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BELIEFS

Event unearths the deep Jewish roots of Boyle Heights

At Fiesta Shalom, Latinos and Jews unite to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Israeli statehood in what was once the biggest Jewish enclave outside of New York.

May 18, 2009|Hector Becerra

On a sunny Sunday when men with 10-gallon vaquero hats mingled with men wearing yarmulkes, Sonny Estrada, his wife Susan Miller and their 9-year-old daughter Eliana stepped into the aging synagogue in Boyle Heights as unwitting symbols.

The Mexican-American-Jewish family was celebrating the 61st anniversary of Israel's independence outside the Breed Street Shul -- while also honoring Jewish and Latino bonds in a part of town that once was home to the largest Jewish community outside New York.

As a teenager, Estrada used to accompany his gardener father to tend the yards of West Los Angeles homes that often belonged to Jewish families. When Estrada and Miller married 19 years ago, they exchanged vows in English, Hebrew and Spanish. About eight years ago, Estrada converted to Judaism.

Though they had never stepped foot in the Breed Street synagogue, it seemed only natural that they should come to Sunday's celebration.

Miller, 51, cried when she entered the old shul, whose ornate and colorful stained glass windows were pocked with holes. The altar and cracked wooden floors were dusty.

"To think, people were married here, they were mitzvahed here," Miller said. "It's a treasure that needs to be restored."

Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, said raising awareness about the need for restoration was one of the goals of the celebration known as Fiesta Shalom. The event was organized by the historical group, the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles and other organizations.

Much work has already been done on the synagogue, which last held services in 1996. The goal, Sass and others said, is to reopen the shul as a cultural and social service center for the working-class neighborhood. About $5 million for repairs is still needed.

"I hope that this event will bring people to decide that this shul needs to be reconstructed and renovated," said Jacob Dayan, Israel's consul general in Los Angeles. "We need to preserve it."

Because of its delicate state and earthquake-prone location, the synagogue is closed, with a tall chain-link fence blocking the entrance. On Sunday, workers tried to cover the barbed wire with blue and white bunting -- the colors of the Israeli flag -- because a descendant of a Holocaust survivor said the razor-sharp wire resembled Nazi concentration camps.

The event was not without snags. The Chicano rock band Quetzal, which was to be a featured performer, canceled, citing opposition to the Israeli government's policies toward the Palestinians.

But otherwise, the scene on Breed Street was festive. Mariachis strummed guitars and played trumpets, and a jazz band of Mexican American and Jewish teens jammed on a stage.

Jewish and Latino revelers carried tiny Israeli flags, and a long line formed to tour the old synagogue, which in May 1948 became the first place in Los Angeles to raise the flag of the newly established Jewish state.

From the turn of the 20th century until World War II, Boyle Heights served as the hub of Southern California's Jewish community. Kosher delis, bakeries and other Jewish businesses dominated Brooklyn Avenue -- now Cesar Chavez Avenue. In the 1950s, the Eastside neighborhood's Jewish population began to decline, with many leaving for West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

Though many businesses in Boyle Heights are still Jewish-owned, it is believed that only a few Jewish residents remain. But many Jewish social service efforts -- including Koreh L.A., a literacy program created by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles -- predominantly serve Latinos.

Lucy Delgado, an 85-year-old Mexican American who has lived in Boyle Heights since birth, said she had friends of many cultures when she was growing up in the neighborhood that is now almost entirely Latino. She recalled a rabbi inviting her into the Breed Street Shul, and marveling at the chandeliers. Like many people who streamed through the synagogue Sunday, Delgado was saddened by its current state.

So was Brenda Mandelbaum, 68, whose father, Mendel Friedman, had once been a rabbi and president of the shul. She had not stepped into the structure since about 1951, when she last lived in Boyle Heights.

"I was a little surprised to see the way it is," she said as she walked out of the synagogue. "It's a shame, because it was beautiful."

As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- wearing a yarmulke -- stood inside the dimly lit shul Sunday, an exuberant Eli Boyer shook his hand.

"I was bar mitzvahed here a few years ago," the 89-year-old jokingly told the mayor.

Looking at the time-worn synagogue, Boyer later remarked: "To tell you the truth, I think it looked better when I was here."

Outside, Abraham "Adolfo" Finkelstein, 83, walked between festival booths. Unlike most of the Jewish residents at Fiesta Shalom, Finkelstein actually lives in Boyle Heights. He moved in 20 years ago, after losing his apartment in the Fairfax district.

A Mexican man let him rent a place for $200 a month. Four months later, when an elderly Jewish man died on Bridge Street, Finkelstein bought his duplex, for $75,000. Finkelstein, who sold belts, watches and other wares at an outdoor swap meet in El Monte for 20 years, said he took the good with the bad living in Boyle Heights.

He said he missed having a place to worship with other Jews.

But after so many years, he said, he learned to cope.

"My synagogue," he said, "is my house."

--

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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