Also straight outta: The story of Compton’s Jewish community
When hip-hop group N.W.A released its debut album “Straight Outta Compton” in 1988, the rappers were probably clueless that the title also could apply to a small, short-lived group of postwar Jews from the same city.
While Compton today is predominantly Latino and Black — with a sparse Jewish population — shortly after World War II, it became home to a group of Jewish newcomers who founded a synagogue and small community there, centered around the Compton Jewish Community Center (CJCC).
The growing city, incorporated in 1888, was attractive to many postwar Jewish and Black families looking for a piece of the American dream. It offered proximity to General Motors’ assembly plant in South Gate, opportunities for small business, and low-cost housing free of restrictive covenants. Quickly, there were enough Jewish families with children of bar mitzvah age in Compton and the surrounding areas that there was a need to organize a synagogue.
Bruce Littman, whose family came to Compton from St. Louis, said he was a young child when the Jewish group first started holding services and activities in members’ homes, even in their garages, sometime in 1947.
A letter mailed to prospective members dated Jan. 28, 1948, and signed by 10 families, announced they had “formed a committee for the purpose of getting the Jewish people together in the Compton area.”
“The Jewish population in the Compton and surrounding areas has been growing, and consequently, we felt that something could and should be done at this time,” continued the letter, which was found in the archives of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati.
One of CJCC’s softball teams.
On Feb. 23, 1948, a follow-up letter was sent out announcing the group’s first event to be held in the Salvation Army Building, 614 S. Willowbrook Ave., Compton, on March 4. A third letter, dated March 22, reports that more than 200 people attended and expresses their desire “to go ahead as rapidly as possible toward the future development of this organization.”
Beginning that year, a “Compton Jewish Community Bulletin” began publication. The November 1948 issue says that at “Simches Torah,” their “meeting place was filled to overflowing.” In another piece, the writer asks in feigned disbelief: “Can it be that only two short months ago we were wondering if we would really have enough people to attend services?”
Among pages of congregational news, simcha announcements and small business ads, is the announcement of the Compton Jewish Bowling Team, as well as an extensive article with photos about a “Hallowe’en Hop” organized by the CJCC. Costumes included a Spanish troubadour, a Japanese gent, Little Bo Peep, and “a forgetful man in a Tux without pants.”
Describing the early members of the community, Littman recalls that they were mainly 30- to 40-year-olds with a “couple of elderly families” that had settled there from all over the United States.
They were predominantly small business people, said Littman, whose father, along with his two brothers-in-law, owned the Bargaintown market. There also were a couple of professionals, including the late attorney Harry T. Shaffer, an executive board member who would go on to become a Los Angeles judge who was famous, according to the Los Angeles Times, “for his controversial sentences and irreverent remarks.”
In 1950, the Jewish community’s October bulletin announced “the dedication of our new home,” a repurposed church, that the community had purchased on the corner of Palmer Street and Mayo Avenue in Compton.
Originally, the congregation was not affiliated with any movement, though Littman recalls that they used the Conservative movement’s Silverman prayer book. There was no rabbi or cantor, though a man who served as both, most frequently Herbert H. Baruch, was retained for the High Holy Days. Services were held every Friday, attended by about 50, and in the early years, Saturday morning services were held only when there was a bar mitzvah. In the beginning, there were no b’not mitzvah.
Also noted in the 1950 bulletin was a report on the Sunday school, which was “neither Orthodox, Conservative nor Reformed,” and emphasized the “historic-sociological development of the Jewish people in terms of current events.” Classes were attended by 73 children between the ages of 5 and 14, according to the report. Weekly classes were later expanded to include two additional weekdays, Littman recalled.
Another graduate of the school, Penny Sterling, grew up at CJCC and said “it was a homegrown type of school,” where she was called into service as a teacher after confirmation. Referring to Hillary Clinton’s book “It Takes a Village” so many years later, Sterling said she felt the CJCC was “the village that raised the kids.”
“It was not Hebrew-oriented and had a Jewish history orientation. For a bar mitzvah, you had a tutor,” she added.
That tutor was the very knowledgeable Ben Racowsky, who also happened to be the manager of Bargaintown, the family business where Littman worked after school bagging groceries and stocking shelves. To prepare for his bar mitzvah, Littman recalled that Racowsky “would pull me aside for a half an hour or an hour. We would go upstairs to the stockroom, where all the cartons and box of groceries were being stored, and we would have a bar mitzvah lesson.”
Another former student of Racowsky’s, Dell Franklin, who has written a short story about his bar mitzvah, also remembers having lessons in the store, though under more public circumstances. Franklin, who admits he “hated” going to Sunday school, and much preferred playing baseball, recalls riding his bike to Bargaintown before school for his lessons with Racowsky. At that time, his teacher was working the checkout line and made the reluctant student, who needed the practice, recite his prayers right there in front of a line of people checking out, he said (though Racowsky, who turned 100 in September 2015, doesn’t recall a lesson going that way). Despite that episode, Franklin, who survived his bar mitzvah, remembers Racowsky “as a really nice guy with a great sense of humor.”
Regarding the varying degrees of interest of his bar mitzvah students, Racowsky kept an open mind. “If someone was willing to learn, then I was willing to teach,” said the centenarian, who continues to teach elementary school students near his home in southern Ventura County.
Principal Ben Leeds (top row, far right) and his wife, Rachel (front row, middle), posed with the Sunday school faculty in the early 1950s.
In Compton, “the Jewish community was close-knit, with a pretty liberal congregation,” Franklin said. His father, Murray “Moe” Franklin (1914-78), a professional baseball player for many seasons with the Pacific Coast League Hollywood Stars, who played at Gilmore Field (near where CBS Television City is today), also owned a leather and shoe findings business.
In the mid-1960s, when the CJCC joined United Synagogue of America (known today as United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), it also hired a rabbi, Frank Rosenthal. The congregation, which at its max was usually between 75 and 100 families, had a women’s auxiliary, which planned gala donor luncheons and played mahjong; a men’s club; a softball team that was almost unbeatable, according to Littman; and a teen group, where he and Sterling, as well as several others, met their respective wives and husbands.
Sterling described the community, where her father was in the floor-covering business, as very insular.
“If my parents were going out, it was [with] someone from here [the CJCC],” she said. For bar mitzvahs, “there were no fancy receptions. They were always at a house. Everybody cooked, brought it over,” she explained. When it came time to create a guest list for her wedding with Chuck Sterling, “we didn’t have a bride’s list. We didn’t have a groom’s list. We had a temple membership list,” she said.
What became of the CJCC? Around the time of the Watts Riots in 1965, things began to change, Sterling said. People began to sell their businesses. This is not to say, however, that for everyone the decision to get out of Compton was as easy as drawing a straight line to the San Fernando Valley.
“My folks were very liberal, and they were going to stick it out in Compton,” Sterling said.
The young people also began to move away. “We were not taking over our parents’ business, we were going to college and becoming more professional,” said Sterling, who after her wedding, moved with her husband to nearby Long Beach and who now lives in the Valley.
In 1968, Littman, who graduated from UCLA Medical School and became a pediatrician, recalls having his daughter’s baby naming at the CJCC, though he and his wife, Ann, had already moved away. It was one of his final memories of the CJCC. (These days, he lives in the Valley.)
“A merger with the Compton Jewish Community Center was accomplished in 1969,” reported the Temple Beth Shalom of Long Beach’s newsletter in a story about the congregation’s history in 2012. “New members and Torah scrolls” were added, it said.
Today the former CJCC building houses the Hispanic Center for Theological Studies.
Perhaps as the institution’s legacy, Littman and Sterling became leaders in the Los Angeles Jewish community, with each becoming president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Pacific Southwest Region.
For them and others, the mindset was simple during the CJCC’s heyday.
“It was comfortable living in Compton,” Littman said. “Why go anywhere else?”
Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at email@example.com.