Standing outside of the Byzantine Revival majesty of Congregation Talmud Torah on the Sunday following Tu B'Shevat, Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California (JHS), presented a construction hard hat to State Sen. Gilbert Cedillo (D-Dist. 22) as a thank you for his role in supporting the 70-year-old abandoned synagogue.
Sass' effort to save the Boyle Heights house of worship --better known by "the Breed Street Shul" -- has been an ongoing battle. As JHS enters its second half-century of archiving Los Angeles' Jewish past, the nonprofit's Breed Street Shul Project will now attempt to resurrect the institution as a community center serving the surrounding East Los Angeles barrio, in the process renewing Jewish ties to Boyle Heights, once the heart of Jewish Los Angeles. Through the shul, JHS has found itself celebrating the past while serving the future.
"People think of the [JHS] perhaps by the more mundane activities such as collecting archives or sponsoring an exhibit," said Sass, 45. "I think of us as being activists in the community so that we're not just looking at the past but creating the future. This particular project lets us do that."
Ostensibly, the JHS-hosted Jan. 19 gathering was a Tu B'Shevat breakfast ceremony. But for many of the 200 Jews and Latinos attending, the celebration was both a homecoming and a testament to the diversity of Boyle Height's heyday. After all, during the first half of the 20th century, Boyle Heights was home to a variety of immigrant communities, including 75,000 Jews of Eastern European origin. Cedillo, along with 2001 L.A. mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Chair Jake Farber, all grew up in the area.
At the event, Tu B'Shevat's spirit of renewal resonated strongly for Cedillo. The state senator brought his parents to the event, and said he was happy to be back in his old neighborhood to enjoy the company of old friends and comfort foods of his youth, such as Mexican cookies and onion bagels.
Cedillo is one of many politicians who were crucial in the Breed Street Shul effort. In the late 1980s, former City Councilman Richard Alatorre; his then-chief of staff, Robin Kramer, a current Breed Street Shul Project director; and Councilman Hal Bernson, who was bar mitzvahed at the shul, helped save it from demolition. The shul, designated a historic cultural monument in 1988, closed its doors in 1992. Alatorre put forth a council motion to barricade and protect the badly vandalized shul as a monument.
In 1998, the shul was singled out by then-first lady Hilary Rodham Clinton's Save America's Treasures program. Clinton visited Breed Street in December 1998, when she announced the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant of about $300,000 she helped secure. Her appearance instantly raised the shul's profile and attracted more political support and funding.
City Councilman Nick Pacheco helped the city transfer the shul's title to JHS in July 2001, upon which Cedillo and then-Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg wrangled $500,000 for the shul from the California's 2002 budget. California Endowment allotted another $75,000 toward the project, and the J. Paul Getty Trust donated $30,000. At the Tu B'Shevat event, California Heritage Fund's Dr. Knox Mellon announced a $150,000 matching grant earmarked toward preserving the Shul's stained-glass windows.
To date, $1.1 million in funds has been raised for the shul's first phase of renovation. Approximately $5 million is needed for the shul's overhaul, according to JHS treasurer Robert Chattel. A preservation architect involved with JHS since 1988, Chattel hopes to accomplish phase one by year's end.
The JHS was founded half a century ago by Justin Turner, landlord of the Rossmore El Royale apartments. A lay historian who collected Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, Turner convened in his Westwood home a group of what he called "historical minded individuals" that included Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Rabbi Edgar Magnin; University of Judaism founder Dr. Samuel Dinin; and Marco Newmark, a descendant of the first Jews to settle in Los Angeles in 1854.
Over the years, JHS has marked historic Jewish sites and published the Western States Jewish History quarterly. In 1970, JHS used proceeds from a Hollywood Bowl concert to publish the first history of the Jews of Southern California, Dr. Max Vorspan and Lloyd Gardner's seminal "History of the Jews of Los Angeles." To date, nobody has followed up this project. "We're overdue for an update," Sass said.
In conjunction with the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, JHS staged a Jewish-Chinese tour in Northern California. Such couplings with other ethnic societies -- such as September's Boyle Heights exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum -- have become common.
"In its initial years, it's been focused on the Jewish communities," Sass said. "Over time, we kind of realized that there are so many parallels among the other ethnic communities.
"This developed out of our tours because sites we visit are now part of other communities," Sass continued, naming Sinai Temple's original 1909 establishment (the Welsh Presbyterian Church now occupies the original building), Sinai's second home (Korean Presbyterian Church) and the former Sephardic Temple (an African American Baptist church) as examples.
"We've become an avenue of community relations," Sass said. "It energizes us because it makes us understand our own history so that we can present it well."
This role as lay ambassadors was unforeseen. "Sometimes things you don't plan become the most important thing that you do," Sass said.
The Breed Street Shul Project has given JHS a sense of purpose. What might have been a marginal organization fixated on nostalgia has, through this endeavor, found a place in the present and future. The project has forced JHS to apply its devotion to the past in a way that will serve area immigrants in the future. "Having this building respected outside of the Jewish community, but retaining its Jewish identity," Sass said, will be the ultimate challenge. "It's not necessarily the easiest thing, but it's ultimately the greatest contribution."
Today, JHS thrives on a skeletal crew which includes vice presidents Chattel, Toby Horn and Jerry Freedman-Habush, who has led thousands of JHS tours since 1979; board members Jeremy Sunderland and Debbie Dyner; Breed Street Shul Project directors Kramer and Allan Mutchnik; Aviva Ellis Namir, the longest serving board member and a JHS founder; and past JHS presidents Morton Silverman, former Malinow & Silverman Mortuary CEO, and Ben Dwoskin, retired Mount Sinai Memorial Parks executive vice president.
Those close to JHS say that Sass -- affiliated with JHS since 1979 and its president since 1988 -- is the organization's driving engine. "Steve was kind of a young punk when he joined the [JHS]," Kramer said, affectionately. "Steve is the brother everybody wishes they had."
"Steve is an incredible mensch," said Robert Silverstein, whose grandfather, Rabbi Osher Zilberstein, was Breed Street Shul's charismatic spiritual leader from 1935-1973. "He's very understated, but all this simply would not have happened without him. The whole community should be grateful."
Sass, who credits the ensemble efforts of his volunteer staff, noted that there is still a long way to go.
"Whether we [arrived] in the 1850s or more recently," Sass said, "all of us are part of this and we're all creating history now. The proof is ultimately what the shul's life is going to be in the future."
The community is invited to attend the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California's annual meeting, Feb. 2, at the Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. First St., Los Angeles where longtime JHS member Jerry Freedman-Habush will be honored. For more information on JHS or to volunteer, contact (323) 761-8950; visit www.breedstreetshul.org.