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A Synagogue's Rebirth

January 25, 2003

Not for nothing did the Jews of Boyle Heights affectionately call the Breed Street Shul the "Queen of the Shuls." Congregation Talmud Torah of Los Angeles -- the synagogue's official name -- was home to the largest of some 30 congregations that once served the 75,000 Jews, most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe, who found their way to Boyle Heights and City Terrace starting a century ago. But by the 1950s many Jews moved out, to communities west and north, and when the shul closed its doors in 1995, flocks of pigeons moved in, swooping through the ghostly interior and carpeting the place with feathers and droppings.

Now members of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, who still hold title to this ruined treasure, want to restore the building, not as a lifeless monument but as a lively center for a new community.

The brick Byzantine-revival shul opened its doors in 1923. The ornately carved wooden pews where 500 regularly worshipped are still there, as are the murals symbolizing the festivals of the Jewish year -- albeit with missing plaster chunks here and there.

The Latino families who now call Boyle Heights home don't need a synagogue, but they could use a neighborhood center or a place where residents could get job training or a computer lab for schoolchildren or a performance space for neighborhood musicians. A partnership has grown between Jewish and Latino community leaders. Sunday they noshed over bagels and pan dulce as they kicked off renovations to the temple.

Their efforts have not yet drawn the attention that has saved St. Vibiana's Cathedral from the wrecking ball or may one day give new life to the once-swanky Ambassador Hotel. But this modest project in Boyle Heights could be another model for a city where our first instinct is still to raze old buildings and erect new ones.

Last year, Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), now a state senator, wrangled a $1-million state grant to help restore the synagogue's stained glass windows, now broken and boarded up, make earthquake safety upgrades and repair the large hole in the roof that the pigeons found. That work starts soon. In the meantime, local residents are starting to talk about how they want to use the building.

This same process saved Bullocks Wilshire, an Art Deco masterpiece, as Southwestern Law School's library, St. Vibiana's as a downtown performance space for Cal State Los Angeles and maybe the cavernous old Ambassador on Wilshire Boulevard as a K-12 school. The old Coconut Grove nightclub as the school auditorium. How cool is that? About as cool as a crumbling old temple awakening for a vibrant new community.

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