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Orange County

Orange County, county in California, U.S. In 2005 there were some 3 million people living in Orange County, with the Jewish population estimated at 60,000–80,000. 2009 estimates put the Jewish population between 80,000 and 100,000.

Orange County Jewish communities include Orange, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine, Yorba Linda, Garden Grove, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Huntington Beach, Tustin, Fountain Valley, Newport Beach, Westminster, Fullerton, Mission Viejo, and Costa Mesa. Most Jews live in Irvine, Newport Beach, Mission Viejo, and Aliso Viejo.

Southern California or California Southland Jewry is an interrelated community in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial, and San Diego counties. In climate, water supply, politics, agriculture and industry it differs from the rest of California. Rivalry has long existed between the northern and southern areas of California. While Orange County and neighboring Los Angeles border each other geographically and share some similarities, the two communities are quite distinct.

The primary motivation for settlement in Southern California was not a search for religious freedom but economic opportunity. Many Jews who came to the Southland in the early days had first gone to San Francisco, from which place Jews quickly dispersed throughout the entire American and Canadian West. The Gold Rush brought Jews to Southern California more for trade and agriculture than for mining. The area was known in biblical language as the place of "cattle on a thousand hills."

Orange County Jewry began in 1858, with the arrival of Bavarian immigrant Benjamin Dreyfus to the town of Anaheim. In the early period the best known Jewish citizen of Orange County was Dreyfus, who was a vintner, general agriculturalist, and mayor of Anaheim in 1881 and 1882. Most of Orange County's first Jews were German, including Louis Wartenberg, Morris Goodman, the Reinhaus family, Jacob and Herman Stern, and Joseph Goodman.

Santa Ana was platted in 1870, and in 1872 Jews were located there as merchants. Three Jews held the first High Holy Day services in Anaheim in 1874. In that year Jews were also found in the nearby mission town of San Juan Capistrano, the most notable being Max Mendelson. In 1876 the first Jew reached Tustin. The community of Anaheim was quiet in 1880 when Jewish stores were closed for Yom Kippur, the local press reported.

French Jews were perhaps 10% of all the Jews who arrived during the Gold Rush decades. They came from Alsace, Marseilles, and Paris. Among them were Algerian Jews such as Hippolyte Cahen in Anaheim in 1878.

In the beginning of the 20th century Sephardi Jews from the island of Rhodes immigrated to Southern California. Other Sephardim arrived during the 1910s and 1920s. Most of the newcomers did not speak English, but the Ladino they spoke was close to the Mexican Spanish of California. Sephardi Jews generally moved first to Seattle, Washington, then later on to California.

Santa Ana and Tustin Jewry - 25 families in all - began establishing a congregation in 1919, to meet the needs of their children for Jewish education.

From the 1930s onward there has been a massive influx of population to Southern California, and Orange County has benefited from the post-World War II development of the region as well as the movement of major corporations and hi-tech industries to Southern California. Jewish life was stimulated by a large influx of British, Canadian, Israeli, Latin American, North African, Russian, South African, and Iranian Jews, who established their own organizations as well as integrating into the older communities. A large number of Hungarian Jews reached the Southland after the Soviets crushed the movement to liberalization in that country in 1956. Iranian Jews have sent their children to all-day schools and have a higher rate of synagogue affiliation than the average. Russian and Israeli non-Orthodox immigrants tend to be High Holiday Jews.

The Merage Jewish Community Center, one of the largest in the United States, with its impressive community campus in Irvine, is an important presence in the community. It is home to Jewish Federation Orange County, the Bureau of Jewish Education, Jewish Family Service, B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, the Community Foundation, Taglit, the Orange County Jewish Historical Society, and Camp Yofi.

Synagogue life is local and Jews are spread throughout the county, but communal life is concentrated in the areas of greatest populations.

There are 38 synagogues in Orange County of every denomination. There are Conservative congregations in several cities: Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin, Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo, Surf City Synagogue of Huntington Beach, Temple Beth Emet of Anaheim, Temple Isaiah of Newport Beach. Reform congregations are also found throughout the county: Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, Congregation Shir Ha Ma'alot in Irvine, Reform Temple of Laguna Woods, Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach, Temple Beth David in Westminster, Temple Beth El of South Orange County in Aliso Viejo, Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada, Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana (Orange County's first synagogue), Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton. There are Orthodox Congregations: Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine, Beth Torah Synagogue of Laguna Woods, Young Israel of Orange County in Irvine. There is also a non-denominational congregation: Temple Judea of Laguna Woods.

Chabad has established a presence in Aliso Viejo, Cypress/Los Alamitos, Huntington Beach, Irvine, North Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Niguel, Mission Viejo, Newport Beach, San Clemente, Rancho Santa Margarita, Tustin, and Yorba Linda.

The Sephardi community has two congregations: Ohr Yisrael Sephardic Congregation of Orange County in Irvine, Beth Jacob Sephardic Minyan, also in Irvine.

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, a former White House Fellow and a leading voice in the Reconstructionist movement, is the rabbi of University Synagogue in Irvine, the sole Reconstructionist congregation and one of the largest synagogues in Orange County.

Humanistic Judaism is represented by the Pacific Community of Secular Humanistic Jews and the Orange County Society for Humanistic Judaism.

There are two day schools in the community: Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School in Irvine and the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach.

Among the national organizations that have established offices in Orange County are the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which have a large presence. Hadassah, Hillel, the Israeli Scouts and B'nai B'rith Youth Organization are also present.

Hillel serves all the campuses in Orange County, including UC Irvine, Chapman University, Cal State Fullerton, and the surrounding colleges. Chapman University has a strong Holocaust education program that not only serves the campus but the community at large and sponsors annual activities in the schools, including a writing contest and teacher training. It recently established a Holocaust Center, which includes a small display of Holocaust artifacts, in its new library, sponsored by the Samueli Family and local philanthropists.

Heritage Pointe and Bubbe & Zayde's Place provides care for the elderly.

Although Jews are an accepted part of Orange County life, the county used to have the reputation of being the center of significant antisemitism. In the late 1970s, The Institute for Historical Review, a Holocaust denial organization, once posted a $50,000 reward for anyone who could prove that the Holocaust happened. Much to their chagrin, Auschwitz survivor and Newport Beach resident Mel Mermelstein took up the challenge and prevailed in court. Mermelstein went against the common advice of the Jewish professional community to quarantine the hate groups and not to engage in discourse. The case drew national attention and was the subject of a television movie. Several mayors have been Jewish; two in Irvine and others in Orange County.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.