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The Afterlife of an East L.A. Shul

Times Staff Writer

Neil Diamond prayed here. So did Al Jolson, or at least that’s what the old-timers claim. Now, there is mostly just darkness and decay and the indignant ruffling of pigeons, the sole remaining tenants of the Breed Street Shul.

As Robert Chattel picks his way through the crumbling Boyle Heights synagogue, flashlight in hand, the scene has the uncanny aura of an archeological dig. Briefly, he illuminates a row of dusty pews engraved with the Star of David. Overhead, a yawning hole spills light onto water-damaged frescoes of zodiac signs, rendered in a whimsical folk-art style. A scattering of wooden tablets inscribed with Hebrew letters suggests the previous owners left this place in a hurry.

It’s been barely a half-dozen years since the 1923 building’s elderly congregation shut its doors for the last time, surrendering its sanctuary to the El Nin~o rains and graffiti taggers. But an effort to resurrect the Orthodox synagogue--one of a handful of surviving temples in an area that once boasted dozens of them--already has begun, in a struggle pitting patience and memory against time and indifference.

Seeking to honor a spiritual monument while reinvigorating the community around it, an unusual alliance of Jewish and Latino groups is preparing to raise funds for a massive restoration-make-over of the shul. With an eye on posterity, the leading plan is to convert the historic structure into a museum dedicated to the neighborhood’s rich, polyglot history. Melding the building’s past with its present, the shul also would be retrofitted as a neighborhood cultural center, serving heavily Latino Boyle Heights.

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Among those involved in reviving the Breed Street synagogue, or shul--an affectionate, vernacular term meaning a place of prayer and learning--are the Boyle Heights Neighbors Organization, the East Los Angeles Community Corp. and the building’s owner, the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. All joined forces in the late 1990s, shortly after the congregation that had occupied the building for decades disbanded.

“I think the shul really can become the cultural center of the community,” says East L.A. native and Boyle Heights activist Elsa Casillas-Cambon, echoing a growing sentiment. “I call it a little jewel that’s going to be fixed up and repaired,” says Mary Mendoza, a Boyle Heights Neighbors Organization member who has lived in the area since the 1930s.

For its Jewish sponsors, the challenge is to preserve the shul’s historical legacy and architectural integrity while creating a multipurpose facility that responds to the area’s changing demographics. “I think most people know of this Jewish history, the folklore of the community,” says Chattel, a preservation architect and board member of the Jewish Historical Society, which secured the title to the synagogue from the city of Los Angeles last July. “The Breed Street Shul is a remnant of that community, and maybe the seed of something that could be there in the future.”

At present, that seed is trying to take root in tenuous soil. Located in the heart of East Los Angeles, a few steps from Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard, the shul is a sentimental relic in a neighborhood where incomes are low and crime rates are high. Over the years, scores of Boyle Heights homes and businesses have fallen to new freeways and other icons of progress, while residents have struggled to secure their share of city services. Even getting a new traffic signal can take as long as a year, community leaders say.

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Compounding the difficulty facing the shul is its gradual detachment from its natural constituency: the 600,000 Jews who live in Los Angeles County but may barely know the building exists. “Some say Jews don’t have a real attachment to their buildings because we had to move so much,” says Jewish Historical Society president Stephen J. Sass. “You had to have a sort of portable religion.”

It seems an appropriate footnote that the shul and several of its congregants appeared in the 1980 remake of “The Jazz Singer,” starring Neil Diamond as the God-fearing cantor’s son torn between religious filiation and the American dream.

Though it’s said that scenes from Jolson’s original 1927 version of the film, Hollywood’s first “talkie,” also were shot there, no one has turned up any photographic proof.

Although planning and fund-raising are still in early stages, the Breed Street Shul Project Inc., a nonprofit entity created by the Jewish Historical Society, has been holding meetings with community leaders and soliciting ideas on the shul’s redevelopment. Private foundations, including the California Endowment and the J. Paul Getty Trust, through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, have awarded planning grants totaling $55,000. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the building and brought attention to its plight during a visit two years ago. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also has stepped in with a $289,636 grant to help finance a first-phase seismic retrofit of the main red brick sanctuary. Top priority is installing a new roof this summer.

The cost of restoring and converting the building is estimated at $6 million. Besides a museum and cultural center, other potential uses could include adult education and recreation classes, children’s art programs, a computer lab and a performance center. “By and large, the community’s really underserved in terms of access to cultural activities and cultural venues,” says Casillas-Cambon.

It would be a dramatic turnabout for the building, which in only a few years had devolved into a gang hangout, drop-in drug swap meet and impromptu dump site. If not for a towering wrought-iron fence, erected four years ago by the city, the shul might be totally trashed.

“It was a menacing structure in the neighborhood because it really did feel like a no-man’s land,” says Maria Cabildo, executive director of the East Los Angeles Community Corp. Today, its neighbors keep watch over the shul, and two cantankerous roosters belonging to a house next door kick up a fuss if anyone wanders too close.

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Formally known as Congregation Talmud Torah, the shul was once the largest Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles and a monument to an immigrant people’s civic and spiritual ambitions. From the 1920s through the early ‘50s, when Boyle Heights and the adjoining City Terrace neighborhood were home to between 75,000 and 90,000 Jews--the highest concentration west of Chicago--the Breed Street synagogue was dubbed “Queen of the Shuls.”

Designed by Abram Edelman, son of L.A.'s first rabbi, and constructed at a cost of $75,000, the building’s Byzantine-revival architecture evoked Old World traditions its worshipers had left behind. Most were Eastern European refugees fleeing the Russian czar’s pogroms and the predations of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. Boyle Heights was a kind of West Coast Ellis Island en route to the Promised Land of middle-class assimilation. The shul became a beacon for these new arrivals. “It was the most beautiful building that people of rather modest means could have,” Sass says.

In its prime, between the two world wars, the shul stood in a vibrant community of Jews, Latinos and Japanese. During that period, dozens of kosher restaurants, bakeries and cafes with Yiddish and Hebrew signs lined Brooklyn Avenue, as the boulevard used to be known. The aroma of burritos and challah bread mingled outside greengrocers and bathhouses, union halls and movie houses. Mariachi and klezmer tunes drifted from apartment windows. Socialists and Zionists argued on street corners in Yiddish and Spanish. A two-piece suit cost $3.99 at Zellman’s Menswear, the landmark store that closed in 1999.

“We had such a beautiful community growing up, with all the different nationalities: Mexican, Russian, Armenian, Italian, black people. I didn’t feel a stranger from any of them,” says Mary Mendoza.

The community, however, was far from utopian. In the 1950s, as the population in the area was shifting from Jewish to Latino, gangs emerged and fights sometimes broke out. But the sometimes rival ethnic groups found common ground in labor unions and progressive political causes. Several future Chicano leaders earned their political spurs working side by side with the community’s Jewish left-wing intelligentsia.

Restrictive covenants in many L.A. neighborhoods limited where immigrants could settle. Gradually, the Boyle Heights area evolved into a haven for political outcasts and economic have-nots. It was multicultural before multicultural was cool. “My mom used to walk me to Canter’s Deli, and I would have eggs with matzo bread and then go to Catholic school,” recalls Tomas Benitez, executive director of Self-Help Graphics, the East Los Angeles printmaking center and Chicano art gallery. “It really kind of underscores a paradigm for where L.A. is right now.”

But in the years after World War II, suburban growth lured many Jews to Westwood, the Fairfax district and the San Fernando Valley. A large number of Japanese families, after being detained in internment camps, never returned to the old neighborhood. Increasingly, the shul became a solitary island with little relationship either to its community or to the Jewish families who’d moved away.

Sass thinks many Boyle Heights Jews may have had conflicted feelings about their New World shtetl, or enclave. On the one hand, they regarded it as a safe, homey place--"what we call haimish.” Yet there was “a sense of perhaps embarrassment about immigrant origins, the fact that it wasn’t high class. It was a place that you wanted to get out of and move on up.”

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In recent years, as the shul’s aging worshipers died or moved away, the congregation had difficulty maintaining a minyan, or quorum, of 10 men necessary for daily prayers. Gradually, services were reduced to twice a week and the late Rabbi Mordecai Gansweig limited his time there to Sabbath services. By then, the congregation had retreated from the main sanctuary, which was declared unsafe after the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake, into the smaller chapel in the rear of the compound.

Soon, it was obvious that the shul no longer could survive solely as a place of worship. The congregation’s elders determined that the building should be torn down, the surrounding land sold and its proceeds donated to charity. But the building was spared after the Jewish Historical Society petitioned, successfully, to have it designated a protected city historic cultural monument. It fell to city ownership when back assessments went unpaid, and last July the city of Los Angeles deeded the building to the Jewish Historical Society.

As the project moves forward, the shul may be viewed as something of a harbinger of the city’s Latino-Jewish relations. With Jews and Latinos attempting to forge political alliances throughout the city, the shul’s time may again be at hand.

“Can it serve the neighborhood and coexist? Can it have a new life and not be an island?” Sass asks rhetorically. “I think that journey is as important to us as the final outcome. I think that people are really seeing this as an opportunity to connect with one another, which we don’t always have in this city.”


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