"Boyle Heights was the Ellis Island of Los Angeles," said City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa at the Breed Street Shul Open Day on Sunday, Aug. 22. "And this shul was the mother of all synagogues."
But the "mother of all synagogues," which opened in 1923, was abandoned by its few remaining congregants in 1996, and left to molder away -- unused and unprotected from the elements -- in Boyle Heights, a primarily Latino neighborhood.
In 1999, the nonprofit Breed Street Shul Project, Inc., a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California (JHS), took over the building and started raising money to restore it to its former glory. On Sunday, JHS opened the shul doors for an informal open house, so that more than 125 former Breed Street Shul members, curious Westside Jews and the current Boyle Heights community could come and see the renovation progress for themselves.
With its exposed brown brick façade and decorative concrete archway moldings, the exterior of the shul remains as imposing as ever, but the interior looks simultaneously haggard and fresh. Though cleared of the graffiti and debris that accumulated over the years, there is still much work to do. The wooden floors are cracked, split and uneven. The pictures painted on the walls -- of the signs of the Jewish calendar, of a tree of life -- are peeling away, leaving behind only remnants of their former beauty. The doors of the ark are broken and open, revealing shelves covered with dust and debris. The ceiling was recently restored, and it covers the sanctuary with a domed mint-green canopy. The stained glass windows are also being restored. Though most of them had not been refitted for the open day, leaving empty frames along the wall, they will mounted back into their frames in the coming weeks.
"We have a need to raise between $3 million and $5 million for the full rehabilitation of the [shul]," said Robert Chattel of Chattel Architecture Planning and Preservation, who is the vice president of both the Breed Street Shul Project and the JHS. Chattel has been working to restore the synagogue for 19 years, including working to get restoration grants from various government and private organizations.
"I think raising that money is within our capabilities," he said. "We are a completely volunteer organization and we have already raised $1.1 million through state and private sources, and we have demonstrated through the care we have taken in this first phase of work that we can do this kind of work, and well."
But once the shul is completely rehabilitated, it is unclear what the building will be used for. Although it will maintain the name "Breed Street Shul," it will no longer operate as a synagogue, since there is not a local Jewish community to support it.
"It will always have a museum component -- some kind of interpretative display of photographs and other materials that will describe the [Jewish] community in East Los Angeles, but that will always be a secondary function," Chattel said. "But we are not intending to have just static museum displays. The primary use of the building will be a participatory, multipurpose facility for the current residents of Boyle Heights."
Chattel said the project is in discussions with the Los Angeles Music and Art School and Cal State Los Angeles about how they could possibly use the facility.
Most of the people who came to the open house were not current Boyle Heights residents (although there were at least three members of the Boyle Heights Community Council in attendance) but both young and old Westside and Valley Jews, some of whom had been members of the Breed Street Shul when it was still operational. Many brought their cameras along to photograph the shul, and parents pointed out the salient features of the restoration to their children.
"I can tell you how important [this building was] for sense of community," said Dr. Allen Levine, a professor of psychology at Valley City College who lived in Boyle Heights in the 1940s and '50s. "I recall sitting there on holidays with my father and grandfather, the B'nai Akivah youth group [I was a part of] that met on Saturday afternoons, and the games and Israeli dancing that we used to have."
"I feel a combination of nostalgia and sadness to see the decline of the building and the vandalism and to face the fact that a community had moved on," he said. "I don't know exactly what they will do with it, but I do hope they would keep it closed on Saturday. The religious practices here have very long and deep roots -- why abandon them and make them into something different?"
For Chattel and the other members of the Breed Street Shul Project, the shul represents an opportunity for the Jewish community to help others.
"We see this as an opportunity to build bridges between the Jewish community at large and the Latino community," Chattel said.
For more information, visit www.breedstreetshul.org .