On road to renewal, Shul gets multipurpose life

A plastic bag whips in the breeze, trying in vain to free itself from the coil of   barbed wire atop a chain link fence that surrounds the Breed Street Shul just off Cesar Chavez Avenue (originally Brooklyn Avenue) in Boyle Heights. The crumbling concrete stairway leading up to the double-arched doorway sags in the center, and while a stained glass Star of David crowns the facade in bright tones of amber, green and blue, a closer look reveals holes punched through the mottled panes. The window, above the proud words “Congregation Talmud Torah, Los Angeles” etched into the stonework, is boarded up from inside.

But there are signs of life in what was once know as the Queen of Shuls, the largest and last remaining of some 30 congregations that once populated Boyle Heights, the center of the Los Angeles Jewish community from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Blue and yellow extension cords snake from a fuse box outside into the building over the metal door that blocks the entrance. A contractor’s truck idles in a narrow parkway, and the sounds of drills and hammers announce that work has commenced.

For most of the last two decades, homeless squatters and opportunistic flocks of pigeons were the only inhabitants of this 18,000-square-foot Byzantine revival structure, condemned after its unreinforced masonry was badly damaged in the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. The occasional Jewish Historical Society of Southern California tour group came by, shaking their heads at the graffiti that defaced memorial plaques and folk art murals. Nostalgic Jews and, more commonly, neighborhood Latinos, peered up from Breed Street at the shattered stained-glass Jewish star and felt the tug of grandeur gone to waste, the sigh of a chapter of history surely closed.

Finally, after more than two decades of small steps and dogged efforts by a group of volunteers and preservationists, the first phase of construction is under way to convert Congregation Talmud Torah, known as the Breed Street Shul, into a center for the Latino community that now dominates the neighborhood as well as a destination for the Jewish community that abandoned the neighborhood long ago — and, perhaps most important, to help connect the two.

“When we embarked on this, our immediate goal was simply to stop demolition of something we considered a treasure, and to have there be an opportunity for the community to preserve its history and reclaim this important site,” said Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, who has spearheaded this effort from its inception. “As the project has evolved, it has taken on this additional, and I think equally — and perhaps even more — important aspect, which is using it as a resource and an opportunity to build a bridge between the Jewish community and the current neighbors of the shul.”

Peace Over Violence, a community-based nonprofit that offers Latino youth academic support and leadership opportunities, and the Jewish Free Loan Association are slated to move in. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California will house its archives here, and there will be a space where people can share their own oral histories.

Construction on the chapel building is expected to be completed by the end of summer — the small 1915 wood-frame bungalow housed Congregation Talmud Torah when it moved from downtown, where the congregation was founded in 1904. The bungalow was moved to the back of the property in 1921 to make room for the main shul. The last minyan was held in the main building in 1987, but services continued in the original structure until 1996.

A total of about $3.5 million in grants from governmental, Jewish and preservationist organizations, private donations and in-kind services over the past 15 years have repaired gaping holes in the roof, restored some of the site’s artwork, and completed some of the seismic retrofitting needed to make both buildings habitable.

There are enough funds now to complete renovations on the smaller building, and the Breed Street Shul Project plans next to launch a $10 million to $15 million campaign to renovate the main hall, which was designed by Abram M. Edelman, son of Los Angeles’ first rabbi and the same architect who created Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s iconic domed structure. When work is completed, the main shul will house an event hall with a catering kitchen, an exhibit on the multicultural history of Boyle Heights, nonprofit programs and office space, and a shared suite for nonprofit start-ups.

Ellen Sanchez, who is Jewish, and whose father grew up in Boyle Heights, is the director of Healthy Communities at Peace Over Violence and is heading up the Breed Street Shul Project. 

The chapel before restoration. Photo by Don Schwartz

“The first time we went into the shul with three or four youth leaders from Ramona Gardens,” she said, referring to the nearby public-housing project, “they had just finished renovating the mural, and Stephen Sass was giving us a tour. He explained that the Hebrew on the bottom meant, roughly, ‘stand for something,’ and that so resonated with them. You could immediately see them saying, ‘Oh, this is the work that has been going on inside this building over the years, and now we’re picking up and continuing it,’ ” Sanchez said.

She hopes to program joint activities with Jewish youth groups, and to host a Passover seder celebrating freedom.

Peace Over Violence is one of 40 Boyle Heights organizations that participates in Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year comprehensive effort funded by the California Endowment focused on strengthening health care, public safety, education and leadership in 13 communities throughout the state.

After school, Peace Over Violence kids will come to the Breed Street Shul for tutoring, homework help or classes in things like music instruction, poetry, urban art or filmmaking. A teen youth council will work on tackling the issues that face the community.

To make the bungalow suitable for programming, preservation architects opted to open up the space by removing the central bimah and the gates sectioning off the women’s area. Some restoration work already has been completed to repair vandalism — the doors to the ark that once housed the Torah were pulled off their hinges, and graffiti marred Yizkor plaques meant to memorialize the dead in perpetuity. Some of the defaced plaques will remain hanging, a testament to the building’s layered history.

The room will retain elements of the shul, most notably the wooden ark. A richly hued mural, restored last year, surrounds the ark with a lavishly painted wooden Ark draped in red velvet and golden ropes.

What was once the rabbi’s office will become a kitchen where kids can prepare their own wholesome snacks and meals and learn to cook for a healthy lifestyle.

During school hours, Sanchez hopes to run parenting classes, drawing adults to other services that might be offered. KOREH L.A., The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ literacy program, and Bet Tzedek Legal Services are considering opening up shop in the building. The Jewish Free Loan Association is already signed on to house mobile loan analysts at the shul and is working with a donor to set up a fund to serve the downtown area.

Work on the buildings sprinted ahead in the last two years after the Breed Street Shul Project, a nonprofit set up by the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, hired Tsilah Burman as executive director. Burman, a long-time Los Angeles community activist whose professional experience includes nonprofit and real-estate work, has increased the fundraising, received multiple grants and managed the construction project.

Making the 1915 structure suitable for occupants is an important tangible first step.

“We can begin to show everyone what we really want to do, that this is what is going to happen on a larger scale when everything is complete,” Sass said.

Activities in the main building will be more extensive and varied, once it opens in a few years. The space will be available for weddings, bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras, and an expanded front lobby, with its original speckled terrazzo tiles in geometric insets, will house “The Power of Place,” an exhibit created for the Japanese American Museum about the multicultural history of Boyle Heights. Some of the artifacts from the original shul will be lent out to other shuls, but some will also be on display — heavy wooden pews, Torah mantles, and perhaps smaller items like the dusty and decaying prayer books now stacked on the bimah or cracked aleph bet chart that leans up against a rusted old radiator. Even old wine bottles still stand on a small table, as if they were never told the occupants weren’t coming back.

Robert Chattel, a preservation architect on the board of the Jewish Historical Society who has worked on the project for 20 years, says he wants to see the building be more than a museum and wedding hall.

“I want to see people in a computer class, in a reading workshop, learning Yiddish,” Chattel said. “I see this variety of things happening and maybe some of them are literally cross-cultural — there is some event that happens between 11 and 2, and another that happens at 3, and they are so different that the hour in between is when the business of becoming a community happens.”

The central bimah in the main sanctuary will be removed, but the ark and the platform leading up to it will remain. Murals around the room — folk art featuring symbols of the zodiac as well as symbols of Jewish holidays — have been partially restored.

From 2004 to 2009, the Judson Art Studio worked on restoring 47 stained-glass windows — rectangles of amber panes with jagged accents of greens and blues. (The guano was so thick that the workers who removed the windows had to wear protective suits.) Each window had an 18-inch round inset that displayed one of the 12 tribes of Israel, but only five remained. Judson restored those, and they will be on display in the historical exhibit.

Once called The Queen of Shuls, the main building will house an event hall and programming space to serve both the Latino and Jewish communities. Photo courtesy of The Breed Street Shul Project

Once the building is occupied, Judson will install reproductions of all the tribe insets.

The Star of David on the Breed Street facade will be restored (it was already restored once, then vandalized) and will remain visible from the main hall through the second-floor balcony, which once housed the women’s section. The balcony will retain the first few rows of seating, and behind that a glass wall will partition off the rest of the space for meeting rooms and a reception area.

The lower level, once the social hall, is now crowded with cobweb-covered heavy wooden tables and chairs. That space will be cleared out to make way for an office suite for nonprofit start-ups. The old stage, backed up by a mural and framed by carved wooden columns, will be glassed in to serve as a conference room. Down the hall, the old catering kitchen will be refurbished, its antique appliances replaced with easily kashered stainless steel equipment.

The architects used standards set by the secretary of the interior for preserving national landmarks to retain the feel of the shul while also making the space accessible and functional.

While Jewish law regulates decommissioning a holy space, Chattel notes that the building had been abandoned by the time the Breed Street Shul Project began its work.

Had the Jewish Historical Society not stepped in, the building could have been razed.

Jews began moving west to the Fairfax district and the San Fernando Valley after World War II. A small community still remained through the 1970s and ’80s, and the last service at the Breed Street Shul is believed to have been around 1996.

In 1988, a former Breed Street Shul rabbi and his son, not wanting to see their spiritual home given to other uses, applied for demolition permits, hoping to sell the lot to build a shul elsewhere.

Working pro bono on a political and legal strategy for more than a decade, Jewish Historical Society board member Allan Mutchnik of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Century City, got the city to have the building declared a Los Angeles historical and cultural monument in 1988, which immediately thwarted any demolition efforts. The city then put up a barbed-wire-topped fence to offer mandated protection for the monument. Because the building’s nonprofit owner — Congregation Talmud Torah’s board of directors, which was functionally, if not legally, dissolved — could not pay for the fence, the city put a lien on the building. With some arm-twisting from the Jewish Historical Society, the city enforced the lien and took title to the building. In the final move, the city tapped into a state law that allows a municipality to deed a landmark to a historical society. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California in 1999 created the Breed Street Shul Project to oversee restoration efforts and in 2000 took ownership of the building.

The shul was listed in the national registry of historic landmarks in 2001, and in the same year then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton named it as part of her Save America’s Treasures campaign.

Last month, the project held its second fundraiser, raising $150,000 and honoring Lucille Roybal-Allard, the congresswoman who procured a key U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Develoopment grant that partially funded the renovations on the 1915 building, and Yaakov Dayan, the Israeli Consul General who reached out to the Latino community, attracting 6,000 people to Fiesta Shalom in 2009, a celebration of Israel’s independence day that brought Latinos and Jews together for a street fair on Breed Street.

The shul, Sass says, has always held a place of honor in the Latino community, with Latino artists painting it and with Jewish iconography part of the local folk art. Having the building come alive will mean a lot to the local community as well as to the far-flung Jewish community, Sass said.

“On our new logo, the front doors are open, and that speaks to what we feel about this,” Sass said. “This was born of a Jewish experience in a particular time and a particular place, and that is still meaningful, and we want to share that meaning and expand it and reinvent it.”