A shofar blasted as Cantor Tannoz Bahremand of Stephen S. Wise Temple stepped into the historic downtown sanctuary, raising her voice in prayer as she walked from the back of the pews, down an aisle packed with people, toward the bimah of the newly founded Pico Union Project. The cantor’s haunting song was answered by the equally vibrant chant of a Muslim call to prayer, sung from the front of the sanctuary by Ben Youcef of the Islamic Center of Southern California.
Soon after, the crowd stood as the magnificent organ built into a balcony above the holy space announced a new day: “Shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higyanu lazman hazeh.” With this prayer of thanks for new experiences, familiar to the many Jews gathered for this urban multifaith Passover celebration, a dream of renewal and reunion had begun.
As the singing quieted, Aryell Cohen, music director at Sinai Temple and the organist for this day, stood up from his perch and turned to the gathering, stopping the proceedings to announce: “This is the first time there’s been Hebrew sung and accompanied by the organ in this space since 1925.”
It was a goose-bumps moment. To be in the midst of a Jewish-led renewal in a neighborhood Jews abandoned long ago. To be part of a Passover celebration sharing song and stories and prayer with people from throughout Los Angeles, people of all faiths who will be welcomed into this space for myriad community events, both religious and secular.
So many structures throughout Los Angeles have been shuttered, then torn down; so much of the city’s history has not held up against the forces of modernization. But in this Pico-Union neighborhood, just a few blocks west and across the 110 freeway from the gargantuan, futuristic Staples Center and L.A. Live, this modest building reminds us of the time when, in 1906 Sinai’s congregation built it as the first home of the Conservative Jews of Los Angeles (a movement then known as “Rabbinic Judaism”).
The congregation stayed only until 1925 in this simple Greek-revival structure, said to be the oldest remaining synagogue in Los Angeles and designed by architect S. Tilden Norton, son of Bertha Greenbaum Norton (thought to be the first Jewish woman born in Los Angeles). When Sinai’s congregation left, following the Jewish population westward to new and larger homes, the congregation sold its building to the Welsh Presbyterians, who turned it into a church.
The Presbyterians conducted services here until last December, and throughout those nearly nine decades of ownership, they preserved the beautiful, ornate stained-glass windows adorned with Torahs and Stars of David, as well as the grand chandelier that hangs from the center of the ceiling, inside another Jewish star. The Welsh Presbyterians maintained the Jewish heritage of the building, even as they lovingly cared for it as their own, retrofitting the structure for earthquakes in the 1980s and outlasting the gang activity in the neighborhood, as well as the raging fires of the L.A. riots some 20 years ago.
But as their congregation dwindled, the Presbyterians, too, decided to sell. And that is how this lovely piece of history came to be purchased on Dec. 17, 2012, by Craig Taubman, the songster, musician, impresario and visionary of all sorts of new experiences for Jewish Los Angeles, with the help of Stephen J. Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.
Taubman is probably best-known for creating the immensely popular Friday Night Live services at Sinai Temple with Rabbi David Wolpe, as well as the Big Jewish Tent community events. In Pico-Union’s historic synagogue-turned-church, Taubman saw possibilities for a new kind of community center for people of all faiths, a place to break bread, share performances and to celebrate.
And so, on March 17, the first step of Taubman’s vision was realized with a “Downtown Seder: An Urban Passover Experience,” drawing an overflow crowd of nearly 300 people, who crammed into every inch of the pews downstairs and up in the balcony at the back of the sanctuary.
The event was more performance than actual seder, though the ritual foods and structure of the haggadah created the framework for the musicians, orators, rabbis, imams, pastors and even a poet, who offered songs, thoughts and conversation, all circling around the Passover theme of “freedom.”
Naomi Ackerman, an American-born Israeli actress, educator and activist who creates theater with incarcerated girls — whom she called “rough, tough, broken girls” — told a story of how she’d asked those girls behind bars to define freedom. “Freedom is not to be afraid of anything,” one said. “Freedom is just ice cream,” another told her. “Freedom is knowing that you matter.”
Ruth Messinger, president and executive director of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a co-sponsor of the event, reminded the crowd of the 2 billion people worldwide who lack even the basic necessities of clean water and adequate sanitation. For them, she said, the hope is for “freedom from war, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom of religion.” And, she said, “We cannot be free unless everyone is free.” It is our responsibility to use “freedom to help the other … to reach out that hand and help the other person up.”
Imam Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, shared how Muslims honor Moses and the struggle of the Israelites. And Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino dialogued with the Rev. Mark Whitlock of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine about how to maintain a sense of hope, 50 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told the world of his dream.
“Without hope, there is no purpose for living,” Whitlock told the rabbi. “Where do you feed your hope?” Feinstein asked Whitlock. Through service, Whitlock told the crowd.
Taubman stepped up to the mic only at the end of the event to lead a song and to offer thanks to those gathered, who included the district’s City Councilman Ed Reyes, as well as both of the city’s mayoral candidates, City Controller Wendy Greuel and Councilman Eric Garcetti.
After a ceremonial installation of a mezuzah, the crowd drifted onto the sidewalk, and I found myself beside Feinstein and his wife, Rabbi Nina Feinstein. We glanced out at the neighboring houses, all well kept with trimmed lawns and, notably, no bars on the windows. But directly across the street, graffiti marked one neighbor’s fence, a sign of the gang activity that continues to haunt the environs.
This scrawl, however, inscribed in the classic ornate handwriting of all graffiti markings, was just one word: “Hope.” A word, despite its intrusion, that was fitting for the day, for the community and for the conversation we were having.
“It’s a very Jewish graffiti,” Ed Feinstein joked. But it is Christian, too, and, as we’d learned, Muslim, as well.