May 2, 2012
From Bar Mitzvah to Yahrzeit, Breed Street Shul comes full circle
Milton “Muttie” Siegel celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1937 at the Breed Street Shul, the largest synagogue in Boyle Heights. Last month, Siegel’s family marked his yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death, at the same shul, which has recently been partially refurbished as a multiuse space for both the Jewish community and the Latino community that now lives in Boyle Heights.
Jerry Siegel, Milton’s son, gathered a minyan of 10 family members and friends, including his father’s infant great-grandson, to mark the yahrzeit, and he hopes to kick off a new tradition among descendants of those who lived in Boyle Heights, the center of The Los Angeles Jewish community from the 1920s to the 1950s.
“My father would be 87 if he were alive today. The idea that we were able to observe his yahrzeit in the temple he was bar mitzvahed in was a special feeling. It was very, very moving,” Siegel said. Milton Siegel died in 1988.
Among those in attendance last month was Jake Farber, a past chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who grew up in Boyle Heights and attended Siegel’s bar mitzvah.
Siegel rented out the small chapel building at the back of the property, and brought in his own prayer books and refreshments. In the last year, the pews, central pulpit and memorial plaques have been cleared out of the 3,700-square-foot wood-frame bungalow that was the original home of Congregation Talmud Torah when it moved from downtown in 1915. But the wooden Torah ark and richly hewed mural at the front of the room leave little doubt as to its original use. The building also has a small kitchen and some classrooms.
Siegel hopes the yahrzeit minyans can also serve as a fundraising tool for the Breed Street Shul Project, the organization that operates the space and is working to restore the main building. The 18,000-square-foot Byzantine revival structure was condemned after its unreinforced masonry was badly damaged in the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. Vandals and pigeons further sullied the building in its years of disuse.
This week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon visited the Breed Street Shul, which was declared a Los Angeles historical and cultural monument in 1988.
Organizers envision the space as a bridge between the Latino and Jewish communities. In the last year, NFTY, the Reform youth group, held a program with Boyle Heights teens. New Community Jewish High School and the Mendez Learning Center, a charter high school in Boyle Heights, held a joint community service project where they planted bougainvillea on a walkway outside the shul. Eleventh-graders from Mendez have trained as docents to give tours of the Breed Street Shul.
An after-school music program operates out of the building, and Jewish Free Loan Association sees neighborhood clients there once a month.
Siegel raised close to $1,000 at his father’s yahrzeit minyan, and he hopes others will do the same. He also envisions building a memorial garden, where descendants of the Boyle Heights community members could purchase plaques on a tile wall.
Siegel himself manufactures yahrzeit plaques, through his company, Yahrzeitronix.
Before getting into the yahrzeit business, Siegel was an industrial liquidator, a business he inherited form his father. The family lived in Boyle Heights until the 1940s, when they moved west to the Fairfax area and then to Ladera Heights. Jerry Siegel’s mother, Doris Siegel, was the first female president of Sinai Temple. Milton was active at Sinai Temple and at Camp Ramah California.
The Breed Street Shul is holding its annual fundraiser June 24 at the shul. Honorees are Robert Chattel, a preservation architect who volunteered to oversee restoration of the 1915 building, and Lucy Delgado, a community advocate and founder of Mothers of East Los Angeles, who died on April 11.
For information, call (818) 416-2253, or visit breedstreetshul.org.