Drivers at a red light looked on with curiosity as hundreds of congregants and supporters of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) poured out of the doors of a synagogue, forming a parade on the sidewalk of Pico Boulevard. Their destination: BCC’s new location, at 6090 W. Pico Blvd.
This parade, held in April, marked the move of the world’s oldest gay and lesbian synagogue to a new site and a larger building that will better accommodate the congregation’s growing membership and programming. BCC’s Rabbi Lisa Edwards said that the move represents the culmination of several years of effort, including a unique and lengthy fundraising campaign and a collaborative renovation of the new site.
For some, including 90-year-old Harriet Perl, who joined BCC in the early 1970s, the new synagogue already feels like home.
“When I came into this building, I burst into tears,” Perl said. “I’m so overwhelmed by what we have done, by how wonderful this congregation is and how far we have come in one lifetime.”
The undertaking cost nearly $3.5 million — an estimated $2.3 million for the building and another $1.2 million for the renovation. Approximately 75 percent of the synagogue’s congregation contributed, with contributions ranging from $100 to $1 million. Approximately $20,000 came from nonmembers.
“We just exuded confidence that this was going to work and [that] we were going to move into a great new space,” said Brett Trueman, former president of BCC, who contributed $280,000 in addition to running the fundraising campaign, which started in 2006.
A professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Trueman and his husband initially intended to donate $50,000 to the campaign. Then a fundraising consultant told them their donation would send a message to the rest of the BCC community, and encouraged them to offer more.
“The next few people we reached out to” — a group that included Edwards and her wife — “I think in total committed $1.5 million,” Trueman said.
Trueman attributes people’s willingness to donate to the increase in the synagogue’s membership among Jews in their 20s and 30s, “a coveted group” he said, adding that “when you see their vibrancy, it makes people want to give a lot more.” He also credits the synagogue’s unique outreach and its influential role in the course of Jewish life in Los Angeles.
Now a congregation of 185 families, or 250 individuals, BCC started out with just a handful of gay and lesbian Jews meeting in a downtown Los Angeles church in the early 1970s. The congregation joined the Reform movement in 1974, and in 1977 purchased 6000 W. Pico Boulevard, which was the congregation’s home until the purchase of this new space.
BCC bought the new building in 2009, closing escrow in December 2009 with the previous owner, Max Webb, a Holocaust survivor and founder of Shapell and Webb, a real estate investment and property management firm.
The new site’s proximity to the old one — they’re just two blocks from one another — was appealing to the congregation’s building committee.
The new, approximately 6,500-square-foot home — its previous building was 3,500 square feet — was originally built in 1929 and had been a church and, later, an auto parts dealer before standing empty for years. BCC’s renovation focused on aesthetics and eco-consciousness.
But how to make what is still a relatively small space feel like a large one? Enter the husband-and-wife architectural team of Marc Schoeplein and Toni Lewis, of Lewis/Schoeplein Architects, who were hired to design the new BCC.
One solution was to make the new lobby feed into every area of the synagogue — the sanctuary, a classroom and library, the kitchen, the clergy’s and administrative offices, and a hallway leading to the restrooms.
The kitchen demonstrates the architects’ creative use of space. A remote-control garage-door-style wall made of light hardwood comes down, with the click of a button, into the middle of the kitchen, so that part of the space can also be used as a classroom.
This commitment to multipurpose use isn’t limited to the interior. Outside is a small parking lot, the synagogue’s only on-site parking (BCC rents two parking lots nearby for use during popular services), and it also serves as a space for outdoor events.
The architecture blends an innovative use of space and an emphasis on the efficient and practical with artistic flourishes, like a wall in Edwards’ study, painted a pinkish color called Razzle Dazzle. It was supposed to be used for the synagogue’s outside wall, but when the design committee was testing samples, one of the neighbors came by and said, “ ‘Any color but that one, please!’ ” Edwards recalled.
Throughout the building, colors, including those in the stained glass windows alongside one of the sanctuary walls, further brighten the naturally lit space, which is filled with light hardwood and glass.
Even the ark isn’t just a place to house the Torahs — it’s a communal art project, made of dozens of wooden blocks, with long, narrow strips of copper running across the length of the blocks, crisscrossing each other. Each piece of copper is imprinted with a congregant’s anonymous personal story, an experience with BCC or of being an LGBT Jew — “whatever people wanted,” Edward said.
“This is where I came out … where I stood under a chuppah and where I came home,” one strip reads.
The architects built solar panels into the ceilings of the sanctuary, which power the light in the ark; torn denim serves as the insulation in the walls; and the parking lot has an electric car-charging station. Other eco-friendly elements include reclaimed wood, salvaged doors and carpeting made from recycled tires.
“We talked a lot about what values we wanted to convey with the building, and sustainability and having a low impact on Earth was on the top of the list of values we wanted to bring to this project,” said Felicia Park-Rogers, executive director of BCC.
BCC’s greening efforts added an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 to construction costs, but the synagogue will be “saving in energy costs down the road,” Park-Rogers said.
Along with the new site come new goals. BCC hopes to attract more non-LGBT, straight members and increase their outreach through programming. For instance, upon their move to the new location, they held a lecture series on Muslims with Rabbi Reuven Firestone.
But how to promote inclusivity while still maintaining its identity as an LGBT synagogue? And does the Jewish community’s growing acceptance of LGBT Jews deem specialized synagogues irrelevant?
“That certainly has made it harder for LGBT synagogues to attract members,” Trueman said, “because we’re not the only place we can go to make [LGBT Jews] comfortable.”
But, he added, “I think a lot of us would agree that while other synagogues are accepting, there’s a difference between being accepting and [being] thought of as part of the mainstream of the synagogue.”
Regardless of what’s in store for BCC, for members like Perl, the synagogue’s value is obvious. “This temple has meant so much to me, I can’t begin to tell you in words,” she said. “It’s the place where my Jewish heart is.”