by Liz Safirstein Leshin

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

Los Angeles women are changing Jewish life right now

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.