Sass thinks many Boyle Heights Jews may have had conflicted feelings about their New World shtetl, or enclave. On the one hand, they regarded it as a safe, homey place--"what we call haimish." Yet there was "a sense of perhaps embarrassment about immigrant origins, the fact that it wasn't high class. It was a place that you wanted to get out of and move on up."
In recent years, as the shul's aging worshipers died or moved away, the congregation had difficulty maintaining a minyan, or quorum, of 10 men necessary for daily prayers. Gradually, services were reduced to twice a week and the late Rabbi Mordecai Gansweig limited his time there to Sabbath services. By then, the congregation had retreated from the main sanctuary, which was declared unsafe after the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake, into the smaller chapel in the rear of the compound.
Soon, it was obvious that the shul no longer could survive solely as a place of worship. The congregation's elders determined that the building should be torn down, the surrounding land sold and its proceeds donated to charity. But the building was spared after the Jewish Historical Society petitioned, successfully, to have it designated a protected city historic cultural monument. It fell to city ownership when back assessments went unpaid, and last July the city of Los Angeles deeded the building to the Jewish Historical Society.
As the project moves forward, the shul may be viewed as something of a harbinger of the city's Latino-Jewish relations. With Jews and Latinos attempting to forge political alliances throughout the city, the shul's time may again be at hand.
"Can it serve the neighborhood and coexist? Can it have a new life and not be an island?" Sass asks rhetorically. "I think that journey is as important to us as the final outcome. I think that people are really seeing this as an opportunity to connect with one another, which we don't always have in this city."