Crossing the bridge over the Los Angeles River can, in some places, feel a little like making your way across the U.S.- Mexico border. Just across the waterway from downtown Los Angeles lies the historic neighborhood of Boyle Heights, these days known for its scores of taquerias and its distinctly Latin flavor.
Although the area is overwhelmingly Latino today, Boyle Heights was once known as a gateway for immigrants of many different nationalities. In the early part of the 20th century, many Japanese Americans and Jewish Americans called it home.
Perhaps nothing of what remains of that time represents the neighborhood’s rich Jewish heritage better than the Breed Street Shul, the once-lively Orthodox Congregation Talmud Torah. Abandoned as Jews moved westward, the building fell into disrepair; but now it is in its second phase of renovation, and many Latinos in the neighborhood are looking forward to the day when the shul is finally reopened — as a neighborhood community center.
The Breed Street Shul Project, established in 1999 as a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society, is an all-volunteer-run organization in charge of renovating the synagogue, and according to its president, Stephen Sass, approximately $1.3 million has already been spent on the restoration. The roof, once cracked open and overtaken by pigeons, is whole again; the stained-glass windows throughout the building have been restored, and over half of the seismic retrofitting has been completed.
But there is much work left to do — about $5 million worth, Sass estimated.
Among the remaining projects are conservation of the artwork on the shul’s walls, including a mural of Mount Zion and the Ten Commandments and scatterings of folk art throughout; purchase and installation of air-conditioning and heating systems, which the building didn’t have and today are considered essential, and the completion of the seismic work.
In addition to the main sanctuary, Sass hopes to first open a smaller wooden building in the back of the property. Funds for the second phase of renovation still need to be raised, and Sass said that both buildings could be dedicated to the arts — there is a stage in the basement of the main sanctuary — as well as for a variety of social services.
“This could be a center for educational and cultural opportunities,” he said in an interview.
Sass envisions, for example, a tutoring center — Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters is already active in the neighborhood, and KOREH L.A., the volunteer literacy program created by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has expressed interest.
But Sass’ biggest priority is to hire staff so that after a decade of efforts the project can move along more quickly.
Juaquin Castellanos, a board member of the Breed Street Shul Project, agreed that the timing of the project is crucial and said it is one of the neighborhood residents’ biggest concerns.
“They want this place to be open as soon as possible,” he said.
“The majority of the community I feel does not know the significance of it [the shul], because they are new to the area,” said Martha Cisneros, a Boyle Heights resident, referring to the constant influx of new immigrants.
“I just can’t wait for it to be brought back and for it to be a place where kids can go,” she said.
Cisneros isn’t concerned simply with having a space for children. She, like other Boyle Heights residents, wants the building to tell a story.
“The youth need to be taught about the historical value of Boyle Heights,” said Yolanda Hernandez, 73, who was born in the area. She thinks the building could function as a kind of historical library for the neighborhood. Although her parents are both from Mexico, Hernandez sounded disappointed when she spoke about the neighborhood’s now predominately Latino character.
“It’s hard for me to picture what it used to be before, a melting pot of all nationalities,” she said.
According to other longtime residents of the neighborhood, Hernandez isn’t the only one missing the former version of Boyle Heights.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia from the people who have been living in Boyle Heights,” said Edward Padilla, artistic director of Casa 0101, a theater company based in the neighborhood. “It’s a little bit of a cultural void.”
“We want Brooklyn Avenue back,” said longtime resident Teresa Marquez, referring to Cesar Chavez Avenue, the main drag in the neighborhood once called by a different name.
Marquez, whose mother and aunts once worked in the neighborhood at a paper mill owned by Jews, has especially fond memories of her former neighbors.
She recalled her mother’s employers extending their help when relatives were involved in a horrible car accident, and also on happier occasions — they insisted, she says, on paying for her mother’s wedding.
Despite Marquez’s sentiments — and those of many other Latinos living in the area — Sass said the renovation isn’t about bringing Jews back to the area; it is about preserving a piece of Los Angeles’ Jewish history and at the same time giving to those who already reside in the neighborhood.
“We’re not looking to recreate a Jewish community in Boyle Heights,” he said on a recent tour of the shul given to L.A. residents. “Although that might happen, too.”
“We just don’t know,” he said.