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Surf, Sex & the City?

May 27, 2010 By:
Lauren Kramer, JE Feature
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Jewish Community Center
Were there a sitcom about San Diego, it could easily be called "Surf, Sex and the City."

Surf, because the beaches are magnificent. Miles of soft sand and gently tumbling waves adorn the coastline, which is fringed with palm trees and majestic sandstone bluffs.

Sex, because there are hard-bodied, muscular men playing volleyball on the beach and sitting shirtless on patios clutching iced beers, while women in barely there bikinis strut along the boardwalk looking straight out of an episode of "Baywatch."

The scent of sweaty bodies, sunscreen and sea salt mingle in the air and the ambience is one of energy, youthfulness and joie de vivre.

The landscape looked nothing like this, though, when Louis Rose stepped off the wagon in San Diego in 1850. The first Jewish man in the city had come to the United States from Germany via Louisiana and Texas, and was lured to San Diego by the gold rush.

He and the Jews who followed shortly after wasted no time before becoming politically involved, and played an active role in shaping the growing city.

Rose and Marcus Schiller, an 1860 arrival to San Diego, were elected to the City Board of Trustees, where Schiller voted to set aside land for Balboa Park, the cultural playground in downtown San Diego.

I take a Segway tour through what has become -- thanks to Schiller's early insight -- the largest urban cultural park in the country.

It boasts 15 museums, venues for the performing arts and the San Diego Zoo, as well as attractive landscaping, rolling lawns and aromatic rose gardens. Located on a hilltop overlooking the city, Balboa Park is a beacon of tranquility and a great place for a picnic lunch.

Rose built a town called Roseville on the cusp of San Diego Bay, but its lifespan was short-lived. A rival, Alonzo Horton, built up another portion of the bay area that would become San Diego's downtown, eclipsing Roseville completely.

Still, in tribute to his work for San Diego, his name still adorns the Old Town visitors' center, where his visage scowls down at tourists.

From those early days, the Jewish community of San Diego has grown exponentially. There are some 120,000 Jews in the county today.

"About 80,000 of them are Jews, and the remainder are married to us," says Don Harrison, a community member and author. "We have a really high intermarriage rate -- rumored to be as high as 60 percent."

The city's Jewish infrastructure is considerable, with more than 30 different congregations; three elementary Jewish day schools located on sprawling, well-established campuses; and a beautiful Jewish Community Center that's a hive of cultural activity. Jewish life is centered in North County Coastal and affluent La Jolla, the latter a great place to explore by bike.

On a gorgeous sunny Sunday morning -- a typical day by San Diego standards -- I drive to the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla and whiz down on a bicycle, glimpsing the stunning beach and ocean views enjoyed by many La Jolla residents.

Palm trees fringe the beaches, sea lions relax on the sand, and parents push strollers along the boardwalk. It's a scene straight out of a postcard.

Those homes are occupied by many Jewish families today, but La Jolla wasn't always so accommodating. There was a time, before the '60s, when it was forbidden territory to Jews and blacks.

"It used to be jokingly referred to as La Goya," says Harrison.

Then the University of California in San Diego decided to build its campus in the area, and made it known that unless Jews were welcomed into La Jolla, the campus would be relocated elsewhere.

Things started changing, and on a Saturday morning, you now see many a frum family heading to shul in the neighborhood. An eruv was recently erected, though not without a fight from die-hard La Jolla residents.

Were you to attend that synagogue, Adat Yeshurun, chances are that you'd hear many a South African accent. South African Jewish emigrants made their way to San Diego en masse in the 1980s and '90s, and although they have been accused of being insular, they have also helped the community flourish, explains Harrison.

"South African Jews have provided the leadership for a number of our Jewish community organizations, and I can't speak highly enough of the work they've done," he says. "They kept their sense of community and stayed connected to each other, but they are very active."

The fact is, it's hard not to be active in San Diego.

At sunset, I kayak over the Pacific swells from the beach to the La Jolla caves, marvelling at the sea lions and their pups barking from the rocks, and the blanket of purple flowers that carpets the hillside.

From the window of a seaside restaurant, I watch dolphins cavort in the surf, and later pedal my lunch away on a leisurely bike ride through Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach and Mission Beach, enjoying the distinctly California vibe.

Guess that's the secret, the reason so many clamor to live in this lovely place.

For more information, visit: www.sandiego.org

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