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Jewish Journal

From pioneers, peddlers and politicians to cutting-edge community

by Stephen J. Sass

November 9, 2006 | 7:00 pm

A blast from Los Angeles' past: Looking east on Wilshire Boulevard to Wilshire Boulevard Temple circa 1930, on left. The congregation, which began downtown, was Los Angeles' first.Photo courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Southern California/Ralph Morriss Studios.

A blast from Los Angeles' past: Looking east on Wilshire Boulevard to Wilshire Boulevard Temple circa 1930, on left. The congregation, which began downtown, was Los Angeles' first.Photo courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Southern California/Ralph Morriss Studios.

Tell most visitors that L.A. Jewish history dates back before the Gold Rush, or that Southern California is home to the second-largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel, and they usually look at you in astonishment.

But however entrenched the notion that Jewish life ends at the eastern banks of the Hudson River, Los Angeles has a rich, colorful Jewish past, an impressive Jewish present and a hopeful Jewish future. A unique confluence of climate and geography, unbounded economic and cultural opportunities and a seemingly unending flow of newcomers has created a region both nurturing and challenging to Jewish life.

El Pueblo de Nuestra Se?ora la Reina de Los Angeles, the Shtetl of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, was founded in 1781 by the Spaniards.

Exactly 60 years later, Jewish life here began with the arrival of Jacob Frankfort. Frankfort, a 31-year-old tailor-merchant, single and native of Germany, lived in Taos, N.M., in 1841. Frankfort suddenly left town, along with others suspected of conspiring with a group of Texans to seize New Mexico. Making up the historic Rowland-Workman party, the group of 40 included an eight-member scientific expedition and three Mexican families and was the first American overland wagon train of settlers to come from New Mexico to Southern California.

Following the Santa Fe Trail used by trappers and traders before them, and crossing perilous desert lands, they first came to Mission San Gabriel and continued on from there to Los Angeles, population 1,100, arriving in December 1841. Because of his name, occupation and birthplace, Frankfort is believed to be the first Jew in Los Angeles.

Ten years later, after a year in Honolulu and some time spent in San Francisco and elsewhere along the coast, the itinerant Frankfort was back among the less than a minyan of Jews living in Los Angeles and counted among the 1,610 inhabitants in the first federal census taken following California's admission to the Union in 1850.

Of the eight, all but one were merchants; Frankfort, at 41, was the oldest; six were from Germany and two from Poland; all were unmarried men, and, like everyone else, armed. They lived and had their stores in the city's preeminent commercial building, a two-story skyscraper called Bell's Row, constituting Los Angeles' first Jewish neighborhood. One of them, Morris L. Goodman, from Germany by way of Cincinnati, was elected to the first City Council, convened in 1850, and was the only American citizen among them. Gradually, a few other adventurous Jews arrived to seek their fortunes in the rough-and-tumble town. Significantly, unlike most other times and places in Jewish history, Jews came to Los Angeles and the West because they wanted to. Their sense of exploration, discovery and innovation, their adventurous spirits, their exuberance, adaptability and openness to their new environment -- and the welcome they received, for the most part, from their non-Jewish neighbors, who appreciated their education, facility with languages, business skills and civic participation -- make the Los Angeles Jewish experience unique in the annals of Jewish civilization. These qualities continue to distinguish Jewish Los Angeles today.

Amid the frontier chaos, the tiny Jewish community of Los Angeles, following the pattern set in towns throughout the West, in 1854 established the Hebrew Benevolent Society (today's Jewish Family Service), the city's first all-purpose Jewish organization and the city's first charitable group of any kind. From the very beginning, as set forth in its charter, the founders were dedicated to providing for specific Jewish needs and also to helping all, no matter their belief or background.

In 1855, for the sum of $1, the city fathers deeded to the society slightly more than three acres of land for a cemetery near present day Dodger Stadium, in Chavez Ravine (or "Shabbos Levine," as the late Jewish historian Dr. Max Vorspan couldn't resist dubbing it). From the beginning, another indicia of Jewish Los Angeles was its diversity, mirroring the population of the city at large. The founders of the Hebrew Benevolent Society were from France, Germany and Poland, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The first president, Samuel K. Labatt, and his brother Joseph, were the first Sephardic Jews and among the few American-born Jewish adults in town.

During the pioneer period, anti-Semitism was the exception, rather than the rule. From 1850 to 1890, Jews were among the dominant group in the city, participating in every political and civic effort and heavily represented on the City Council and County Board of Supervisors.

The first religious services are believed to have been held in the front parlor of Ernestine and Ephraim Greenebaum's home, among the few Jewish married folks here. Because of his age, demeanor and religious training, Joseph Newmark served as patriarch and lay rabbi from his arrival in 1854 until he became first president of Congregation B'nai B'rith (now known as Wilshire Boulevard Temple, one of the largest Reform congregations in the world) upon its founding in 1862.

That year, Rabbi Abraham W. Edelman, a native of Poland and a San Francisco Hebrew teacher, was called to Los Angeles to become the city's first rabbi.

Congregation B'nai B'rith's first permanent synagogue was dedicated in 1873 on Fort Street, now Broadway, between Second and Third streets, following a decade of worshipping in such places as John Temple's saloon and Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda's courtroom. The Jewish population had reached 200. Fundraising was spearheaded by the women of the congregation, aided by a $1,000 contribution from the Jews of San Francisco, then the state's preeminent Jewish community.

And, setting a pattern that has continued to bedevil the L.A. Jewish community ever since, many chose not to participate in the benevolent society or the synagogue at all.

Notwithstanding some severe but temporary setbacks due to drought and economics, Los Angeles between 1880 and 1910 began to change from cowtown to boomtown.

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