Etz Jacob: The Shul that Could
Etz Jacob Congregation (above); President Bernard Abend (left)and Rabbi Rubin Huttler (right).
Attention,anyone who was ever married or bar mitzvahed at Etz JacobCongregation at 7659 Beverly Blvd.: The shul wants testimonials,photographs and memorabilia for an exhibit honoring its 80thanniversary. The temple is the oldest in Beverly-Fairfax, and,according to Rabbi Rubin Huttler, it’s in large part responsible forcreating the Jewish enclave around Fairfax Avenue.
Today, it perseveres despite the changing demographics, as Jewsare moving to the Valley or the Westside. Huttler struggles to makeends meet with the help of his elderly president, Bernard Abend, “whohas taken us out of crisis after crisis.”
The Orthodox shul’s history begins at the turn of the century,with its founding rabbi, Jacob Bauman, a brilliant scholar fromRiseshitz, Poland. When his son fell ill, the rabbi sought a postoverseas so that he could pay the hospital bills; ultimately, he paid$60 for a steerage ticket to New York and packed kosher food for thefive-day train ride to Los Angeles.
To earn a living, Bauman worked as a shochet, a ritualslaughterer, and in 1918 he founded a congregation in a grandVictorian home at 947 Arapahoe St.
Prohibition brought a bit of drama to this precursor of Etz JacobCongregation. Shul leaders had a permit for the use of ritual wine,but one delivery was stolen when trucks burst into the winery andcrooks tied up the government inspector. The robbery made thenewspaper headlines, the Internal Revenue Service demanded exorbitanttaxes, and it was only after a landmark court case that the rabbi wasexonerated.
Bauman moved the congregation to the Fairfax area almost byaccident. In the early 1930s, he rented a house at 127 S. Martel Ave.to be closer to his grown daughters; he needed a home near thestreetcar line that could get him downtown early for his supervisionjob at the kosher slaughterhouse. Before long, the area’s scatteredJews, who had moved west from Boyle Heights, began to join him for aminyan in his home. The numbers grew so fast that a businessmanpurchased the shul’s current property, a foreclosure at BeverlyBoulevard near Stanley Avenue, for $5,000 in 1933.
A Talmud Torah (religious school) ensued, as did a variety ofJewish services. “I believe Beverly-Fairfax became Beverly-Fairfaxbecause Etz Jacob offered everything a Jew could need, from thecradle to the grave,” says Huttler, who arrived at the shul when itwas still in its heydey, in 1970.
There was a successful Sisterhood and crowded luncheons for whichthe balabustas cooked all day in the synagogue kitchen. Two thousandpeople frequented High Holiday services at three sites.
But by the 1980s, the neighborhood was changing, becoming lessJewish as yuppies moved west and observant Jews moved east to HancockPark and the conservative Orthodox shuls along La Brea. “As amiddle-of-the-road Orthodox synagogue, we’re too modern for a lot ofpeople, and that makes things more challenging for us,” saysHuttler’s wife, Miriam.
Then there was the matter of Etz Jacob’s day school, which Huttlerbegan in 1989 to offer affordable Jewish education to the Russians,Iranians and needy families moving into the area. The problem wasthat most of the children were on scholarship, and the school oftenran hand-to-mouth.
Nevertheless, Etz Jacob persisted, and today it is proving itselfThe Shul that Could. Young couples are enrolling their children inthe Talmud Torah, the only one left in the neighborhood, “which wedecided to keep open no matter what,” Huttler says. A benefactorhelped the day school, which moved from its shabby old premises toits new location on Beverly, six blocks west of the synagogue.
Huttler continues to perform circumcisions and bar mitzvahs forRussian youths, and a successful Iranian minyan endures at the shul,which has about 200 members, half elderly, half young families withchildren.
“We’re reaching out to whomever we can in the area, includingthose who can’t afford expensive synagogue dues,” Huttler says.”We’re challenged to help these people, who don’t seem to have aplace in any other area shul.”
Huttler does not want Etz Jacob to become “another Breed StreetShul, abandoned and boarded up.” Thus, he came up with the idea forthe 80th-anniversary celebration, which will start with a Chanukahdinner on Dec. 28, honoring Judge Bruce Einhorn, and continue with amuseum exhibit, a year’s worth of programming and, most importantly,an endowment fund drive. “We’ve been fighting hard, and we’re stillhere,” Huttler says. “Our goal is to preserve the shul, and we feelwe have an important role to play in keeping Fairfax a traditionalJewish area.”
If you have photos, memories or memorabilia for the shul’s 80thanniversary, call Rabbi Huttler at (213) 938-2619. He’s interested intaking down your oral history.