution. Writer Gina Nahai and comedian Debbie Jhoon are communicating the aspirations and frustrations of this immigrant community, helping it find its voice and its footing. Jill Soloway and Ayana Morse of East Side Jews are invigorating hipsters and young families via a mix of social connections and creative education programs. Women like these are challenging expectations and breaking boundaries all across this sprawling city, where in the past Jews often came to reinvent their identities. 


“I wanted to make people comfortable enough that they could sit in that room — but uncomfortable enough that they would actually feel something.”
–Rabbi Sharon Brous

Rabbi Sharon Brous has the special sauce that mainstream Judaism craves. She was named the #1 Rabbi on The Daily Beast /Newsweek  list of America’s Top 50 Rabbis for 2013, with her organization Ikar (Hebrew for “essence”), which The Daily Beast describes as a “come-as-you-are spiritual community,” and “a magnet for L.A.’s young, unaffiliated Jews… The Ikar model: equal parts warmth, spirituality, intellectual rigor, and call to action.”

Brous founded Ikar in 2004, soon after she was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her own religious and spiritual journey led her from a deep sense of alienation to eventually finding a meaningful way in. After seminary and a rabbinic fellowship at B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan (a spiritually vital, social-justice-oriented congregation), she moved to Los Angeles so her husband could pursue his career as a comedy writer. “I found that the most interesting young Jews I met in L.A. were hungry for community, spiritual depth, even ritual, but didn’t connect with institutional Jewish life. I began to realize that what people were rejecting was not Judaism, but more established forms of Jewish religious life in America, such as the strict set of rules around conduct in services.”

She was looking to move, challenge and inspire people, to reframe core aspects of Jewish life as spiritually rich and meaningful, and push people to consider what it means to be a human being in a world rife with violence, hunger, poverty and daily struggles. “I held a couple of Shabbat services in my living room — but everyone who came was already an insider,” Brous explained. “Then I met Melissa Balaban, one of the deans of the law school at USC, with her husband and a few friends who had given up on finding a synagogue they could connect with in L.A. We talked for hours. Our visions of what was possible in the Jewish world aligned deeply. We were, as we said that night, cautiously ecstatic, as if we were on the cusp of building something that mattered. Melissa said I should go home and write down my vision — we were going to make it happen.”

“The thing that really spoke to us is the idea that Judaism shouldn’t be compartmentalized,” continued Balaban. “Your Jewish life, spiritual life, political life, should all be integrated. How can you be a Jew engaged in religious life and not have that change who you are in the world? How can you be a Jew working for justice and not understand that Torah animates that work?”

Brous was concerned that at the turn of the millennium, religion was defined by extremism and insularity on the one hand and alienation and disconnection on the other. She dreamed of creating a space for a return to prophetic Judaism, infused with spirit and activism. Her formula turned out to be inspirational. “We (Brous, Balaban and an initial core group) sent our vision statement to a few friends each, saying ‘If the idea of reclaiming your Jewish life resonates, come this Friday night. Let’s see what we can build’. It went viral. It was right before Pesach, and about 135 people showed up. What was amazing is that there were multiple points of connection in that room, from law school to camp, to growing up in Philly. We realized these people wanted to be around each other, and it was creative engagement with Judaism that was bringing them together.”

Brous sought to “make people comfortable enough that they could sit in that room — but uncomfortable enough that they would actually feel something.” With Ikar, she started addressing moral conundrums, including taking an open-eyed look at Israel and engaging in uncomfortable dialogue around issues like immigration and gun violence.

She has worked hard to reintroduce emotion into the prayer service, including the element of surprise. No two services are ever the same. “We’re different people every week — why should the service always stay the same?” She is not afraid to go off-script, “to express struggles, challenges and ambivalences without questioning peoples’ loyalty and their love.”Brous explains that the davening experience at Ikar is designed to be powerful, personal and moving, even for cynics and atheists. The dynamic mix of frum Jews with the seriously marginalized creates a special energy. The common language is music — a blend of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi, old and new, U2 and Debbie Friedman.

Paradoxically, while striving to make people “spiritually uncomfortable,” Brous and the team take special pains to make people feel welcome, with a cadre of “trained schmoozers” who stand outside every service greeting people.

Ikar is known for intense Shabbat davening as well as creative weekly house parties in homes and bars. The house parties started when Brous realized early on that people were more than willing to engage in Torah study and deep conversation about life’s great struggles and blessings, as long as they didn’t have to first overcome barriers to participation (institutional or their own assumptions).

When joining Ikar, people take on social justice commitments, from working to end hunger, to advocating for immigration reform, environmental justice, or participation with Ikar’s partner community in Uganda, where they are funding the use of Israeli technology in a village school.

Of Rabbi Brous’ leadership style, Melissa Balaban observed, “She once said to a rabbinic intern, ‘If people walk out of services talking about how smart the rabbi is, you’ve failed. They should leave saying, ‘I never knew Torah could be so relevant in my life’. Then you succeeded.” Balaban added, “I don’t think that’s a typically male approach.” She continued, “There is something about how women lead organizations, with our hearts and brains at the same time.”

Said Rabbi Brous, “We are constantly striving to engage a culture shift to a tzedakah model rather than a ‘pay to pray’ gym membership model.” Her own rabbinic interns are now fanning out across the country, bringing her “special sauce” of activism and challenge with them.


“I believe we should lower the bar for coming in the door and raise the bar of what we’re offering.”
–Rabbi Susan Goldberg

After working for 10 years as a dancer and community organizer, Susan Goldberg began studying with the late Rabbi Carole Meyers, the first female rabbi of a Los Angeles synagogue, Temple Sinai of Glendale.

Goldberg was raised as one of the only Jewish kids in her Echo Park neighborhood, and still lives on the East Side, in Eagle Rock. While in rabbinical school at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California,a transdenominational rabbinical, cantorial and chaplaincy school in Los Angeles, she was invited to stop by her local synagogue, Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park. TBI had dwindled to a handful of mostly elderly folks who continued showing up on Shabbat morning even after the temple’s last rabbi died in the mid-1970s. A couple of members in their 30s and 40s were trying to revive the congregation, and reached out to Goldberg to attend. “Then they found out I was a rabbinical student,” she said, “so I started leading a once-a-month family service. That was the engine for growth. It was like being in a small town. I’d be in the park or meeting people and tell them about synagogue. People started coming, one family at a time. We added an adult learning program. Another person started a school with 10 kids. After a couple of years I became education director. Last year we had 75 kids in school and a couple hundred families. A lot of people never thought they’d be members of a synagogue.”

The majority of members are interfaith families, including several gay and lesbian families. “A lot of what happens with interfaith couples is that the non-Jewish partner is leading the journey (towards integrating Judaism into their homes), but they feel alienated. My feeling is, let’s be inviting, not exclusive.”

“It’s not about having no boundaries,” Goldberg noted. “I encourage people to be clear about what traditions in the house are Jewish, not to look for something diluted. I believe we should lower the bar for coming in the door and raise the bar of what we’re offering, so that it’s deep and rich, layered and complex.“

Goldberg approaches learning with a psycho-spiritual focus, pairing text study with concepts that apply to daily life. Take, for example, a Talmudic discussion of lost and found objects, focusing on yeush, a state of despair when someone gives up hope of recovering something they have lost. She might start a learning session by looking directly at the text and then translating from Hebrew and Aramaic so people can have the experience of text study. Then she’ll ask how this concept applies to other things in our lives that we feel we have lost: connections, relationships, places inside ourselves that we want to recover, taking a generative concept from one setting and exploring it in ways that are emotionally and spiritually relevant today.

After seeing her astonishing success at TBI, the huge Wilshire Boulevard Temple — built by L.A. movie moguls in the 1920s — has recruited Rabbi Goldberg to work some of her magic under its massive, newly-renovated dome.


“The end point of prayer is not ‘I feel better  about myself’, but ‘I’m now charged to act’.”
–Rabbi Naomi Levy

Also on this year’s Daily Beast Top Rabbis list, Rabbi Naomi Levy was in the first class to ordain women at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. She served seven years as rabbi of Mishkon Tephilo, a traditional Conservative synagogue in Venice, California. “I loved being a congregational rabbi. But it never failed that on Shabbat, being near the beach, people would stroll in and have a look around. I knew they were Jews, but could almost count how long they would stay — seconds,” said Levy. “Our services there were created and led by Jewish insiders, which is wonderful, and at the same time, I found myself drawn to the Jewish outsiders. It’s interesting, since I grew up in Boro Park, attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush, and went to Orthodox summer camp. I didn’t know a single non-Jew; I didn’t even know there was a Halloween. I was really living in an alternate environment.” And yet, Levy had known that she wanted to be a rabbi since she was four. Perhaps she is drawn to outsiders because “I wasn’t exactly in the environment that would welcome my dreams,” she noted, adding that she was lucky to have come of age just at the time when women were permitted to become Conservative rabbis. “For me to have been at that moment in history at that time in my life, it was like coming home.” After leaving Mishkon, Levy wrote two books (To Begin Again and Talking to God). “I was on the road doing a lot of book tours and lecturing. Over and over, I would meet [Jewish] people who would tell me they had walked away or were raised with nothing,” she observed. “Somehow the threshold of the synagogue was intimidating, but the bookstore was a nice entry point to talk to a rabbi about what they might be going through.”

Back in Los Angeles, Levy found herself meeting Jews who were unaffiliated. “I started asking what moved them, what they struggled with. I naively had made the assumption that unaffiliated Jews were atheists, that they didn’t have a need for Jewish spiritual connection, but what I was finding more and more was that I was meeting Jews who were spiritual, who were theists, who were saying they had tried but could not find God in synagogue, that the synagogue experience had left them cold and that they were turning elsewhere for spirituality in places like Buddhism or yoga. But they weren’t abandoning their Jewish identity.”

Rabbi Levy conceptualized Nashuva nine years ago with a group of friends around her dining room table. “The goal was to create an entity that lived, taught, breathed a Jewish spirituality and connected that to acts of justice. That linked that need for prayer with action, that saw the end point of prayer not being ‘I feel better about myself’, but ‘I’m now charged to act’,” she explained.

Music was deeply important. (Nashuva has possibly the nation’s largest Jewish drum circle and an eight-member band.) “The goal was to find a musicality that was accessible and participatory, that could take you on a journey to ecstatic places and to solemn places. Melodies have a power all their own, a nonverbal, pre-verbal power, to unite and comfort, inspire, lift and calm us. As a new mother sings to an infant, no words are necessary. When the Children of Israel crossed the Red Sea, their first reaction, biblically speaking, was to sing a song.

“It’s not only about being earnest,” she added. “Lightheartedness, joy and fun are important in what we’ve created.”

Also key has been conducting services in different types of venues. “Taking Nashuva outdoors offers a whole power unto itself. So many of the Psalms are about seeing God’s hand in nature — sky, roots, roaring seas — that to be able to experience Judaism outdoors takes things to other levels.”

Then there’s the live webcast. High Holiday services, Tashlikh on the beach with drums, and Yom Kippur in particular, have upwards of 75,000 people participating live through that. “I can’t tell you how many wonderful notes we’ve gotten from people all over the world,” reported Levy, “people who are homebound, who felt they were done with Judaism, who are in hospice, entire college dorms. That’s been a really remarkable experience.”

And Levy has accomplished all of this without a traditional membership model. “If you come, you’re a member,” she says. Monthly Friday night services attract 400 people, and High Holidays can draw in over 1,000.

Levy speculates that Nashuva has also been a safe place for interfaith families.

Why does reaching the outsiders resonate so much for Levy? “Judaism is full of humor, it’s full of irony. It’s full of tension. Before abandoning it or making assumptions about it, I want people to experience it, the wealth of it, and have it kind of marinate. There are so many interesting, exciting, fascinating Jews who are at the brink of being lost to Jewish life, and I don’t want to give up on them.

“The word nashuva means ‘we will return’. It comes from the last line of Lamentations that says ‘Turn us to You, God, and we will return’. I love the reciprocity of it, the implied connection, that we all have that possibility of returning. We all have that power.”


“Women have a different energy than men, whether it’s an ability to see things differently or try things without the fear of convention.”
–Ayana Morse

Changing neighborhoods are often gentrified by artists who pave the way for others, and Jewish life in Los Angeles is being invigorated by artists and creative thinkers moving back to the Holy Land of the East Side, towards Boyle Heights, the area of the city where Eastern European Jews first settled in large numbers during the first years of the twentieth century. Although Los Angeles has the second largest Jewish population in the country, most of the Jews moved from the East Side to the suburbs in the 1940s and 50s, leaving very little organized Jewish life on the East Side until now.

The modern East Side is funkier and more affordable than the staid West Side, and these young Jews are bringing a vibrancy and vitality to Jewish life in their neighborhoods and beyond. (To give you an idea of what these neighborhoods look like, do a Netflix download of The Music Box, Laurel and Hardy’s Oscar-winning 1932 short, shot in Echo Park).

In 2010, just after she began at the Silverlake Independent JCC (SIJCC), Co-Executive Director Ayana Morse co-founded East Side Jews with Jill Soloway and a group of about 10 other friends who were alumni of Reboot, a national organization that brings together, by invitation, Jews from various walks of life.

A partnership with SIJCC “emerged immediately because of my position there,” said Morse, adding, “We can offer a public gathering space, like in the 1950s when the JCCs first boomed.”Morse described coming from Boston to Los Angeles in 2005 with her husband, Josh Feldman (interim director of the Jewish cultural organization Six Points Fellowship) as “crazy artists.” She believes the arts play an important role in Jewish life, “as a spiritual practice.” The SIJCC is just getting ready to launch an arts and culture program called ‘Culture Lab’ — Morse calls it “the love child between the Silverlake JCC and East Side Jews,” bringing together artists to work collaboratively. “A huge part of what we are interested in is local, making Los Angeles a small town.”

In Hollywood, Morse’s East Side Jews co-creator, writer-director Jill Soloway, is a heavy hitter. A three-time Emmy nominee for her work writing and producing television’s Six Feet Under, as well as being the showrunner for HBO’s “How to Make it in America” and Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” Soloway won the 2013 U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance Film Festival for her recently released first feature, “Afternoon Delight.”

“In 2005 I went to the Reboot summit,” said Soloway. “I loved the energy and collaborative atmosphere and wanted to find a way to create that in my own community around Silverlake.”

East Side Jews caught on fast. Why the popularity? “Sometimes being Jewish is approached as a duty,” Soloway explains. “With their emphasis on membership and dues, sometimes synagogues play into this idea. East Side Jews lowers the barrier for entry — both Jews and non-Jews are welcome, and there’s always an anything-can-happen spirit. With East Side Jews, we try to find the right balance between the spiritual and the secular and rediscover Jewish traditions in an irreverent but serious way. My best guess is that we’re filling a hole that we never even realized was there.”

Soloway’s background in theater and out-of-the-box thinking enables her to dream up events that are described by screenwriter Micah Fitzerman-Blue in The Jewish Journal, L.A.’s Jewish weekly, as “freaky, experimental, post-denominational, re-exploration of ritual form.” A 2011 article by Danielle Berrin explains: “They (East Side Jews) held a Havdalah event called Sacred/Profane at Spice Station Silverlake, where they dunked homemade French fries in turmeric and curry, drank beer and listened to the Jewish adult-film actress Nina Hartley lecture on ‘Sacred Sensuality’ (even though, technically, that was the profane part). Another time, they celebrated Rosh Hodesh on the rooftop of the Wi Spa, calling it ‘Once in a Jew Moon,’ during which men and women made their way through an Asian-style mikveh and, afterward, gathered under the open sky for Torah study with Rabbi Sharon Brous.”

Last July, East Side Jews hosted LoveFest, a singles event on the holiday of Tu b’Av, traditionally “a day of joy that served as a matchmaking event for unmarried Jews,” explained Soloway. “We wanted to attract people who would never go to a singles event at a temple.”

Soloway’s award-winning new film has a Jewish female lead, and she set the story at the Silverlake JCC. “There’s a scene at the end of “Afternoon Delight” where the main character, Rachel, and her husband sort of rediscover their love and connection while lighting Sabbath candles. I’m pretty sure that before Reboot, I would never have thought to use the characters’ rediscovery of their connection to Judaism as a platform for rediscovering their connection to each other. But,” she observed, “it felt very natural and right in this context.”


“In Los Angeles, there isn’t the polarity of judgment I felt in New York. People don’t ask ‘Where do you daven?’ but ‘Are you looking for a community?’”
–Esther Kustanowitz

In 2011, social media maven Esther Kustanowitz was named in The Big Jewcy’s annual 100 Jews to Watch, with this description: Jewish Engagement Superstar.

Kustanowitz (@EstherK on Twitter), works part time as program coordinator for the NextGen Engagement Initiative at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, helping Jewish youth-oriented programs in Los Angeles network with each other, from more traditional organizations to innovative startups. She also blogs at, and is currently writing a book about grief as a personal and communal experience, tentatively titled “Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After.”

The internet serves as a portal to connection at all points in a person’s life, especially during times of difficulty and grief. After the death of her mother, Kustanowitz says, “people reached out to me — especially other women my age who had lost their mothers  and who offered support and assistance. I cannot overstate the value of the tools that kept me connected and comforted, any time of day and in any city.”

Kustanowitz ranks high on Jewish Twitter user lists. “I started blogging in 2004, right as the Jewish world was beginning to discover this tool, and then was an early adopter of Facebook, then Twitter. I started really listening to how people talk to each other.” She sees a real sense of fear on the part of Jewish nonprofits as they try to negotiate how to use social media. “It’s scary, because they don’t understand it, or think it’s too expensive. I explain they are tools for organization and community building.”

Kustanowitz grew up “Orthodox-ish” in New York, and says her day school education informs her perspectives. “I had a rich background, biblically and Hebraically. Israel is important to me.” However, her background didn’t offer a lot of encouragement to young women “to engage with the text from a personal perspective, which necessarily would have meant examining women’s narratives within the biblical or Talmudic texts. If a woman was present in a text, it was as a wife and mother or fertility-challenged, waiting for a miracle baby. Were those the only role models I had to look to? Where were women’s voices?”

Now she considers herself “post-denominational” and attends Orthodox and Conservative shuls and independent minyanim. Even with her Jewishly rich background, she says, as a women she felt “utterly unprepared to attend services that offered a bit more in terms of egalitarianism. It’s still something that I struggle with.”

Perhaps that personal struggle is one reason Kustanowitz has been such an active participant in many Jewish initiatives around the world. “Jews in their 20s and 30s are bootstrapping their own Jewish identities,” she says.

“It’s a rich time now for the start-up mentality in the Jewish world,” notes Kustanowitz, adding that “the starting up is easy.” But sustainability, including “next stage funding” is more difficult. Young people want to hold on to their independence, but want the stability (and cash) that more established institutions (the Federation, synagogues) can provide. Traditional institutions want to bring in youth, with their fresh ideas, but tend to hold off on partnering until they see young people putting their money where their niggun-singing mouths are. Negotiations are moving forward.


The future is now. 

Women have always been Jewish communal leaders, putting their values of social justice into action largely as volunteers. It makes sense that they would carry this into their roles as rabbis and paid executives. And women’s historical outsider perspective enables them to bring a fresh approach to Jewish ritual, such as incorporating the arts as a way in to spirituality for their congregations.

What was once considered outré is becoming increasingly mainstream. Rabbi Denise Eger, an out lesbian who, in 1992, founded Congregation Kol Ami, a synagogue serving gay Jews and their allies, is the new president-elect for the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Finally, the reason women are rising up in leadership roles in Los Angeles — and elsewhere around the country — is that the road to this moment was paved by feminist leaders of earlier generations who struggled mightily for a woman’s right to be accepted to rabbinical school, to lead major institutions, to be seen as an equal partner in rituals and relationships. Leading on their own terms, Jewish women have finally reached the top in Los Angeles, and they have arrived on their own terms, not in a Rolls Royce, but in a Prius.

Liz Safirstein Leshin is a journalist, filmmaker, and was once a Lilith intern.  She is a longtime development director for Los Angeles-area nonprofits.