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A Jolt for L.A.'s Oldest Synagogue : Earthquake Clouds Future of Building in Boyle Heights

December 29, 1987|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

An aftershock of the Oct. 1 earthquake caused serious damage to the oldest functioning synagogue in Los Angeles and has raised urgent questions about the fate of the imposing brick structure on Breed Street in Boyle Heights.

A center of religious life before World War II, when as many as 90,000 Jews lived on the Eastside, the congregation now has dwindled to a handful of members who cannot afford to repair about $150,000 in damage caused by the Oct. 4 temblor, its rabbis said.

But others in the Jewish community, including a former president of the congregation, said the Renaissance-style sanctuary can and should be saved because of its historic and architectural significance.

Full or partial funding for the repair work could be considered as early as Jan. 25 by the Jewish Community Foundation, according to Irving Allen, executive director. The foundation is the philanthropic arm of the Jewish Federation Council, an umbrella group for the community at large.

'Amazing Building'

"I just think it's an amazing building," he said. "I would hope that we don't lose it in this community. I think it's a landmark. I would think the historical and cultural significance is very important."

However, Mordechai Ganzweig, rabbi of the minuscule congregation, said repair work on the structure is not his top priority, and he does not intend to seek funds from the federation.

"In the long run, we just don't see such a plan as feasible," he said.

He opposes suggestions by officers of the Jewish Historical Society, another federation agency, to convert the synagogue into a museum or community service center.

"Our concern is for the sanctity of the synagogue, and that it exist for the purpose for which it was built, not so much to preserve the architecture of the building," he said.

He also said it would cost "a tremendous amount of money to fix it, and I have to tell you it's not just a question of whether the funds can be raised or not."

"It's really a question of is it justified to drain the community of those resources just for the purpose of preserving a building?" he said.

The 65-year-old synagogue, commonly known as the Breed Street shul (Yiddish for synagogue), is now unsafe, Los Angeles city inspectors said. Visitors are not allowed inside the building, whose chiseled nameplate bears the name Congregation Talmud Torah, (Hebrew for "the study of sacred lore)."

Threat of Collapse

Despite the damage and the threat of eventual collapse, the building cannot be torn down immediately because the Cultural Heritage Commission has recommended that the City Council name it a cultural-historic monument, said Jay Oren, architect for the Cultural Affairs Department.

The building was empty in the early hours of Oct. 4 when an aftershock of the major earthquake that caused serious damage in nearby Whittier three days earlier buckled the walls of unreinforced masonry, opened gaping cracks in the outside brickwork and shook piles of debris onto the rear aisle of the women's balcony inside the building.

The temblor also brought down two heavy granite tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments from their niche high on the building's facade, shattering the first five commandments on the sidewalk but leaving the rest intact.

"The tough ones are still in one piece," joked Rabbi Yonah Ganzweig, Mordechai's father.

The elder Ganzweig chants from the Torah, the five books of Moses, at the congregation's morning services, which are held in a small, wooden building behind the main synagogue. After the service, the worshipers in the unheated structure often chat and take a shot of vodka or whiskey to warm the blood.

Sometimes the Torah-reading is canceled for lack of a minyan , the quorum of 10 men needed for formal prayer.

As the population of Boyle Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods has become predominantly Latino in the last several decades, the synagogue's membership has shrunk to fewer than 20 families.

Elderly Men

Services have dwindled from every day to three times a week--Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Only a handful of elderly men pray at the synagogue where many prominent Los Angeles residents went as youngsters.

"This was considered one of the nicest shuls in the Los Angeles area. I used to have tours coming there, and a lot of people marveled at the sight of this shul, " said Bill Meisels, 80, the former president, who drives to the synagogue from his Alhambra home to help make up a minyan three times a week.

Meisels, a retired clothing store manager, said only four of the regular worshipers live within walking distance any more. A few others drive to attend the services, disregarding the prohibition on using machinery on the Sabbath. Despite the damage, Meisels insisted that the building is intact.

"I was always under the impression it could be a museum," he said.

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