June 20, 2002
California, Here They Come
Los Angeles, founded in 1781 as one of a string of Spanish settlements along the Pacific coast, was nearly 60 years old when Jacob Frankfort arrived, apparently the first Jewish resident.
By 1850, Los Angeles had less than 2,000 residents, of whom only eight were Jews. All of them were bachelors, six were from Germany, and all but Frankfort, a tailor, were merchants. All eight lived in four adjacent downtown dwellings at Aliso and Los Angeles streets -- the city's first Jewish neighborhood.
The first charitable organization in Los Angeles was the Hebrew Benevolent Society, founded in 1854 to establish a Jewish cemetery for those "belonging to the Hebrew Church."
The founders stated their purpose in a preamble to the society's constitution and by-laws: "Whereas: the Israelites of this city, being desirous of procuring a piece of ground suitable for the purpose of a burying ground for the deceased of their own faith, and also to appropriate a portion of their time and means to the holy cause of benevolence -- unite themselves for these purposes under the name and style of The Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles."
The cemetery was in Chavez Ravine, now the site of Dodger Stadium, and the remains were transferred to the Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles.
By the turn of the century, Jews numbered about 2,500 of the city's 100,000 citizens. Fueled by an influx of Eastern European Jews, including many tuberculosis sufferers escaping East Coast sweatshops, Jewish social services began to develop.
In the five years following World War I, the Jewish population rose from 19,000 to 45,000. Boyle Heights became the predominant Jewish enclave, supporting 27 synagogues and steibels; Brooklyn Street was lined with stores advertising their wares in Yiddish; and at the corner of First Street and Boyle Avenue stood the "official" Jewish bordello.
Many pillars of the community made a modest living as scrap dealers. After Pearl Harbor, when scrap metal suddenly became worth its weight in gold, the owners found themselves millionaires practically overnight and soon moved from B.H. to B.H. -- Boyle Heights to Beverly Hills.
Following World War II, when the number of Jews tripled, both newcomers and old Boyle Heights residents moved west and north to the Fairfax district, Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.