Some OF THE first Jews who came to California were 49ers. While some settled in San Francisco, others moved to Southern California. They found the clean air and climate very appealing and believed they would have a better chance of living their dreams in California.
Before the 49ers was Louis Phillips, a Jew born in Posen, Prussia in 1829. He settled in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles in 1853, and ten years later purchased the 12,000-acre Rancho San Jose. Soon he was the most prosperous rancher in the city of Pomona. Today, Phillips Ranch, a suburban development in Pomona, bears his name.
While Phillips assimilated, many who came west later did not. In Pomona on August 20, 1931, eighteen men signed the Articles of Incorporation of the Jewish Center of Pomona and Surrounding Territory, also known as the Pomona-Ontario Jewish Center. And the first High Holy Days services were conducted by the
By 1900 the population was just over
congregation and held in rented buildings and in the homes of members in the downtown Pomona area.
Roberta Martinez writes about the early Jewish community leaders of the area on https://coloradoboulevard.net/jewish-history-in-pasadena/: “In 1851, Jacob Weil was the only Jewish person among some forty or fifty families that arrived in El Monte and three years later he moved north to the area that became Pasadena.” Martinez also mentions Nathan Tuck, another “pioneer” who came to San Gabriel and lived the rest of his life there. We might call them pioneers because they both set out to make better lives for their families, and sought the opportunity to do so rather than to be part of a community. Like Phillips, he was not particularly observant. Those who settled in the area felt comfortable identifying as being German Jewish, with an emphasis on the nationality as much as religion. Their approach was more intellectual than it was religious.
Whereas many of the Jews who came to area were miners, “by the 1860s the Jewish pioneers were a bit different. While a number were escaping the congestion and the grime of the crowded cities of the East, there was room to develop one’s business. Here was land one could claim; there was space to grow and to think,” writes Martinez. Some areas were settled by Jewish chicken farmers; there was also an area of egg farming in the valley. Jewish families also ran groves, vineyards and dairies. In addition, three out of four junk dealers in Pomona were Jewish. Over time the land became more valuable than the farms, and several would-be farmers became prosperous real estate developers.
Historian Carson Anderson, in his “Ethnic History Research Project,” refers to this wave of migrants as being “deeply influenced by the European Enlightenment. Many were able to enter the professional ranks; the wealthy social circles were open to them, especially in the West where you could invent or reinvent yourself!”
By 1890 Pasadena had become incorporated and the city’s population had soared to over 4,000.
9,000. The village had become a town and the needs of a thriving town at the turn of the twentieth century were great. Many of the Jewish individuals in Pasadena were among those who were tailors, machinists, shoemakers, clerks, jewelers, dressmakers, physicians, pharmacists and wine coopers.
There was an effort in 1908 to establish a Jewish congregation, but the efforts were not successful; weekly services continued to be held in people’s homes or businesses. Between 1910 and 1920 there was a surge in clubs and fraternal societies. Some were mutual aid societies and others were religious or spiritually based.
“In the days before there was a synagogue in the Inland Valley,” writes Joe Blackstock of the Daily News Bulletin, (www.dailybulletin.com/article/ZZ/20110307/NEWS/110308658) “a special place on South Euclid Avenue in Ontario was the focus of many Jewish activities.” One interesting note about The Paradise Health Resort is that it was a nudist facility that attracted significant numbers of Jewish vacationers from Los Angeles, who came for the baths and, for the nude sun bathing. The resort attracted visitors who enjoyed the weather and rural experience and came to regain their health.
Blackstock also quotes Ontario veterinarian Bill Kelber’s 1980 book on Jewish life in the Pomona Valley. “All of the (Jewish) activities that were then – weddings, fundraising for City of Hope or the United Jewish Appeal or the Jewish hospitals in L.A. – were always at the Paradise Health Resort.”
In her article, Martinez discusses the attempts to establish Jewish places of worship. “In 1920 a property was acquired and after three years of fundraising Congregation B’nai Israel Congregation completed its synagogue. Its congregation was Conservative and is now also called Pasadena Jewish Temple Center. There were two other efforts to establish a synagogue: Congregation Shaarei Zedk (Orthodox) and the Jewish Center (Reform); neither were able to sustain themselves.”
She also points out how “at the turn of the twentieth century Jewish families who lived in Pasadena would travel to East Los Angeles to buy kosher food, by 1930 they could go to one of two kosher butchers in downtown Pasadena.”
The following years saw the establishment of several temples and synagogues, primarily Conservative and Reform, though Chabad can be found in Pasadena and the Inland Empire. One of the oldest synagogues in the area, Temple Beth Israel of Pomona traces its roots to 1931 when the congregation was incorporated. “Its first building was erected on Orange Grove in 1950. Initially, the congregation followed the minhag (custom) of the Conservative movement, but later affiliated with the Reform Movement. Between 1960 and 1963, the congregation met in the United Church of Christ Congregation while their new home was constructed on North Towne Avenue,” states its website.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library (JVL), “the estimated 30,000–40,000 Jews who live in the San Gabriel–Pomona Valleys are spread over a significant distance with a low density of Jews in any given community. Beginning in East Los Angeles, the area covers East Los Angeles south to Whittier, east through the Pomona Valley, west of the borders of Fontana, and includes Ontario, Alta Loma, and Pasadena. The area spans three counties: Los Angeles County, Western San Bernardino County, and a small slice of northern Orange County (including La Habra and La Puente).”
JVL identifies many of the Jews in the area as scientists and academics. “The Pasadena community has a large number of scientists employed by Cal Tech and JPL, which led the space probe to Mars. The Pomona Valley Jewish community has a large number of academics employed at the Claremont Colleges and the universities that ring the valleys.
There is a string of hospitals along the foothills of the Valley including City of Hope, which is now a non-sectarian hospital but well aware of its Jewish roots, and thus the area has attracted Jewish physicians and Jews in allied medical professions.”
Some parts of the Jewish community were once rooted in the Jewish community of Los Angeles areas such as Monterey Park and Montebello. Others have developed in the post-war migration to California and in the string of Jewish communities throughout Southern California.
The Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys began in 1993 and has grown to offer a wide variety of programs. Located in Monrovia, it “is the entry point for many people as they find their way into the Jewish community and strengthen their connection.”
“We raise and allocate funds for local and national needs, in support of Jewish individuals, schools, camps, organizations and the State of Israel. And we provide leadership in addressing issues that affect the Jewish community as a whole,” shares Jason Moss, the current Executive Director of the Jewish Federation.
Jewish Federation activities include Camp Gan Shalom (summer day camp) for area children, community-building programs such as the Women’s Forum, the Cultural Arts program, PJ Library and the Jewish Book Festival.
There has never been a better time to be Jewish in the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona valleys than right now! With a stronger presence in the community, people are beginning to recognize that there is a vibrant and caring local Jewish community.”
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.