A Forgotten Jewel

As you drive north along Figueroa Street in Highland Park, past La Pescador and the car wash, past Frank’s Cameras and the farmacia, you come to El Paso Shoe Store, where families from the neighborhood shop to get a good bargain on shoes. It was at this location, back in the early 1920s, that Moses Cortland opened his clothing store for a burgeoning Jewish community.

Moses, along with Saul Cohen, who had a yardage shop across the street, was part of a small, working-class Jewish community that had moved westward from Boyle Heights, stopping in Highland Park along the way. Mrs. Esther Weinstein, a Jewish matron from Boston who had settled in the community, had asked their help in procuring funds for building a shul to educate the children and to bring the Jewish community together under one roof.

Eventually, land was found on top of a hill, one block north on Monte Vista, between 57th and 58th streets, and in 1929, the temple was built. A model of proportion and size, the founders called their new shul Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock. Seventy years ago this High Holiday, Temple Beth Israel opened its doors.

Today, if you enter Temple Beth Israel, one of the oldest active synagogues in Los Angeles, the ghosts of that time are still alive. Off the main sanctuary, which is graced with warm wooden panels and natural light streaming in through stained-glass windows, is the kitchen, where Mrs. Weinstein and the ladies of the sisterhood stood long hours, fixing kiddush for the congregation. Over there is where the Jonesis and the Levines sat (the Levines owned Viva Market at 56th and Monte Vista and produced one of California’s future congressmen, Mel Levine). Here is where Ida Waller sat; where the Simonoff sisters prayed together; and where Joel Welks and Tom Marquisee were bar mitzvahed.

At its height, during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Temple Beth Israel was a busy Conservative shul with more than 200 members, a sisterhood, a Hebrew school, Purim plays and banquets. Now, if you go for Shabbat morning services (the only service throughout the year), there are eight or nine veterans sitting scattered throughout the sanctuary, or sometimes 10 or 12, enough to make a precious minyan, but rarely more than that.

But on the High Holy Days, the shul comes alive with its past glory, as 60 to 70 members and friends arrive from all around Southern California. They come from as near as Eagle Rock and as far away as San Diego, Monarch Beach, Woodland Hills, Somis, Oxnard and Palm Springs.