Our tour of the Breed Street Shul and historic Boyle Heights
Of all the places in Los Angeles I enjoy, Boyle Heights is my favorite. It’s the place where I spend the most time by far. My closest friends were born and raised here, and being ever in their element this is my neighborhood by proxy. Not that I don’t have sentimental attachments myself, the roots of my family are dug deep in the community too. My grandmother often tells lovingly of her being born and growing up here. I now live a few miles down the road, but as this is the historic core of the Latino community it’s the place to be. This is beating heart of my native Eastside.
Now don’t think low of us if we often define Boyle Heights as part of the barrio, or even dubbing it a “hood.” The community is 98% Latino today, so when we use such terms it is more lovingly and endearingly. In truth, we think of Boyle Heights as the Bel Air of East LA. Interestingly because the community is not exactly unaware of its history. The residents, never are they slow on correcting people who disparage their immigrant rich neighborhood, pointing out that this was once home to a prominent immigrant Jewish community as well.
Once people find out that I’m Jewish (which doesn’t usually take so long, all I have to do is talk for a while), people automatically ask their next questions of me. “So you know about the synagogue, right? Have you seen it?” I’m not exaggerating when I say with all my best friends in town, our first outings were to walk in front and admire the glory of Congregation Talmud Torah – or as we all lovingly know it, the Breed Street Shul. To us it is the jewel of Boyle Heights.
Over the years I have gone through the neighborhood countless times talking with people about the Jewish past of this side of town, piecing together information from stories told by friends that grew up here. Stories from both my own Latino family, and from the memories of many of my Jewish friends whose parents and grandparents were raised in Boyle Heights as well.
Boyle Heights has always been diverse. Not just home to Mexican-Americans and Jews, this side of town was also home to sizable Japanese, Russian, Polish, Italian and German populations. This was especially a heaven for people who weren’t allowed to buy land in other parts of the city, a fact few are aware of today.
My Hispanic grandmother talks of her grandparents doing business in trade and real estate with the Jewish families in the neighborhood, and also of her being named after the family’s sweet German housemaid. This is a side of town in which diverse segments of new immigrants became upwardly mobile.
Until recent years, when people have spoken of the Jews of Boyle Heights, it has mostly been in the past tense. The Jewish community which once thrived here has long since moved away. As the buildings which once served Jews are being reused to serve different minority communities now, the Breed Street Shul is widely considered the last link to the rich and interesting history of the Jewish residents of yesteryear.
It should be quickly noted that the neighborhood still holds many treasures to explore. But few of us locals are old enough, or have good enough memories, to really remember the locations of most things except vaguely. My friends and I have always wanted a chance to be led by people who know the way. And a couple of weeks ago we got that chance of a lifetime.
On a Sunday morning my friend Zero-Renton and I show up at the Breed Street Shul, drawn by an online posting and a buzz in the local synagogues. For a forum titled, “Boyle Heights Heroes: Conversations with Local Luminaries.” A discussion panel on what growing up in Boyle Heights meant to a few people, from both the Jewish and Latino communities.
We arrived early to see the gates of the shul open for once and a stream of mostly older people and their families. There was just a handful of younger people, two of them being these weird punk rockers; my friend and I. Greeted warmly we were asked if we wanted to go on a bus tour of the neighborhood. That day a bus ride had been graciously donated by the office of Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, for an hour-long bus tour to explore the area’s Jewish past.
No sooner were we in the bus and on our way when the President of the Breed Street Project Steven J. Sass began to brightly and frantically point out the sites to see along the way, asking different people to give their memories and connection to the site.
I have to say this was an unexpected and thrilling experience. You see, my friend and I are used to walking these streets. This is what we see everyday, the streets and buildings we far too often rush past without a thought. We consider it our home, we aren’t sight seers.
But neither is this group. No sooner does the bus roll in front of a location when the crowd excitedly yells out the name of what it used to be. People lovingly pointing out the details of each block as we pass. Their sense of excitement leaves both of us stunned, and their familiarity has us taking lessons.
It was truly impressive to have people briefly tell us about the sites of the former schools, hospitals, the history and legacy of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. The sites of the former community centers. The old synagogues, and the locations of the varied minyans (prayer quorums) throughout the neighborhoods.
But there was something that especially compelling about the guided tour. We were presented with a picture of the diversity of this old community. We got to see the truth that there wasn’t just one type of Jew here. We were impressed to hear some details of the varied social and political happenings of those days. The philanthropy and the activism started in that community, some of which people still benefit from today.
And it was even more illuminating because we got to revisit the obvious neighborhood sites to us, but hear people talk about them in ways that we have never heard before. Places we know very intimately, we got to hear people share their memories about them. And enrich them with something old to remember, but new for us to consider.
We got to imagine the smells of latkes in the hall of Hollenbeck Park and the picture of people doing tashlich at the water, with people who lived it. Simple flashes of memories which will forever change the way we see our favorite duck pond. I got to sit next to Zero-Renton on the bus, in front of Roosevelt High School, his own alma mater and hear people talk about their memories of going to school there.
And we got to hear a bit about the challenges of those days and the roles which race and war played in those neighborhoods, especially for the mistreated Japanese whose internment during WWII emotionally scars some to this day.
The bus tour was just an hour-long, and being rushed we were assured we got just a taste. Now I have to tell you, I normally do my best to keep up on the journalistic details. But this was such a unique and awesome experience, I was simply too excited to take notes or even have the good sense to take more pictures. But we were stunned. Just dumbfounded by how much we learned in one hour. And the main presentation hadn’t even started yet!
The panel was presented in the restored back hall of the shul. The group, titled “Boyle Heights Heroes: Conversations with Local Luminaries,” was moderated by Professor George Sanchez of the USC. The panel included notable guests Annette Shapiro, Daniel Hernandez, Donna Bojarsky and Gershon Lewis.
The talks that were given were invaluable, because the presenters really opened up about the people who once lived thrived here. And how starting from here, their loved ones built a legacy of social consciousness which still guides them in their pursuits.
All four guests brought something special to the table:
Annette Shapiro. For those of us in the wider Jewish community, she needs no introduction. One can’t help but be amazed by her philanthropic and loving personal involvement in the needs of the Jewish community, including the Beit T’Shuvah addiction treatment center. She can be found everywhere there is a Jewish or health and wellness cause. A legacy of community service she credits to her family. Among the notable family members of the Boyle Heights community is her grandfather of David Familian – of blessed memory – who served as president of the Breed Street Shul.
David Hernandez. He grew up in Boyle Heights facing all the various challenges of Latino youth, and today he is still facing them but now as the CEO of the Hollenbeck Youth Center. The youth center helps provide many programs which meet the need of the youth and teens in this densely populated and often harsh side of town. He presents us with a much-needed picture of the Latino community, his story being very common in that his experiences have been greatly influenced by his service in the US Armed Forces. Service to ones country, to this day it is still the only way many in our community can ever hope to afford a college education.
Donna Bojarsky. Her father Sol – of blessed memory – was a native of Boyle Heights and celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Breed Street Shul. She brought in tow his delicate little siddur which was presented to him at that time. Donna is a political consultant and active in various community forums. Among them being civic training programs for young Jewish leaders. She is also executive director of KCET’s Mosaic series, a program which gives a fresh and unique look at the diverse communities of Los Angeles.
Gershon Lewis. Now he has to be one of the most interesting people I have ever met. So much could be said about him from his success in his service in the army, business, finance and politics. However, to me he is most impressive as a native Eastsider and Roosevelt High School student, and leader among the Wabash Saxons. The Saxons started in the 1930s, organized by youth from Roosevelt and the other local youth centers. Among their aims and goals, raising money to fund the youth activities of Boyle Heights. He will once again be present to chair the upcoming Wabash Saxons reunion in June 2014.
After the presentation we took extra time exploring the back hall. It was filled presentations of the disrepair and vandalism which once covered the buildings, and commendations earned in the past 15 years of step-by-step preservation efforts. The start of a multi-layered restoration project to revive the entire facility for future active uses. A cultural center for the Jewish, Latino and the various minority communities.
To all involved, we have to say thank you! We are both grateful for this opportunity, and hope to visit with you again.
We also hope for more panel discussions. This type of talk was important not just for me but also for my friend Zero-Renton, who came along. Under the tattoos, leather and colored hair, is a person who tirelessly works for fair housing in Los Angeles. Assisting people at the Housing Rights Center, which works to enforce the Fair Housing Act. In his work he daily faces the challenges of the most needy in our community, and also most vividly sees the consequences of gentrification on the poorest sectors.
We all wonder, what is going to be the next demographic shift in Boyle Heights? We all worry about the future of our historic neighborhoods in which most of us have lived for generations, which are now getting settled by urban hipsters without children. People’s whose needs and means are vastly differently from our own.
In some ways this presentation puts us at ease, helping us realize that our town is just going through its own natural cycle. This was a side of town started by the working class of some means, the Latino community moved in the void left as Jews migrated to the westside. But now these decades later the white middle-class is returning in modest, but growing numbers. We might just have to accept much of this as being part of the the natural growth cycle.
But the questions remains for all of us who love and are dedicated to staying in the Eastside: What is the future for our community, what can we do to enhance and fortify the integrity of our resources as things begin their almost inevitable transition? As properties such as the historic Sears building with over 4.5-million gross square feet of space have been purchased to make way for a multi-use, loft based community, we cannot ignore this much longer. Even public housing is being subjected to urban renewal. Change is undoubtedly coming.
As president Steven J. Sass had to point out several times, the Jewish community in Boyle Heights fell apart because of a series of bad decisions, which together were terminal for the integrity of their once thriving district. The institutional hopes of consolidating and pooling resources led to their eventual collapse. Which further sped up the exodus to neighborhoods with more resources.
Even as I gazed at the exterior of the building which housed the main sanctuary many people reiterated this point to me. That the resources dried up, the people had to move out of necessity. Some were left shaking their heads, blaming themselves for quitting the community. Others a bit pessimistically point out their own truth, that there was also some racial and gang related issues which they regretted. Issues not unlike those we face today. Our side of town is still notorious for those problems to this day, and admittedly it’s much worse today as us Latinos have grown more insular and less accepting of other minorities moving in. This all comes as a social challenge which still very much needs to be addressed.
With all the challenges, the locals are optimistic. And we do see our future being here in Boyle Heights. And we also envision a glorious future for the Breed Street Shul.
Now a lot of the reason why Eastsider see the Breed Street Shul as important is not just because it was important to the Jews who once lived here. We envision this as the site of where the new Jews of the Eastside will one day celebrate and worship. Not just Jews who will move this way with urban planning. But also for the Latino Jews of east Los Angeles. We want yidden coming back to Boyle Heights, to be greeted by a community of Latino Jews as well.
Latino Jews, we are a community that is growing as many convert to Judaism or discover their own historical roots to Judaism. When I was younger I was one of the only practicing Jewish Mexican-Americans in the area. Today you will find many locals from the area scatted in the synagogues throughout the San Gabriel valley, in shuls which often sport liturgy and services in Spanish.
For the Latino Jews of east Los Angeles, the Breed Steet Shul speaks of a Jewish future here which we too embrace. We also have a vision, of a vibrant Jewish community in which we are an integral part of as well.
So for people like me, the Breed Street Shul is important not just because I’m a Jew and this is part of Jewish history, but because I’m a Latino Jew and this is part of our future. Whereas in the past Jews and Latinos were often different sides of the coin in this community, now we are blending together. Today Jews of many different ethnicities are scattered around here, and I think we all tend to see the shul as a heritage and legacy we want to be part of. We are all enthusiastic about her, because this shul has something which charmingly brings us together.
And for the non-Jewish residents of the neighborhood it is also important that this be restored. In order to restore the pride of the community, to stand as a testament of an honorable and impressive past.
For people like my friends and their families. To serve as community center for the residents, so that the glorious halls are filled with celebrations again. And as a meeting and rallying spot for political and social activism, as it has been ever since it was made a national historical landmark by the Clinton administration in 1994. A notable event for the community, which drew First Lady Hillary Clinton herself. Now more recently the shul has even come to draw the entertainment community as well. Latinos also have a lot of reasons to need the “Queen of Synagogues” restored. People see a lot of promise in her.
As we left walking up the block on a stroll toward Brooklyn – excuse me Avenida Cesar Chavez, a slip that true locals don’t make by accident, Latino or Jewish we all still say it – we just grinned and sighed as we passed. Overwhelmed with the amazing stories we had heard.
As we wandered Gershon Lewis came and walked with us down a couple blocks for a bit. I got to express my thanks for his story and also for inspiring me with his example of community service. And I expressed how grateful we both were, Zero-Renton and I, because we don’t really get the chance to have a meeting of the generations in this way ordinarily. So we are willing to listen.
I asked him how us Latinos who are here now, how we can learn some of the spirit of social service that this side of town needs more than ever. What can we learn to build our own legacy. He pats me on the shoulder and says I need to come for the Wabash Saxons banquet and learn how it’s done.
He chatted with me about how many people talk about how much they love their Boyle Heights, yet few come. That it was nice for him to see a good crowd for a change. I joked with him, “Well, if I think about it, I also know enough local Latino Jews to bring together a minyan sometime. I can bring the party and a Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) if necessary.” Gershon laughed and shook my hand in delight, encouraging me to bring it on.
Tzedakah Opportunity: This Breed Street Shul Project is only in the first stages of the site’s restoration. While the back hall, the former beit midrash behind the large shul, has been beautifully restored the rest of the property is still in the early stages of renovation. The project has made great strides, such as bringing a ramp for disabled access to the hall, a first for this old site. At the same time they are still greatly challenged with having to remedy drainage issues which were never properly addressed before.
The project hopes to make this open house and discussion a part of a series. I think many of you will agree that these presentations and tours are an invaluable way to bring people together. We really need more people from the community to have the chance to learn about their neighborhood’s colorful history as well.
If this is something that you find meaningful. If you care about this heritage, and the future of Boyle Heights. If you would like to see more of these events. If you want to encourage more dialogue between the Latino and Jewish communities. If you want to help make the revivification a success, I urge you to donate to this project today:BREED STREET SHUL PROJECT PO Box 33411 Los Angeles, CA 90033-2902
|About the Author: Welcome to Hardcore Mesorah! My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am a writer and religious commentator from Los Angeles, California. As a blog writer, I enjoy talking about the challenging topics of Torah and Jewish life. Weekly I take an in-depth look into the weekly Torah portion. I also tackle topics of personal struggle as learned through my current struggle with HIV/AIDS. I also dedicate the focus of my work to displaying the cultural diversity within Judaism, often exploring the characteristics and unappreciated values of Chassidic and Sephardic Judaism. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.|
More pictures from the shul:
Pictures from the neighborhood tour. This is Congregation B’nei Jacob on Fairmont street, originally a modern Orthodox synagogue. Today it is a church:
- ‘Boyle Heights Heroes’ remembers L.A.‘s Jewish roots (Jewish Journal)
- Visiting Boyle Heights: An Oral History with Hershey Eisenberg (and pictures)
- The Shifting Cultures of Multiracial Boyle Heights (KCET.org)
- Los Angeles Jewish Heritage Tour (by Aviram Oren, 2009)
- Local’s Dreams for Breed Street (Jewish Journal)
- Remembering ‘the last Jewish man of Boyle Heights’ (The Los Angeles Times, 2013)
- The Saxons of Wabash: Together Once Again (The Los Angeles Times, 1998)