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Jewish Journal

Seeking a shul’s history

by Hillel Kuttler, JTA

September 3, 2013 | 4:53 pm

Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock will celebrate the 90th anniversary of its founding in December.

Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock will celebrate the 90th anniversary of its founding in December.

When Henry Leventon, his wife and three daughters attended their first Sabbath service at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock (TBI) in 1976, the gabbai at the synagogue immediately approached.

“Just what we need: a young man and his family!” the sexton greeted them enthusiastically. Leventon, considering himself hardly youthful at age 49, saw the aging worshipers and understood the intent.

The synagogue in northeast Los Angeles was fading. The migration from the small Jewish communities in the two neighborhoods, and the larger one in nearby Boyle Heights, had started in the 1950s to western parts of the city and the San Fernando Valley. By the 1970s, assembling a minyan was difficult. And the situation worsened through the 1990s. 

Still, the synagogue hung on, its members resisting calls to disband or merge with other congregations.

In recent years, though, TBI, as it is known, has experienced a revival. Young couples and their children are moving into the area and coming to the synagogue from more distant areas. TBI now has approximately 170 families as members, services are held every Sabbath morning and two Friday nights each month, a Hebrew school operates, and b’nai mitzvah and adult education classes meet.

Against the odds, TBI is poised to celebrate the 90th anniversary of its founding, which occurred on Dec. 23, 1923. 

To mark the occasion at this year’s Chanukah party, one of TBI’s recent arrivals, Delaine Shane, is assembling an exhibition of the synagogue’s history. She is soliciting items that help document the history — “anything that connects the people to the temple,” she said. Photographs, home movie clips, journals, letters and stories preserved by congregants and their descendants, wherever they may be — Shane wants them all. 

High on the wish list are the magazines published jointly by TBI and a local B’nai B’rith lodge in the 1940s and 1950s, The Jewish Observer in Highland Park, and photographs from the official opening of the TBI building — the only one built by the congregation — in December 1930. She’s hoping to come up with any printed material from the dedication event, too.

Poking around closets, she found 1930s-era lighting fixtures, an American flag presented to TBI in 1939, a wooden synagogue sign from the late ’40s and beautiful stained-glass windows removed for safekeeping. Her search of United States census records and city directories, as well as building permits and maps, provided insight into the synagogue’s founders and its early years.

One nugget she uncovered: A founder asked the local mailman to provide the Jewish names and their addresses of those living along his route. The information helped in recruitment.

All the information, and any donated mementos, will be preserved for TBI’s newer generations.

The effort to document the synagogue’s rise, fall and ascent anew “underscores the fallacy that Los Angeles and California have no history, let alone Jewish history,” said Stephen Sass, the president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

The central story, he said, is the congregation hanging on long enough to see better times.

“A few years ago there was a film, ‘The Miracle of Intervale Avenue,’ about the last congregation in the South Bronx,” Sass said of the New York neighborhood. “Well, this is the miracle on Monte Vista Street.”

By contrast, he said no congregations remain in Boyle Heights, the hub of early-20th century Jewish life that once boasted more than 30 synagogues. Sass has been a leader in the efforts to restore the neighborhood’s Breed Street Shul as an art, culture and education center in what has long been a largely Latino community.

Shane chairs TBI’s history committee, whose members are deciding how to organize the exhibition. The synagogue’s interior is just 3,800 square feet, so the exhibition will not be permanent, although historic photos will continue to adorn the social hall. 

Shane, an environmental specialist for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, personifies the synagogue’s renaissance. She and husband Russell, along with their daughter, Sarah, now 10, stumbled upon the building in 2008, when they began considering a move closer to the city from suburban Sherman Oaks. Their home in South Pasadena is a five-minute ride from TBI.

“As a young person, I was always looking for a temple I could click with,” said Shane, who was raised in a Conservative synagogue; TBI first affiliated with the Conservative movement and now is independent.

“I walked in [to TBI] and it was very warm, haimish,” she said, using the Yiddish word for homey. 

“Since so many shuls in Los Angeles are gone now, but TBI remains, I think that it is imperative to preserve this temple’s history,” she said. “I also think it is a great example for our current members and future congregants that their participation, volunteerism and overall involvement does make a significant difference [to] this temple. Were it not for the people of the past, my family would not be able to celebrate and cherish the Jewish community we now have at TBI.” 

Leventon, 83 and a widower, is among those who kept things going for people like Shane. The native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, occasionally has to rebuff his daughters’ pleas to move from the city. In that way, he exemplifies the will of those who welcomed him to the congregation long ago.

“We struggled along and struggled along, and now we’re having an upswing with young families,” said Leventon, TBI’s president from 1987 to 2005.

“To have family services [the first Friday each month], for an old-timer like me, is a novelty,” he said. “We’ve had a few bar and bat mitzvahs in the past year, when we hadn’t had any for decades.”

For further information and to donate/loan memorabilia, contact Delaine Shane at tbihistory@earthlink.net.

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