March 8, 2007
Koreatown residents visit the synagogue next door
When Charles Kim called Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple last year, it didn't take long for the Korean American leader to get to the point.
"He was wondering if the temple was for sale," said Stein, head of the synagogue's Center for Religious Inquiry. "I can't sell you the temple, I replied, but I hope I can sell you on a relationship."
A series of discussions about how to bring the Korean and Jewish communities together followed. After Stein accepted an invitation to address a Koreatown Rotary Club meeting in December, he invited the Korean American community to the Byzantine-style synagogue on Feb. 27.
During an evening open house reception at Wilshire Boulevard Temple that featured desserts such as sticky sweet rice cakes and hamantaschen, Korean Americans and Jews gathered to dialogue about mutual understanding and to discuss conditions in the formerly Jewish Wilshire Center district, which is now home to the largest Korean population outside of Seoul.
While the Jewish and predominantly Korean communities have had dialogues before, this intercultural initiative marks the first time the Wilshire Center synagogue has opened its doors to the surrounding Korean community, which is predominantly Christian. About 80 people attended the event, which included Korean business and educational leaders as well as synagogue clergy, staff and congregants.
"It took us 34 years to get here," said Kim, national president of the Korean American Coalition. "Thank you for making us feel at home. Shalom."
A major topic of discussion between the Jewish and Korean communities was the shared use of the building's facilities, which already house a predominantly Hispanic charter school during the day. Proposed joint ventures include introductory Judaism courses taught in Korean, a brown-bag lunch lecture series, and educational trips to Israel and Korea.
But a more daunting, shared problem facing the area is gang activity, Stein said. Among the 11 most dangerous L.A. gangs recently identified by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one is active in Koreatown.
"That's our neighborhood," said Stein, gesturing to the entire room. "We all have to work on that."
Kim echoed Stein's enthusiasm for cooperation between the ethnically, religiously and culturally distinct communities.
"Up until now, we have been like many islands, instead of one community," said Kim, who traveled to Israel in 1987 as part of an Asian goodwill delegation.
This is not the first attempt at Korean-Jewish togetherness. A decade ago the American Jewish Committee launched a project to bring local Korean and Jewish business and political leaders together, and in 2005 the Simon Wiesenthal Center and The Jewish Federation held a "Talking Tolerance" discussion with Koreans and Jews. In the heart of Koreatown, the Rev. Yong-Soo Hyun runs the Shema Educational Institute, which promotes the study of Hebrew and Jewish culture.
Wilshire Boulevard Temple hopes to become an ongoing and significant partner in the life of the neighborhood.
The corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Hobart Street was once known as "the Jewish address" in Los Angeles, according to the synagogue's literature. Originally dedicated in 1929, the building is actually the third inhabited by Los Angeles' oldest synagogue community, founded as Congregation B'nai B'rith in 1862. After much of the Jewish population shifted West, Wilshire Boulevard Temple built the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus on the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Barrington Avenue in the mid-1990s.
The synagogue recently commissioned a demographic survey to determine how many Jewish families live in the surrounding mid-Wilshire area, and officials were surprised to discover a near 30 percent increase in Jewish residents within a 20-minute drive of the Koreatown campus.
"We are deeply committed to this neighborhood and plan to be here for hundreds of years to come," Senior Rabbi Steven Z. Leder said.
Following the reception, guests were led on an hour-long tour of the synagogue, which features biblical murals by artist Hugo Ballin and a 100-foot dome in the Edgar F. Magnin Sanctuary.
"It is the most beautiful place I've ever seen," Kim said of the sanctuary.
When Stein told the story of a synagogue's Torah scroll being rescued from a barn in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust, the Korean guests were awed.
"Wow," said Jun Su, executive director of the Korean Institute of Southern California, an educational organization. "A miracle."
Stein nodded and smiled.
A spirit of hope and optimism surrounding a new friendship dominated the event, but there was one point of dispute between the Jews and Koreans. During the press conference, Kim strode up to the podium after Stein and said in a very solemn tone, "I have one correction to make."
Kim looked to Stein and joked, "I never asked Stephen to sell me the temple. I asked him to give it to me."
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, www.wilshireboulevardtemple.org
Korean American Coalition, www.kacla.org
Shema Educational Institute, www.shemaiquq.com