Menu JTA Search

Los Angeles Jews, Spared by Rioting, Pitch in to Help Rebuild Ravaged City

The Jewish community here is pitching in to rebuild a city ravaged last week by 60 hours of arson, looting and murder.

On Sunday morning, 70 members of Temple Israel of Hollywood drove past torched buildings, smashed storefronts and armed National Guard soldiers to the Messiah Baptist Church, to deliver truckloads of clothing and food to the black congregation and to join it in an emotional solidarity service.

At the same time, another 70 Temple Israel volunteers were wielding shovels and brooms to clean up the rubble along Hollywood Boulevard.

Similar efforts were under way by half a dozen mainly Reform synagogues in a hastily organized and almost instinctive response to the suffering caused by last week’s unrest, which was triggered by the April 29 acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.

Like their fellow citizens, the 600,000 Jews of metropolitan Los Angeles are still struggling to make sense of a string of events that turned a city they thought of as a model of multi-ethnic harmony to one likened by some to Beirut.

Close to 100 leaders of Jewish organizations and institutions gathered Monday morning in an emergency meeting to exchange information and chart the Jewish community’s response.

They did what the community does best, which was to put together an immediate action project to get large quantities of food to the people suffering in the riot area and to give the aid a visible Jewish presence and imprint.

A FRIGHTFUL TOLL ON CITY

Speakers also urged an outreach program to the 300,000-strong Korean community, which was hit hard during the riots.

The Jewish leaders recognize that the economic and psychological root causes of the civil strife will have to be addressed after the immediate crisis is over.

That crisis has already taken a frightful toll: 51 dead, 3,328 injured, 6,405 reported fires, more than 10,000 arrests, 8,400 businesses burned out, damaged or looted, and damage estimated at $ 750 million.

Amid the grim statistics, the Jewish community could heave a silent sigh of relief that its own losses, in lives and property, were relatively minor.

Since the 1965 Watts riots, when Jewish-run markets, liquor stores and small shops were among the major targets of the mob’s fury, Jewish business people had abandoned stores in the black inner city and had been replaced by Korean immigrants, who bore the brunt of last week’s attacks.

Although the gangs of arsonists, looters and killers leapfrogged ethnic boundaries to strike across the sprawling city, the main Jewish enclaves on the West Side, Beverly Hills and the southern part of the San Fernando Valley were largely spared.

In the Fairfax district, once almost entirely Jewish but now becoming ethnically mixed, several incidents of looting and arson were reported.

But the landmark Canter’s Deli stayed open at night despite the curfew, providing hot pastrami sandwiches for Jewish and black customers.

Yet there were losses in life and property.

Howard Epstein, a 45-year old businessman and father of two small children, flew in from his home in northern California to see what was happening to his machine shop in South Los Angeles.

While on the way to his shop in a rented car, he was shot and killed by three men, who afterward ransacked his vehicle and took his personal belongings.

ARSON MISSES NEWSPAPER OFFICE

No figures are available on the destruction of the still-substantial absentee holdings by Jews in property and buildings in South Los Angeles.

Among them, an $11 million printing plant was burned to the ground, as was a shopping center, some smaller businesses and some outlets of national chains.

Stores next to the Jewish Community Building were vandalized, and a passing woman was shot from a car in front of the building on April 30. All Jewish schools and agencies were closed last Friday.

Yet, there was general agreement that Jewish targets were not singled out and that anti-Semitism was not a noticeable factor during the rampage. At black churches and protest rallies at college campuses, Jewish spokespersons were warmly received and applauded.

An exception was a claim by a black probation officer on the ABC News program “Night-line” that he had seen boys with yarmulkes looting a liquor store. The remark has been greeted with puzzlement and was not reported by any other source.

There also were stories of luck and pluck. A Jewish businessman who runs a recreational activities service reported that while most of the adjacent stores at a shopping mall were burned down, his facilities were untouched.

The one-story building housing the weekly Heritage-Southwest Jewish Press, topped by a 35-foot-high electric sign of the Tablets of the Law in Hebrew lettering, was bracketed by fires to the north and south, but remained itself untouched.

Publisher Herb Brin credited the owner of an adjoining gas station, a Christian Arab from Lebanon, with saving the structure by organizing a protective cordon of Hispanic men and women.

A STAKE IN THE URBAN AGENDA

Gil Zahavi, the Israeli owner of a Hollywood souvenir shop, armed his employees with four shotguns and eight handguns to keep looters at bay.

Not content with a defensive posture, Zahavi’s forces made citizens’ arrests of three vandals, including two who had burned a nearby video equipment store.

“If we’re not going to protect ourselves and protect Hollywood, no one else is going to,” Zahavi said.

Besides participating in relief efforts, most of the mainstream Jewish organizations have joined in demanding action by the U.S. Department of Justice in the King case and urging passage of a far-reaching reform plan for the Los Angeles Police Department in the June 2 election.

Steven Windmueller, executive director of the federation’s Community Relations Committee, said the Jewish community would play a major role in a citywide effort to rebuild the areas hardest hit by the riots.

“This isn’t a race or ethnic issue, but a class issue between the haves and haves-not,” said Windmueller. “I believe the Jewish community will raise its stake in the urban agenda. We can’t live in a society that’s torn apart.”

NEXT STORY