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End of 50-Year Tradition : Pioneering Jewish Congregation to Disband

August 24, 1986|CARMEN VALENCIA | Times Staff Writer

For the past 20 years, a special appeal has been made during prayers on the eve of Yom Kippur by members of the Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation.

Membership had started to decline, the Hebrew school closed for want of children and the Conservative congregation soon encountered difficulty gathering a minyan, or quorum, of 10 adults to conduct services.

So each Yom Kippur eve, the congregation in this predominantly Latino city would appeal for one more year of survival. And every time it did survive, the members were positive that it was due to divine intervention.

"This is the miracle on Florence Avenue. The miracle was we survived," said 91-year-old Irving Jacobs, who has volunteered as a cantor for more than 50 years. "They told us 20 years ago we were through. They kept saying next year we won't be here."

But unfortunately for the faithful few--membership is now down to less than 30 families, with 12 to 15 members showing up regularly--the naysayers' prediction has finally come true.

Among Earliest Congregations

The congregation--one of the first Conservative synagogues in Southern California, operating since the early 1930s--will close its doors next month. Since earlier this year, the services have been pared down to the bare minimum, with an informal half-hour service on Friday nights and a 1 1/2-hour service on Saturdays. The choir no longer sings and an accompanying organ is no longer played. Oneg Shabbat, where members talk, sing and have refreshments, is no longer held. But Jacobs still passionately leads the congregation through a few prayers and songs.

"We wanted to keep it going," said Rabbi Harry Hyman. The full-time rabbi from 1944 to 1957, Hyman has worked part time officiating services since 1977.

But he said members finally faced up to the fact the congregation is not viable anymore and made the decision to sell the building at 2877 Florence, which is now in escrow. (Louie Aragon, a Huntington Park resident, said he is buying the building and has preliminary plans to turn it into a "Catholic-oriented" church, although it will not be part of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese).

"Nobody expected it to last as long as it did," Hyman said of his congregation. He said that a special service will be held Sept. 12 for members, friends and former members. After the temple is sold and the proceeds distributed to various charitable organizations, Hyman said, he will go off on a cruise to Acapulco. He plans to remain in Huntington Park.

A series of factors led to the demise of the congregation, members said.

One of the main reasons is the changing demographics of Southeast Los Angeles County, which brought a wave of Latinos during the 1970s. The influx dramatically changed the city of Huntington Park, which is now 85% Latino.

As Latinos were moving in, many older Jewish families were moving out. Businessmen who owned shops and other businesses along Pacific Boulevard moved to more affluent areas such as Downey, Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles and the Fairfax District where there are active Jewish communities. There were also no new Jewish families moving into Huntington Park. And as the children of congregation members grew up, they settled elsewhere.

"A congregation which doesn't have a school or children is bound to naturally go out of existence," Hyman said, estimating the average age of the members to be 65.

Jacobs stressed that the decision to dissolve the congregation and sell the building was not due to the Latino migration.

"I enjoy my Latino neighbors. There is no case to say we were forced out by reasons that we couldn't get along," Jacobs said.

He said the congregation simply was not needed anymore.

"That's why congregations are born and that's why they die. They've outlived their usefulness. There is no demand for it," he said.

Alfred Weiner, a member since 1967, said he and his parents--Charles and Esther--were unhappy with the decision to sell the building but they knew the "miracle" couldn't last forever.

Neighborhood Convenience

"I was quite disappointed," said Weiner, 57, who lives six blocks away. "It was such a convenience to have it here in our neighborhood."

His 84-year-old mother said she wanted to try to buy the temple to "keep it going" but realized there "comes an end to everything. You have to stop crying."

Jerry Schoem, the regional director of the United Synagogue of America, said the closing of a synagogue does not occur frequently. "It is unusual when a congregation kind of goes out of business," he said, adding that there are 58 Conservative synagogues in Southern California. He said a few congregations are being started this year, including one in Agoura.

"Sometimes it's like a life cycle," Schoem said. "A baby is born today, and then someone passes away."

U. S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a former member of the temple, said, "It's always sad to see a synagogue close its doors."

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