The first Jew settled in Orange County in 1858. Half the founders of Orange County were Jewish, and they were accepted members of the local community in the nineteenth century. Orange County is the first urban center in the U.S. that is not a major city. Orange County, the tenth largest and one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the country, now has a bigger Jewish population than Baltimore, Detroit, and Cleveland.
History buffs could learn those facts and more at two separate venues in April – and there’s more to come.
The Jewish Historical Society of Jewish Federation Orange County held the premiere of the California’s Orange Jews video documentary on Thursday, April 22, at the Yost Theater in Santa Ana. More than 400 people attended the event at the newly refurbished theater, itself a historical site.
Polly Sloan, a prime mover in the activities of the historical society for many years, introduced Dalia Taft, Jewish Federation Orange County archivist, who praised the “wonderful, committed, connected Jews here.” The documentary chronicles the story of Jews in Orange County from 1858 through today to make people aware that Jews have been here since Orange County separated from Los Angeles County and have had a great impact in the development of Orange County, according to Taft. Shalom Elcott, Jewish Federation Orange County CEO, spoke enthusiastically about the innovative Jewish community Orange County has become.
Josh Friedman was the filmmaker and composer, and Paul Borovay was the narrator of the documentary, which offers a look at the genesis of many of today’s synagogues and other institutions. Because the documentary takes the viewer up to the opening of the Samueli Jewish Campus, viewers can anticipate a sequel. Meanwhile, they can do some reading.
On April 28, publicist, journalist, and former Irvine Company executive Martin Brower spoke about his new book, Orange County Jew: A Memoir, at Temple Bat Yahm. In the book Brower superimposes the growth of the Jewish community over the amazing development of Orange County itself, and uses as a framework the personal story of his own 36 years as a resident of Orange County, a player among its major real estate development companies and its entrepreneurial leaders, and an active member of the Jewish community.
When Brower moved his family from Los Angeles to Orange County in 1974, his Los Angeles friends “were amazed at his bravery and his foolishness.” Orange County was considered anti-Semitic and lacking in culture. During the years following World War II, Orange County was transformed from a small rural community with citrus groves, row crops, and cattle, first into a bedroom community for neighboring Los Angeles County and then into a dynamic urban empire, according to Brower.
As the overall population grew from 216,000 in 1950 to more than 3 million today, the employment base and other opportunities grew. Meanwhile, Orange County’s Jewish population grew from “a small enclave of Jewish shopkeepers into a vibrant Jewish community in excess of 100,000.” There were waves of Jewish population, including doctors who developed private hospitals, aerospace engineers, and university professors who were pioneers at CSUF and UCI, according to Brower. Then there were developers and others who got involved in planned communities, malls, the Irvine Industrial Complex, and high technology and medical technology enterprises. Finally, there were the service professionals, such as attorneys and accountants.
Today Orange County now boasts one of the leading centers of Jewish life in the nation, complete with more than 30 synagogues, a grand new Jewish Community Center, the eighth largest Jewish day school in the U.S., and one of the finest homes for the aging. Jews are active in all walks of life and are instrumental in instituting new programs for the Jewish community, whether they come here to raise families or to retire and join their families, according to Brower. He cited examples of Arie Katz developing the innovative Community Scholar Program and Gordon Fishman, M.D., creating the community-building Chanukah concert. Describing Irvine as the most Jewish city in Orange County, he also praised Chabad for knowing where the developing Jewish neighborhoods were.
Brower became closely involved with the emergence of Orange County as a major urban center as director of public relations for the county’s largest land development firm, The Irvine Company; as editor and publisher of Orange County Report, a monthly newsletter he founded; as a newspaper columnist, book, and magazine writer about Orange County; and as a public relations consultant for The Koll Company, another major real estate development firm.
Brower and his family have been honored by several Jewish organizations. A graduate of UCLA where he was editor-in-chief of the UCLA Daily Bruin, Brower lives in Newport Beach with his wife Tamar. They have four grown children and three grandchildren. Three of their four children live in Orange County, and the fourth lives in Los Angeles County. Brower continues his writing as a columnist for Orange County’s Coast magazine and as the volunteer managing editor of Pointe of View, the external publication of Heritage Pointe, the Jewish home for the aging in Mission Viejo. He has served as an occasional contributor to Orange County Jewish Life.
Orange County Jew, a sequel to Brower’s Los Angeles Jew. He said that he thought about writing a novel and cautioned that the book should not be taken as a documented history. Still, the 176-page paperback (publisher: AuthorHouse; publication date: March 16, 2010; ISBN-10: 1449073492; ISBN-13: 978-1449073497) is a lively memoir in which many people will recognize people and events that have shaped today’s Orange County Jewish community.