April 5, 2007
Reunion Re-Kindles ‘Miracle on Florence’ Memories
It was called the "Miracle on Florence Avenue," a small, humble synagogue that thrived for 50 years before shuttering its doors in 1986, a victim of old age and changing demographics. By all accounts, Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation, the second Conservative synagogue established in Los Angeles, should be buried in the sands of oblivion by now. And yet, 30 of us -- all fiercely loyal former members, ranging in age from 50 to 97 -- gathered on Jan. 7 at the home of Elliot Monka in Sierra Madre for a reunion that brimmed over not only with nostalgia, but with insight into how this tiny Jewish enclave could produce an unprecedented number of successful professionals and deeply committed Jews.
"In spite of being from poor immigrant families, the Jewish community in Huntington Park gave its children an extraordinary core set of values that we've all carried through the years," said Ben Tenn, an entertainment executive whose father served as a synagogue president.
Indeed, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) became a bar mitzvah in Huntington Park, as did Lee Bycel, my old next-door neighbor, who has become a well-regarded rabbi. Religious school graduates also fill the ranks of doctors, attorneys, entrepreneurs and professors around the country.
According to my mother, Evelyn Rosenwein, who spearheaded the reunion, her parents and the other founders "wanted the temple's foundation to be built on Torah [education], tzedakah [justice], avodah [ambition ] and ahdut [unity]. I think they succeeded."
A strong connection to Judaism has proven another hallmark of Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation alumni. Besides producing a rabbi, the temple inspired several members to make aliyah. My brother, Lloyd, lived in Israel during the Yom Kippur War and screenwriter Dan Gordon is a captain (reserve) in the Israel Defense Forces.
The neighborhood of Huntington Park, located in a lower-middle-class area seven miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, was never a "Jewish" area. Today, in fact, the population is almost entirely Latino, and our little two-story synagogue has morphed into a Seventh-day Adventist church. But when my grandparents, Albert and Lillian Brownstein, settled there around 1915, they met with a handful of enterprising Jews on Aug. 10, 1927, to establish a Jewish community. The new group called itself B'nai Yehuda Congregation, after my great-grandfather, and looked for members by finding Jewish names in the telephone book.
"Solomon Israel gave my dad an earful. Turns out the guy was Lutheran," chuckled Paul Brownstein, my uncle, who served as keynote speaker at the reunion, along with Dr. Gerald Turbow, a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Historical Society, and the son of temple founder Dr. Arthur Turbow.
The fledgling congregation persevered, in spite of the Great Depression, the city's refusal to zone a building and, finally, the 1933 earthquake. On March 27, 1938, Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation finally opened at 2877 Florence Ave., becoming the community's spiritual center for the next 50 years.
During the following two decades, the synagogue flourished, and by the mid-1950s, its membership surged to 180 families with a religious school boasting 130 students. This was the time I remember best -- Hebrew school three times a week (we would have rather been home playing, but no one asked us); Rabbi Harry Hyman glowering as my still-best friend Clare (Zellman) Reider and I giggled during Friday night services. But somehow, in spite of all our worst childish intentions, we learned about responsibility and loyalty and Jewish identity.
There is a cycle of life and death, and our congregation reached the end of its cycle with the mass migration of Jews to the Westside and Valley in the mid-1960s. The temple lingered on until 1986 -- hence the moniker "Miracle on Florence Avenue" -- but fewer than 30 families had remained. It was a sad time, but we vowed to get together again, and 12 years ago we had our first reunion. This time around fewer people came -- many have died, some were away "repairing the world." But they vowed to come to our next gathering.
People left the January reunion with a glow that, after so many years, seemed surprising. Was it seeing our beloved Sunday school teacher, Henrietta (Kartin) Zarovsky, who remembered us all? Was it just hearing the name of Irving Jacobs, our spiritual and sweet-voiced cantor who volunteered his services for 46 years? It was more. There was something indefinably satisfying about knowing that there are still people around who understand, truly understand, quality of life and qualities of life worthy of pursuing. Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation is no longer a place; it is a collective memory. When the old timers are all gone, and we baby boomers have joined them, that memory will be obliterated. But what will remain for our children and children's children will be a legacy of Jewish values, blended with small town ideals. It's worth glowing about. l
Andrea Rosenwein is a writer and adjunct English professor at Pierce College.