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Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation : Temple Closes Doors, Not Hearts

September 20, 1986|CARMEN VALENCIA | Times Staff Writer

Banding together to fight adverse circumstances seemed to come easily to members of the Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation.

The congregation worked together in the 1930s to raise funds to build a temple at the height of the Depression. They comforted one another in the 1940s when a swastika appeared on the temple walls.

And they encouraged each other after people predicted that the temple would not survive much longer after the last Hebrew school class was held in 1967.

But one circumstance that the congregation could not fight was a dwindling and aging membership, which led to its decision to close the temple doors this month.

With great sadness, more than 200 past and present members gathered during a farewell service last week at the Florence Avenue temple. The gloom was eased somewhat when those addressing the congregation noted that although the temple is closing, all the things that it stood for will continue.

"As we close the doors of this synagogue, we are not closing the door on Jewish life," said Rabbi Lee Bycel, dean of administration at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and a former member who was educated and confirmed at the temple. "Seeds were planted here; they are sprouting and growing. . . . We are committed to carry with us the values and traditions we learned here."

Max Vorspan, vice president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and a frequent guest rabbi, likened the farewell service to a retirement party.

"I wanted them to look at the night not as an evening of gloom. They served a purpose; now they're happily disbanding and moving on," he said.

The Huntington Park synagogue was the second Conservative temple to be built in Southern California. The congregation organized in 1927 when the sparse Jewish community in South Gate, Huntington Park, Compton and Lynwood banded together to find their own place of worship.

The temple, founded by Arthur Turbow, was built in 1938 with scarce Depression-era dollars, at a time when synagogues were being destroyed in Europe.

Despite the anti-Semitism, "this congregation carried on to exemplify Jewish identity," said Rabbi Harry Hyman, who served full-time from 1944 to 1957 and part-time since 1977.

The community began changing, however. Jewish families moved out and Latinos moved in; now Latinos make up 85% of Huntington Park's population. The congregation--which had just 12 to 15 people attending services regularly--made the decision earlier this year to sell the building for an unannounced amount to Louie Aragon. Aragon, a Huntington Park resident, said he has tentative plans to turn the building into a "Catholic-oriented" church, although it will not be part of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

Hyman credits longtime members for continuing to attend services long after the temple began to decline in the late 1960s. "Loyalty was the key word of our existence," he said.

Loyalty also brought many former members from the far reaches of the Southland for last week's farewell service. Many Jewish families moved from the southeast Los Angeles County area to West Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and the Fairfax District in droves during the 1950s and 1960s.

Like many former members, U.S. Rep Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles)--who was confirmed at the Huntington Park temple--also moved west and joined another synagogue. Waxman, as well as other former members, could not make it to the service and sent their best wishes in letters.

Excited chatter filled the temple before service began. Hugs, kisses and handshakes were freely meted out as old friends greeted each other.

During the service, 91-year-old cantor Irving Jacobs, who has volunteered his services since the temple's inception, sang passionately, his hands shaking with excitement.

He was accompanied by the soft strains of an organ and the voices of an eight-member choir.

Many were moved to tears as three Torah scrolls made one last procession. Throughout the synagogue, worshipers touched and kissed the scrolls again and again, almost as if trying to prolong the moment.

"It was like a funeral, particularly when they were carrying the Torahs around," said Miriam Jacobs, the cantor's wife, who cried at times during the emotional evening.

Afterward, some talked about the old days and wondered where they will go next.

Dick Reiner, past president of the congregation, said he will probably look for a temple close to his Seal Beach home. But Reiner, 60, was quick to point out that he has visited many synagogues and none have seemed as warm as the Huntington Park congregation. "I'll miss it," he said.

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