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New life for an old temple in Los Angeles

Temple Beth Israel in Highland Park saw lean years after a major shift westward of the Jewish population. But instead of folding, it hung on and is now reaping the benefits.

November 05, 2010|Hector Tobar

Jewish life was slowly disappearing in the neighborhoods on the east bank of the Los Angeles River when Rabbi Mayer Joel Franklin died in 1976.

White flight had sent all the faithful westward, away from Highland Park, where Franklin was the last in a long line of rabbis at Temple Beth Israel.

After Franklin's death, the shrinking membership of the temple didn't have the money to hire a new rabbi. But for years, Henry Leventon and a handful of other devout men and women held on.

The men, wearing their prayer shawls and kippahs, would climb up the old steps each Saturday morning and enter the sanctuary underneath the Lions of Judah, even as the surrounding community began to live and shop in Spanish, and to pray in other faiths.

Leventon was the temple's president during its leanest years.

More than once in the early 1990s, he said, the Shabbat service lacked the requisite 10 Jewish men, or minyan, required to begin.

"I'd start with maybe six or seven, hoping that someone would come," Leventon, an 80-year-old native of Belfast, told me in his mellifluous Irish brogue. "I'd say, 'Is God going to strike me down for having a service? I'm sure God is quite sensible and realistic.'"

It seemed to Leventon that if on one Saturday he didn't read from the Torah, the people who'd come to hear him would make some excuse for not coming the next Saturday. "We can't afford to lose them," he'd say. "So take out the Torah. I'll assume the responsibility."

Persistence, flexibility and faith kept the shul going during some dark years. And now its stalwart members are being rewarded with the light and life of youth.

No longer are the services confined to a handful of septuagenarians and octogenarians. Leon Siegel, a 20-year-old junior at Occidental College, goes there on Saturdays. Sharon Gordon and her 5-year-old son attend Friday family services, as does writer Ed Leibowitz and his 6-year-old.

For the High Holidays in September, all 140 seats in the old sanctuary filled up. So they swung open the curtains and filled the adjoining social hall too.

"To see how full it was for Yom Kippur was really awesome," Siegel said.

The unaffiliated Conservative synagogue doesn't have a rabbi yet. But Susan Goldberg, a rabbinic intern and 36-year-old mother of two, leads the services. Her name is lighted up at night on the old marquee on Monte Vista Street.

"As a native Angeleno, it's a beautiful thing to see," Goldberg, a student at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, said of the synagogue's revival. "A small group of people helped keep a branch of the Jewish community going on the Eastside."

As she leads the services, Goldberg looks out and sees a microcosm of L.A.

There is Robert Siev, who lost his 5-year-old brother in the Holocaust. And interfaith couples and gay couples, and people with roots in Hungary and Argentina, and Hector Escalante, a native of El Salvador who said he didn't even know he was Jewish until he saw a Star of David on his father's grave.

They are all there, together, thanks to a stubborn refusal to surrender their synagogue to the fate of so many others in South L.A. and on the Eastside: to be sold and transformed into a grocery store, social hall or church.

"If you hold on, sometimes the winds of history will blow in your direction again," Goldberg said.

Think of it as a slogan for our troubled California: Hold on. Keep a legacy alive, then pass it on. In the long run, your community will be richer for it.

Temple Beth Israel celebrated its 80th anniversary last month in style, with a large party attended by young families.

The synagogue has a new children's religious education program. Next year it will host the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah of young people taught at the shul, the first such ceremonies there in half a century.

The Highland Park shul was never very big — tiny next to the colossus of Eastside Jewish life, the now-shuttered Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights. Temple Beth Israel opened its doors in 1930, on a bluff overlooking a streetcar line that disappeared long ago.

When Bill Fishman arrived at the synagogue in the 1980s, there were fewer than 20 regular members.

"It was like the fly caught in amber," said Fishman, now 61 and the temple president. "Nothing had changed since 1950. We were using prayer books published before the State of Israel existed."

Leibowitz said he had drifted away from his faith and wasn't looking to worship when he first arrived in 1995. More than anything, he was drawn to the cultural oddity of the place. "The air was redolent of Russia, Poland and the Lower East Side, of a Judaism from the shtetl and the ghetto," he wrote in an article for Los Angeles Magazine.

But it was the humility of the people at Temple Beth Israel that kept him coming back, he told me. They made him feel needed, especially a certain Irishman. "Henry would practically shackle you to the doors of the sanctuary to keep you from leaving," he said.

On Yom Kippur, Leibowitz watched his son Isaac and other children step up to the bimah — the platform on which the Torah is read — to blow into a ram's horn, or shofar. Leibowitz was embracing traditions he thought he had left behind, and he was doing so in a temple that should have died but did not.

The members of Temple Beth Israel and their cook, Harriet Neal, fed me well after last Saturday's service. But it was my spirit that was truly nourished, by the sights and sounds of a place that felt very old and very new at the same time.

After the meal came a prayer whose opening seemed to capture the history of a people, and of that small temple:

When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, it was like a dream....

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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