In Search of Fairfax

New Jewish Agenda

The Los Angeles branch of the New Jewish Agenda was formed 1981 with the intention of serving as a progressive, secular voice within the Jewish community. By the mid-1980s, the organization had turned its attention towards the Beverly-Fairfax neighborhood. Led by a small cohort of volunteer and professional activists such as Richard Silverstein and Ruth Egger, the New Jewish Agenda believed that large-scale commercial development and the MetroRail, by way of raising property values, and displacing lower-income residents, would ruin the “ethnic-small-scale character of our community" and turn the Beverly-Fairfax into a premiere shopping and residential destination for “young urban professionals.”
In an effort to mobilize residents against massive, potentially disruptive projects, the New Jewish Agenda created an economic justice task force.  The task force, as activist-organizer Richard Silverstein noted, was “designed to inform the residents of the dangers that development and the means they have to control the fate of the neighborhood.” As such, the New Jewish Agenda organizers encouraged residents, mostly seniors, to write to and testify in front of Council members and city planners. This would ideally help pressure public officials to regulate development in a manner that was consonant with the interests of the residents. "Our loyalty to the neighborhood can even be compared with the feeling Jews once had for the Shtetl… The developers tell us they want to give us ‘Tivoli Gardens’ in Los Angeles, with ice-skating all year around. I ask them what good is ice-skating to me and my fellow seniors, when what we really need is low-income housing and discount shopping,” explained local senior Sheila Weissman. 

The New Jewish Agenda initially received much positive publicity for its efforts to fight the wave of gentrification consuming the Beverly-Fairfax neighborhood. And yet, the New Jewish Agenda’s grassroots mobilization model and neighborhood preservation initiatives were unable to sustain themselves through the late 1980s. Looking back on the New Jewish Agenda’s neighborhood mobilization efforts, community organizer Ruth Eggers told The Jewish Journal in 1989 that their key problem was one of displacement—that is, the bulk of New Jewish Agenda’s volunteer core were evicted from their apartments and left the neighborhood. Also diluting the potency and presence of the New Jewish Agenda as a neighborhood force were the seemingly remote and highly controversial politics surrounding the State of Israel during the late 1980s. The New Jewish Agenda’s stance on Israel—which called for the Israeli government to support a two state solution and negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization— was firmly outside the Jewish mainstream. Being pulled away from local issues, the New Jewish Agenda was forced to spend some of its already limited resources refining and defending its reputation as a "legitimate" Jewish organization.

Sources: Ezra Berkley Nepon, Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda (Philadelphia, PA: Thread Makes Blanket Press, 2012); Lionel Rolfe, “Big Developers Eye Fairfax: Jewish Agenda Has Other Ideas,” B’nai B’rith Messenger, December 28, 1984; Richard Silverstein, “A Neighborhood Fights for its Soul,” folder 3, box 3, New Jewish Agenda, Los Angeles Chapter Records, 1979-1991, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research; Shelia Wesiman, “Saving Beverly-Fairfax:  A Senior’s Perspective,” May 18, 1985, folder 6, box 3, New Jewish Agenda Chapter Records, 1979-1991, New Jewish Agenda, Los Angeles Chapter Records, 1979-1991, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research. 

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