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Jewish Journal

Viva los Judios!

by Brad A. Greenberg

May 18, 2009 | 8:28 pm

Breed Street Shul

Boyle Heights was once the Brooklyn of Los Angeles. In fact, Cesar Chavez Avenue was previously known as Brooklyn Avenue. I wrote a little about this when I visited the Mt. Zion Cemetery two years ago; you read more about Boyle Heights’ Jewish history here.

Yesterday, Jews returned to their eastside home to celebrate common bonds with their successors. Fiesta Shalom was, apparently, a success, despite the key musical act’s refusal to play after they learned the event was sponsored by the Israeli consulate. The Jewish Journal had a number of stories leading up to the event, including a co-bylined op-ed by Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. (Check them out here.) But this morning I particularly enjoyed reading the event coverage from the LA Times. Here’s an excerpt:

From the turn of the 20th century until World War II, Boyle Heights served as the hub of Southern California’s Jewish community. Kosher delis, bakeries and other Jewish businesses dominated Brooklyn Avenue—now Cesar Chavez Avenue. In the 1950s, the Eastside neighborhood’s Jewish population began to decline, with many leaving for West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

Though many businesses in Boyle Heights are still Jewish-owned, it is believed that only a few Jewish residents remain. But many Jewish social service efforts—including Koreh L.A., a literacy program created by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles—predominantly serve Latinos.

Lucy Delgado, an 85-year-old Mexican American who has lived in Boyle Heights since birth, said she had friends of many cultures when she was growing up in the neighborhood that is now almost entirely Latino. She recalled a rabbi inviting her into the Breed Street Shul, and marveling at the chandeliers. Like many people who streamed through the synagogue Sunday, Delgado was saddened by its current state.

So was Brenda Mandelbaum, 68, whose father, Mendel Friedman, had once been a rabbi and president of the shul. She had not stepped into the structure since about 1951, when she last lived in Boyle Heights.

“I was a little surprised to see the way it is,” she said as she walked out of the synagogue. “It’s a shame, because it was beautiful.”

You can read the rest here. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, another sponsor of Fiesta Shalom, has been working for years to restore the Breed Street Shul. As Lilly Fowler wrote in February, it hasn’t been easy:

The Breed Street Shul Project, established in 1999 as a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society, is an all-volunteer-run organization in charge of renovating the synagogue, and according to its president, Stephen Sass, approximately $1.3 million has already been spent on the restoration. The roof, once cracked open and overtaken by pigeons, is whole again; the stained-glass windows throughout the building have been restored, and over half of the seismic retrofitting has been completed.

But there is much work left to do — about $5 million worth, Sass estimated.

Among the remaining projects are conservation of the artwork on the shul’s walls, including a mural of Mount Zion and the Ten Commandments and scatterings of folk art throughout; purchase and installation of air-conditioning and heating systems, which the building didn’t have and today are considered essential, and the completion of the seismic work.

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“We want Brooklyn Avenue back,” said longtime resident Teresa Marquez, referring to Cesar Chavez Avenue, the main drag in the neighborhood once called by a different name.

Marquez, whose mother and aunts once worked in the neighborhood at a paper mill owned by Jews, has especially fond memories of her former neighbors.

She recalled her mother’s employers extending their help when relatives were involved in a horrible car accident, and also on happier occasions — they insisted, she says, on paying for her mother’s wedding.

Despite Marquez’s sentiments — and those of many other Latinos living in the area — Sass said the renovation isn’t about bringing Jews back to the area; it is about preserving a piece of Los Angeles’ Jewish history and at the same time giving to those who already reside in the neighborhood.

“We’re not looking to recreate a Jewish community in Boyle Heights,” he said on a recent tour of the shul given to L.A. residents. “Although that might happen, too.”

“We just don’t know,” he said.

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