The Sinai Century
Every Sunday morning, on Valencia Street in downtown Los Angeles, the Welsh Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles holds services in a sloped brick house of worship with stained glass windows picturing Stars of David.
The stars are Jewish stars, and the church organ is the one used in the Jewish services of the building’s former occupants, members of Congregation Sinai, or as it is known today, Sinai Temple. Formed in 1906 by a group of young men in their 20s and 30s, the Conservative synagogue remained at 1153 Valencia St. until 1925, when the congregation sold the property to the Presbyterians.
Now, two buildings and a handful of cantors and rabbis later, Westwood’s Sinai Temple is celebrating its 100-year anniversary.
How do you celebrate 100 years of history?
Sinai Temple began the party in December, with a communitywide Mitzvah Day, and has held events throughout the year. The celebration will culminate in two events: this weekend’s program featuring scholar-in-residence Elie Wiesel, and a June musical performance at the Wilshire Theatre combined with an evening dinner/dance at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Another way to celebrate 100 years is to start planning the next 100, according to David Wolpe, Sinai’s rabbi for the last nine of them. Wolpe suffers from no shortage of ideas: Eight years ago, he started Friday Night Live, a monthly musical service for 21-39-year-olds, which has been replicated at congregations around the world. And recently, he asserted in a speech and an essay that the entire Conservative movement, which is struggling and divided, ought to be renamed “Covenental Judaism” and thus redefined for the future. Under his leadership, the synagogue has embarked on a two-year, $36 million Sinai Centennial Campaign to expand the synagogue and its services. Some $14 million has been raised so far; donor levels are set from $10,000 to $5 million.
The money will be used to purchase additional property, renovate existing
facilities (including Sinai Akiba day school, which was founded in 1968 and
educates 600 students from kindergarten through eighth grade) and create an adult education center, a parenting place and a counseling center.
“I would like to create a model of synagogue that will be able to help other synagogues figure out how to do this right,” Wolpe told The Journal. Los Angeles is “the most important city in the world,” in terms of influence, he said, and that also applies to Jewish life and to creating innovative programs.
How do you sum up 100 years of history? That’s the task of historian Florie Brizel, who was hired by Sinai two years ago to write the history of the shul. She just completed “Sinai Temple: A Centennial History,” a narrative that runs more than 200 pages.
The young adult immigrants who established Sinai in 1906 — incorporating it in 1908 — just wanted a synagogue that wasn’t exactly Orthodox, but was definitely not Reform.
“It was in response to the choices that were available, which was Orthodox, which didn’t suit a lot of those pioneers, and the new German Reform, which just wasn’t enough,” said Brizel, co-author of “Words That Shook the World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events” (Prentice Hall Press, 2001). “For all intents and purposes, they wanted to be Orthodox, but not quite.”
There was mixed seating and an organ but traditional prayers.
In a way, the history of the temple and congregation is the history of Jewish Los Angeles, with the migration toward the Westside and the integration of diverse Jewish communities.
In 1925, the congregation moved to 3412 W. Fourth St., at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue, where it stayed for 35 years (the building is now used by the Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian church). In 1960, Sinai moved to its current location in Westwood, on Wilshire and Beverly Glen boulevards.
“That big move was about maintaining the congregation,” Brizel said. “Everyone was moving west from the Boyle Heights area. They wanted Beverly Hills. Young people were not staying in the congregation so they said, ‘We’re going to have to stay where our members are.'”
Over the years, there were many rabbis, beginning with Jacob Kohn. Other rabbis have included David Lieber and Jacob Pressman.
Some of Sinai’s leaders influenced the path of Conservative Judaism, including Lieber, who headed the University of Judaism. Sinai was known especially for its music, with cantors such as Carl Urstein, Meir Finkelstein and Lieb Glantz.
One event that radically changed Sinai — and Los Angeles — was the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the influx of Persian Jews to Los Angeles.
“Up until the Iranian revolution in 1979, Sinai was traditional Ashkenazi,” said temple historian Brizel, even though there’d already been a handful of Persian members.
Jimmy Delshad came to Los Angeles in 1960 with his brothers from Iran (via Israel), and when he became a citizen in 1972, he and his wife wanted to join a synagogue. At first they tried Sephardic Temple, but the services were more Ladino — from the Spanish-Jewish tradition — than close to the Persian services he was accustomed to, or the Israeli ones familiar to his wife. They joined Sinai, in the end, because they enjoyed the rabbi’s speeches.
The influx of Persian Jews to Sinai Temple was “organic,” Brizel said. “On Shabbat, everybody would go to the synagogue to find out who was here. It was the trading space for information,” she said, noting that traditionally, synagogues were always meeting houses and especially for Persians during the Iranian revolution.
Friday nights was when the American Jews would come to shul, but the Persians, who traditionally worshipped on Saturday morning, would come to the synagogue Friday night mainly to socialize and to reconnect. Many left Iran with just the clothes on their backs, so they appreciated the food at the shul’s Kiddush on Saturdays.
Near the beginning of the Persian influx, some longstanding members decided to cancel the Kiddush one week because they said they felt outnumbered by the amount of Iranians. But the move provoked an outcry with others in the shul responding that Jews don’t do that to other Jews and they had to have an open-arms policy. They reinstated the weekly post-prayer fete.
“It was a difficult adjustment, just like when any other new group comes in,” said Ed Kaminer, a dentist, lawyer and general contractor who was president of the temple from 1969-71. “Each group looks at them, ‘How dare they come into our shul?’ It wouldn’t matter if they were Russians, Romanians.”
Sinai’s longtime members, especially older ones, worried about having to give up customs and being supplanted.
“It takes a while,” Kaminer said. “The younger ones find it easier. It takes a generation or two.”
Added Brizel: “It took several rabbis chastising the congregation and it still takes some work. Some people left. It took years before the congregation really settled down and started to behave properly.”
She noted a “cultural disconnect.” For example, in Iran, Jews didn’t pay membership dues. It was more of a pay-as-you-go institution. Volunteerism was also a Western concept.
“My wife promoted volunteerism. She helped me figure out that volunteerism is a good thing to do,” Delshad said. The mentality in other countries is more “why do I have to do that?” he said.
Delshad also recalled a night, long ago, when he looked at the bimah and remarked on the men who stood up there beside the rabbi and the cantor.
“Who are they?” he asked his father-in-law.
The temple’s president and vice president, he was told.
“You don’t have to worry about it,” his father-in-law said, because you needed 20 years of service to the synagogue, you had to give a lot of money and Delshad was Persian.
“That will never happen in your lifetime,” his father-in-law told him. “This is an Ashkenazi shul,”
“Something cracked in my head that night [and I decided] I will change that attitude,” said Delshad, who was named Sinai’s man of the year in 1990.
It took Delshad, currently a Beverly Hills’ city councilman, 12 years — not 20 — but from 1999-2001 he became the first Persian Jew to serve as president of Sinai. Delshad, along with others, like Wolpe, have worked to integrate the Ashkenazim and Persians, whose numbers are split about 50-50 in the 1,900-member synagogue.
Today, the synagogue has other pressing challenges, some related to local matters — like whether his younger congregants can afford Westside real estate; others related to wider issues involving Judaism.
“We have all the problems of Westside Jews,” Wolpe said. He has recently spoken on such topics as the value of parents saying no to children — not because parents can’t, but because they won’t. He also spoke last month about the importance of treating hired help — which is mostly Latino — with respect, as Los Angeles’ Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, stood by his side.
“The biggest single problem is continued education and connection to Jewish life,” Wolpe said. “To raise kids who still feel passionately about Jewish life in America.”
The proposed new facilities and programs should help. Through the new parenting and the counseling centers, Wolpe hopes to inculcate Jewish values and modern psychology to newlyweds and parents. And he plans to maintain and build on Sinai’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning, its adult education center.
“Nobody 100 years ago could possibly have any idea what Jewish life would be like now. Just as we have no idea what it will be like in 100 years,” Wolpe said. “But I believe that powerful, active institutions make the difference.”
For more information on events at Sinai Temple, visit www.sinaitemple.org.