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The End of Covenant

For years, La Jolla was infamous for its genteel anti-Semitism: Jews could visit but they couldn't buy homes here. But the combined efforts of UCSD and determined Jewish buyers eventually broke the "The Covenant." Now La Jolla is the center of San Diego's Jewish community.
by Sue Garson

Nowhere does modern Jewish life thrive locally today as it does in La Jolla, which has become San Diego's largest Jewish enclave with around 12,000 members of the tribe (according to the United Jewish Federation). Even though most of La Jolla's Jews are unaffiliated, evidence of Jewish religious and cultural activities dot La Jolla's luscious landscape. There are New York style delis, bagel shops and a large Kosher Food Section at Ralphs. In addition to a lavish Jewish Community Center, there are two Chabad centers, three large synagogues, the annual Jewish Film Festival (homebase: AMC La Jolla Village), and an annual Jewish Book Fair where comedian/raconteur Alan King appeared last November. Menorahs are displayed on public land during Chanukah. On Shabbat it is common to see families walking rather than driving, their payis and tzit-tzit blowing in La Jolla's gentle breezes; covered-up women wear wigs or headscarves even on the hottest summer days. No, this is not Crown Heights with palm trees - but the recent addition of a mikvah on La Jolla Scenic Drive certainly lays claim to La Jolla as the Jewish center of San Diego.

The longest hatred
"The greatest danger of Jewish Power lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government."
-Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., cherished American Aviation Hero for whom San Diego's International Airport is named.

   La Jolla wasn't always Jewish turf. Less than 50 years ago, Jews were unwelcome, barred from buying homes by a large-scale conspiracy among realtors and homeowners, the shadowy and infamous "La Jolla covenant." But the systemic anti-Semitism in La Jolla was only the genteel side of an uglier, more threatening force that has plagued Jews for centuries.

   Dubbed "the longest hatred" in a PBS documentary by the same name, anti-Semitism dissipates and emerges cyclically, yet its undertones are always around. From Shakespearean times to the Dreyfus Affair in France to last year's disturbing rehash of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on Egyptian TV, anti-Semitism lies beneath the surface but never stays buried.

   Although the modern term is only about a century old, the prejudice it describes was clear in writings accusing Jews of ritual murder dating as early as 300 BCE. The Roman Emperor Caligula sponsored the first reported pogrom. In Russia, hatred of Jews permeated from the Orthodox clergy down to the most ignorant peasant. Poland and the Medieval Church followed and the rest of Europe joined in. In the 1930s and '40s, it found its most virulent and destructive expression, as Hitler and his machinery of evil killed six million Jews.

   San Diego is the perfect paradigm for the global ebbs and flows of anti-Semitism. In the 1930s there was a national movement called The Silver Shirts led by William Dudley Pelley. Born in Massachusetts in 1890, Pelley was fascinated by Nazism and proclaimed himself the American Hitler. The Silver Shirts' stated goal was to remove Jews from public office, to overthrow the government led by "Jews and Communists" and to establish a Christian commonwealth. Most members were in California - the membership claim in California alone was 25,000 - and San Diego was one of the most active branches. They held public meetings at a former church on 30th Street and in a bookshop in the 4200 block of University Ave. About 150 people regularly attended these meetings where a salute to the flag was followed by a harangue against Communists and Jews and ended with the collective singing of "Onward Christian Soldiers." The secret side was even darker. Storm troopers in a room behind the bookstore swore allegiance to a swastika, organized into cells of five, and trained use arms in preparation for military action in San Diego. In May of 1934 at the Kemp ranch east of El Cajon, 200 storm troopers showed up for war games. There was talk of "The Battle of San Diego."

   The movement repeated the myth of Jewish ritual murder in its national publication, the Silver Ranger; two of these murders were reported to have been committed in San Diego. San Diego and Los Angeles Jews formed a group to monitor the Silver Shirts and in 1935, Pelley was tried and convicted of libelous statements and was fined and sentenced to two years in prison. The sturm und drang faded into oblivion when the U.S. entered World War II, but because Pelley distributed pro-German leaflets to American troops, he was convicted under a 1917 sedition act and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Earlier, the German American Bund conducted their activities in the Germanic Hall on 9th and C Streets in downtown San Diego, but met with little local success.

   In the 1940s, Leon de Aryan published a crass anti-Semitic smear sheet called The Broom. In the wake of the war, anti-Semitism witnessed a sharp decline nationwide, but the lunatic fringe kept trying to spread ancient mythology that had no basis in fact. As late as the 1950s, The Broom was still propagating old myths about ritual blood sacrifices.

   Tom Metzger, a Fallbrook TV repairman widely acknowledged as a principal mentor of the neo-Nazi skinheads, came to prominence in the '70s as the "Grand Dragon" of the Ku Klux Klan's California branch. In 1980, he won 35,000 votes as the Democratic nominee for Congress but was soundly defeated; lifelong Democrats voted Republican for the first and only time in their lives.

   Inspired by reading Mein Kampf as a teenager at Helix High School in La Mesa, present day Lemon Grove white supremacist and virulent anti-Semite Alex Curtis reaches audiences through the Internet spewing dangerous invective against Jews. One particularly vituperative example of Curtis' recent propaganda is a cartoon of "Jew York City" being destroyed by an atom bomb under the caption - "The quickest way to exterminate six million vermin!" Curtis blames Jews for promoting multiculturalism, which, he feels, is the root cause of America's "racial problems." The local ADL office is one of his major targets and he drops many of his hate leaflets there. Curtis refers to the U.S. as ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government) and contends that integration and intermarriage are the components of a Jewish plot to commit genocide against the "White" race. Alex Curtis is a self-proclaimed Lone Wolf.

   The late nineties saw a string of synagogues vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. Between 1997 and 2001, Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, Tiifereth Israel Synagogue and Chabad Center of University City were all vandalized.

   But according to Morris Casuto, regional director of the ADL headquartered in San Diego, there has actually been a decrease in anti-Jewish hate crimes in San Diego. Last year six were reported (down several percentage points, but because the incidents are so few, the percentage points are meaningless), although 69 incidents on college campuses nation-wide reverse a five-year decline. Flyers that were distributed at UCSD offensively satirizing Talmudic writings were immediately recalled; the chancellor wrote letters denouncing them. "Because leaders immediately speak out against discrimination, today Jews live well and safely in San Diego," Casuto concludes.

La Jolla's version
"Since my little daughter is only half-Jewish, would it be alright if she went in the pool only up to her waist?" -excerpted from Groucho Marx's letter to a country club after it barred his daughter for being Jewish. (Quoted from his 1977 obituary in the New York Times)

   In the late 1950s, local realtors told plasma physicist Marshall Rosenbluth (who went on to receive the National Medal of Science in 1997) they would lose their jobs if they sold him a piece of La Jolla real estate. This was part of the well-known covenant, or "Gentlemen's Agreement" among realtors and La Jolla residents who attempted to keep their exclusive community free from undesirable elements. Jews were considered a threat to La Jolla's status quo of genteel W.A.S.P. tranquility. Although discrimination was unenforceable, those La Jolla real estate brokers who belonged to the REBA (Real Estate Brokers Association) developed methods of thwarting purchases by potential homebuyers they considered undesirable.

   This conspiracy was part of a far-reaching anti-Semitism that quietly percolated through La Jolla's tony mansions and exclusive clubs. Al Hutler, the first president of San Diego's Jewish federation remembered a sign at the entrance the La Jolla Beach And Tennis club that read, "No Jews Allowed," although that allegation has been disputed by Roger Revelle's widow, Ellen. Owning or even renting a house in La Jolla was a furtive operation, and the few Jewish-owned business in La Jolla that opened soon after the war ended received an icy reception. At that time, the Colonial Inn (owned by Bill Brooks), a gas station on the corner of Prospect and Fay (now the Hard Rock Caf´┐Ż) owned by Harold Kramer, and Cleancraft, a dry-cleaning establishment on Pearl Street owned by a family named Sussman, were the only Jewish-owned businesses in town. There was one long-established physician in La Jolla. With a non-Jewish wife, Bernie Hart became the token Jew at the country club.

   The 1947 film Gentlemen's Agreement tackled this thorny issue. It (ironically) starred La Jolla native, actor Gregory Peck, one of the founders of the La Jolla Playhouse. Peck portrayed a Gentile posing as a Jew who tried to get jobs and accommodations and was met with constant rejection.

   But the primary tactic to keep Jews out was an agreement among realtors not to sell to Jews. In addition to using coded language in brochures that described certain La Jolla communities as "exclusive" and "discriminating," no "For Sale" signs were put on La Jolla properties, which made it impossible for Jewish clients to know which properties were actually on the market.

   According to Mary Ellen Stratthaus, who wrote a finely researched article on the "Covenant," homeowners and realtors developed a quiet system of marking Jewish buyers: when realtors drove by with potential clients, if the porch lights were left on during the day, it signified not to show the property to anyone who was suspected of being Jewish. And when realtors were driving prospective Jewish buyers around, they displayed a green card on their windshield that alerted the owners that the clients in their cars were Jewish. Stars of David scribbled on top of applications signaled to others in the office that the potential buyers were to be discouraged.

   Scripps Institute of Oceanography circumvented the problem by creating Scripps Estate. In 1951, Roger Revelle, then director of Scripps, and a group of associates bought land on the hillside above Scripps Institute of Oceanography and created the Estates on beautiful ocean view lots so that its faculty - many of whom were Jewish - would have affordable housing near Scripps. Scientists Ed Goldberg and Leonard Liebermann were among the first homeowners at Scripps Estates.

The Salks next door
   In the late 1950s in the La Jolla Scenic Drive area, rumors that Jews had moved in next door caused an owner to panic and immediately put her house up for sale. She feared the neighborhood would be ruined and property values would plummet, she said. The Jews next door happened to be Dr. and Mrs. Jonas Salk.

   In 1958 homes were being offered for sale for $27,000 on the ocean side of Torrey Pines. When a family named Cunningham inquired, the down payment was $4,000. An hour earlier when Ralph Stahl, a physicist at General Atomics who knew the Cunninghams, inquired, the developers told him that the down payment was $12,000, slightly less than half the cost of the home. In fact, the developers asked the Cunninghams if Stahl's family was Jewish.

   By the early 1960s, the situation had eased a bit but buying real estate in La Jolla was still difficult for Jews, according to Ralph's wife, Johnnie Stahl. By 1962, though, there was a growing Jewish community in and around La Jolla as a result of talk of establishing UCSD and a loosening of the real estate restrictions that had been rigidly observed for the past half century. Many of the new families lived in La Jolla Scenic Heights, a defiantly non-restricted development of 80 homes built by Leonard Drogin and financed by Harry Sugarman. This became La Jolla's "ghetto."

   The Stahls were one of the "ghetto" families. When the Stahl's 6-year-old son Daniel began asking about his identity, rudimentary Jewish education in La Jolla was born. At first Daniel was sent to the home of Professor Jason Saunders, of Sugarman Drive, who was teaching his two young children Jewish observances and traditions. "After a few weeks, Saunders complained that he was putting too many hours of preparation into this small class," recalls Jonnie Stahl. Within two weeks Jonnie provided more than 20 young recruits and classes moved to the Stahl residence, in four different rooms. "Jason was supplemented with student volunteers from UCSD. After classes there was a sumptuous lunch - deli mostly - at the house. That seemed to make their work worthwhile," she explains. This grass roots informal arrangement became known as the "Sabbath School."

   "One of our special treats was a visit from Isaac Bashevis Singer," Jonnie Stahl continues, "Our students gathered at my home where he told us some of his stories. He said he was a vegetarian and that when he died, there would be all the chickens he didn't eat to greet him in Heaven and that they would lay him the biggest omelet he had ever eaten."

   As the Sabbath School continued growing, parents eventually made arrangements to use classrooms on Sunday mornings at La Jolla Country Day School. "By then we were paying the teachers," Stahl says, "but we were still feeding them and they were happy to have a connection to the community. They taught the kids about the holidays and traditions as well as the Torah and a bit of Hebrew language. They also discussed Jewish ethics and the importance of education." Daniel Stahl, whose question of Jewish identity had started it all, became La Jolla's first Bar Mitzvah; the ceremony, replete with his Haftorah, was conducted at the Stahl residence.

A reference from the Queen?
   But those Jewish scientists who lived outside Scripps Estates and La Jolla Scenic Heights were still constricted by the La Jolla covenant. When world-renowned British mathematician/philosopher Jacob Bronowski was brought to the Salk Institute by Jonas Salk in 1963, he wanted to buy a piece of land on La Jolla Farms Road for the purpose of building a house for his family. But the land was part of William Black's Beach and Bridle Club, and the Bronowskis were required to produce three written character references. The rumor still circulates that Bronowski produced a letter from the Queen of England and another one from Winston Churchill. Bronowski's widow laughingly dismisses the tale as hyperbole. "But we did procure letters from Aldous Huxley as well as Lady Summerskill and Lord Robling, both members of British Parliament," she recalls, and these luminaries attested to the Bronowski family's impeccable character before the escrow had opened.

   The first Jewish doctor on staff at Scripps Clinic was Joseph Feldman who came to La Jolla with his family in 1961. The Feldmans were courted by Scripps and managed to rent a house in La Jolla, knowing that because of the restrictions, they couldn't own property there. Like other Jewish families, they didn't even try to buy a house because so many others had met with failure. "Within a year, we fled," recalls Feldman's widow, Nomi. "As adults, we were better able to handle the slurs," she remembers, "but it was very hard on the children to come home from a school where 'Dirty Jew!' and other familiar epithets were used." The social climate was very uncomfortable. "We especially didn't like it when our daughter took art lessons at the secular La Jolla Community Center and came home singing Christmas hymns," Feldman continues. The Feldmans moved back to La Jolla in the late '60s after the covenant was broken. "UCSD brought Jews to La Jolla and that changed everything," she says.

UCSD changes everything
   Although Jonas Salk and the Salk Institute For Biological Studies brought many Jewish scientists and their families to La Jolla, most agree that the agent of change was UCSD. Spearheading the effort was one of the twentieth century's most eminent scientists and recipient of the National Medical of Science, Roger Revelle. (He is often referred to as the "Father of UCSD.")

   Although REBA (established in 1925) facilitated La Jolla's early anti-Semitic housing restrictions, through Revelle's forcefully charismatic persuasion, brokers began to realize that they had a lot to lose financially if they continued discriminating against Jews. Revelle ultimately forced a choice among REBA members between maintaining the covenant and having a university. You can't have both, explained Revelle in a fiery speech at a La Jolla Town Council meeting. He made sure they understood that a university couldn't exist without having a significant number of Jewish professors whose children would be attending La Jolla's schools.

   Although realtors eventually saw the light and welcomed the economic expansion that a new university would bring, many settled homeowners wanted to preserve the status quo. Some of them left La Jolla and moved to Rancho Santa Fe, which today has a notable, although less visible, Jewish population.

   For Revelle's efforts he received an award from the American Jewish Committee. As punishment for his efforts, Al Hutler speculated that Revelle was denied the first chancellorship of UCSD, which went to Herbert York instead.

   Of course, by the time the university campus was voted in by the State Board of Regents and accepted by the community as a positive thing, La Jolla's reputation for anti-Semitism was well known in the country's academic circles. This presented another challenge for Roger Revelle as he frantically tried to lure top-notch scientists to the UCSD faculty; several prominent scientists declined Revelle's offer because they were hesitant about placing their children in a situation where there might be prejudice against them. Although Revelle did his best to convince them that those days were over, there was plenty of angst. But in 1965 when the first freshman class enrolled at UCSD, La Jolla finally became an integrated community.

   Looking back before 1960, it was common for Jews to anglicize their names and describe anything Jewish in whispered tones. "Today when I look out my window I see Jewish institutions as prevalent as hospitals," muses Jonnie Stahl. "Where you have science," she concludes, "you have Jews!"

   And it only took half a century.

This author gratefully acknowledges local historian Mary Ellen Stratthaus for writing "Flaw In The Jewel: Housing Discrimination Against Jews in La Jolla, California," published in 1996 by the American Jewish Historical Society - and for her encouragement and gracious willingness to share some of her research notes.

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