WHERE THERE IS a Jewish community, you will undoubtedly find an established place (other than synagogues) where Jews meet, socialize and help out other members of their community. It has been so in this country since 1854, when the first Hebrew Young Men’s Literary Association opened its doors in Baltimore to provide support for Jewish immigrants, help ensure Jewish continuity, and to provide a place for celebration. As Mike Lefkowitz witnessed the growth of Orange County’s Jewish population grow, it became obvious to him and a number of community leaders that such a central place was needed – a place that could become a central address for the Jewish community.
And so was born the idea for a Jewish campus. In 1994, the Irvine Company wanted to develop housing in what is now Shady Canyon. However, there was opposition in the community, so a compromise was reached. The Irvine Company would set aside 20 acres for the Tarbut V’ Torah school expansion and 20 acres for Mariners Church. Each had first option on the 20 acres allocated for them, and a second option on the other’s 20 acres if they were not picked. If Tarbut chose not to build the high school, Mariners would buy it and the school would be surrounded. To prevent this, the idea was to build a campus which would house both the school and other community organizations. Lefkowitz served as Executive Director of the Orange County Jewish Campus a leadership group that was formed to determine the feasibility to determine how much money they could raise.
“The study indicated we would need about 16 million, and though we knew it would cost more, we decided to go ahead with the project anyway, “said Lefkowitz.
Henry and Susan Samueli committed to purchase the land, and an anonymous donor pledged to build the school. The organizing group formed a separate entity, Orange County Jewish Campus (OCJC), with Lefkowitz the director. “All the money and the land belonged to that entity,” said Lefkowitz. “It took about 4 years to get pledges and raise the money, but by 2007 we had all the money collected.”
They broke ground in April 2003 and opened in August 2004. In addition to Tarbut and the Jewish Community Center, the campus also houses the Jewish Federation & Family Services, the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County, and is the home to the editorial offices of this magazine.
Lefkowitz had the passion which motivated people to see the possibilities of a central Jewish location in Orange County which would bring the disparate numbers of Jews together. “We needed to encourage people to consider being part of something important to them not just ask them for money. And they responded! Today Lefkowitz is “just a member who enjoys the gym and knows every corner of the place” and smiles because he is proud of the role he played in making the idea a reality.
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.