BCC Looks to Future With New Home, Programs

Drivers at a red light looked on with curiosity as hundreds of congregants and supporters of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) poured out of the doors of a synagogue, forming a parade on the sidewalk of Pico Boulevard. Their destination: BCC’s new location, at 6090 W. Pico Blvd.

This parade, held in April, marked the move of the world’s oldest gay and lesbian synagogue to a new site and a larger building that will better accommodate the congregation’s growing membership and programming. BCC’s Rabbi Lisa Edwards said that the move represents the culmination of several years of effort, including a unique and lengthy fundraising campaign and a collaborative renovation of the new site.

For some, including 90-year-old Harriet Perl, who joined BCC in the early 1970s, the new synagogue already feels like home.

“When I came into this building, I burst into tears,” Perl said. “I’m so overwhelmed by what we have done, by how wonderful this congregation is and how far we have come in one lifetime.”

The undertaking cost nearly $3.5 million — an estimated $2.3 million for the building and another $1.2 million for the renovation. Approximately 75 percent of the synagogue’s congregation contributed, with contributions ranging from $100 to $1 million. Approximately $20,000 came from nonmembers.

The ark in BCC’s new building is solar powered and covered in copper strips engraved with the personal messages of congregants. Photo by Kenna Love

“We just exuded confidence that this was going to work and [that] we were going to move into a great new space,” said Brett Trueman, former president of BCC, who contributed $280,000 in addition to running the fundraising campaign, which started in 2006.

A professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Trueman and his husband initially intended to donate $50,000 to the campaign. Then a fundraising consultant told them their donation would send a message to the rest of the BCC community, and encouraged them to offer more.

“The next few people we reached out to” — a group that included Edwards and her wife — “I think in total committed $1.5 million,” Trueman said.

Trueman attributes people’s willingness to donate to the increase in the synagogue’s membership among Jews in their 20s and 30s, “a coveted group” he said, adding that “when you see their vibrancy, it makes people want to give a lot more.” He also credits the synagogue’s unique outreach and its influential role in the course of Jewish life in Los Angeles.

Now a congregation of 185 families, or 250 individuals, BCC started out with just a handful of gay and lesbian Jews meeting in a downtown Los Angeles church in the early 1970s. The congregation joined the Reform movement in 1974, and in 1977 purchased 6000 W. Pico Boulevard, which was the congregation’s home until the purchase of this new space.

BCC bought the new building in 2009, closing escrow in December 2009 with the previous owner, Max Webb, a Holocaust survivor and founder of Shapell and Webb, a real estate investment and property management firm.

The new site’s proximity to the old one — they’re just two blocks from one another — was appealing to the congregation’s building committee. 

The new, approximately 6,500-square-foot home — its previous building was 3,500 square feet — was originally built in 1929 and had been a church and, later, an auto parts dealer before standing empty for years. BCC’s renovation focused on aesthetics and eco-consciousness.

A close-up of a copper strip on BCC’s ark. Photo by Kenna Love

But how to make what is still a relatively small space feel like a large one? Enter the husband-and-wife architectural team of Marc Schoeplein and Toni Lewis, of Lewis/Schoeplein Architects, who were hired to design the new BCC.

One solution was to make the new lobby feed into every area of the synagogue — the sanctuary, a classroom and library, the kitchen, the clergy’s and administrative offices, and a hallway leading to the restrooms.

The kitchen demonstrates the architects’ creative use of space. A remote-control garage-door-style wall made of light hardwood comes down, with the click of a button, into the middle of the kitchen, so that part of the space can also be used as a classroom.

This commitment to multipurpose use isn’t limited to the interior. Outside is a small parking lot, the synagogue’s only on-site parking (BCC rents two parking lots nearby for use during popular services), and it also serves as a space for outdoor events.

The architecture blends an innovative use of space and an emphasis on the efficient and practical with artistic flourishes, like a wall in Edwards’ study, painted a pinkish color called Razzle Dazzle. It was supposed to be used for the synagogue’s outside wall, but when the design committee was testing samples, one of the neighbors came by and said, “ ‘Any color but that one, please!’ ” Edwards recalled.

Throughout the building, colors, including those in the stained glass windows alongside one of the sanctuary walls, further brighten the naturally lit space, which is filled with light hardwood and glass.

Even the ark isn’t just a place to house the Torahs — it’s a communal art project, made of dozens of wooden blocks, with long, narrow strips of copper running across the length of the blocks, crisscrossing each other. Each piece of copper is imprinted with a congregant’s anonymous personal story, an experience with BCC or of being an LGBT Jew — “whatever people wanted,” Edward said.

“This is where I came out … where I stood under a chuppah and where I came home,” one strip reads.

The architects built solar panels into the ceilings of the sanctuary, which power the light in the ark; torn denim serves as the insulation in the walls; and the parking lot has an electric car-charging station. Other eco-friendly elements include reclaimed wood, salvaged doors and carpeting made from recycled tires.

“We talked a lot about what values we wanted to convey with the building, and sustainability and having a low impact on Earth was on the top of the list of values we wanted to bring to this project,” said Felicia Park-Rogers, executive director of BCC.

BCC’s greening efforts added an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 to construction costs, but the synagogue will be “saving in energy costs down the road,” Park-Rogers said.

Along with the new site come new goals. BCC hopes to attract more non-LGBT, straight members and increase their outreach through programming. For instance, upon their move to the new location, they held a lecture series on Muslims with Rabbi Reuven Firestone.

But how to promote inclusivity while still maintaining its identity as an LGBT synagogue? And does the Jewish community’s growing acceptance of LGBT Jews deem specialized synagogues irrelevant?

“That certainly has made it harder for LGBT synagogues to attract members,” Trueman said, “because we’re not the only place we can go to make [LGBT Jews] comfortable.”

But, he added, “I think a lot of us would agree that while other synagogues are accepting, there’s a difference between being accepting and [being] thought of as part of the mainstream of the synagogue.”

Regardless of what’s in store for BCC, for members like Perl, the synagogue’s value is obvious. “This temple has meant so much to me, I can’t begin to tell you in words,” she said. “It’s the place where my Jewish heart is.”

Finding their way home to Judaism: three same-sex couples share their conversion stories

“My parents were old hippies,” said Felicia Park-Rogers, who grew up in the Bay Area. “They were very suspicious of organized religion and anything else smacking of authority.”

When Park-Rogers, 35, met Rachel Timoner, her partner-to-be, in San Francisco in the early 1990s, she was thrilled to be falling in love but suspicious of her new lover’s involvement with Judaism.

Timoner was raised in a Reform community in Miami. Although the lavish bar and bat mitzvahs at her parents’ shul had turned her off, she still felt drawn to Jewish spiritual life. When she found a Renewal synagogue in San Francisco, the seed of her faith began to take root.
“And she began to drag me to holiday services,” Park-Rogers said.

The couple’s once-in-a-blue-moon joint appearances at shul evolved into a weekly return engagement at Shabbat. Then, about a decade ago, Timoner was out of town during the High Holidays, and Park-Rogers found herself with a decision to make.

“I went to Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services on my own,” Park-Rogers recalled. “After that experience, I said, ‘I have my own relationship to this.'”

Park-Rogers finished her conversion about four and a half years ago, just before she gave birth to Benjamin, her first son. She and Timoner now have a second son, Eitan, who just celebrated his first birthday.

Same-sex couples confront the same choices that are issues for most straight couples. To live together or not to live together? To marry — or at least to formalize a partnership — or not to marry? To have kids or to have a second house in Palm Springs?

Spiritual decision-making is also frequently a factor in the calculus of gay life. In fact, finding a religious tradition that affirms gay experience and offers the support of a vibrant community can be one of the most important aspects of self-realization for gay men and lesbians — especially for people who see being in a committed relationship as a natural extension of their spiritual lives.

That kind of deep introspection led Ron Paler, a 40-year-old pathologist, to convert to Judaism five years ago. Mike Loya, Paler’s partner for more than a decade, will finish his own conversion in the next couple of months.

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David Fyffe, left, and Arlan Wareham show off piece of a Katyusha rocket that landed near their Tsfat home in August.

Let There Be Yiddish

“Gut Shabbes.” Synagogue vice president Donna Groman stands at the door, warmly greeting each guest. Inside, a samovar sits on a white-clothed table alongside temptingly arranged platters of homemade kugel and apple cake for the oneg.

Tonight is a Yiddish service, Zol Zahn Shabbes — literally, we should have Shabbat — and it’s happening at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), founded in 1972 as the world’s first synagogue for lesbian and gay Jews.

It’s a meeting of two seemingly incongruous worlds — an almost extinct 1,000-year-old Eastern European language and culture and a progressive and now well-established congregation of 180 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual families. And the Pico Boulevard synagogue is expecting a big crowd.

The sanctuary begins to fill. The congregants, young and old, male and female, are respectfully but comfortably attired. Many hug or kiss as they claim their chairs. All have varying allegiances to Yiddish.

Member Rebecca Weinreich, with daughters Shoshanah, 8, and Ashira, 4, is a celebrity this evening. Her grandfather, scholar Max Weinreich, founded the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna, Poland, in 1925. Escaping from the Nazis in 1940, he re-established it in Manhattan.

“Do you speak Yiddish?” I ask Weinreich.

“Not in public. The expectations because of my name are too high,” she says.

“Shalom Aleycheim.” The lights dim as cantorial soloist Fran Magid Chalin welcomes everyone.

I peruse the 17-page booklet, which includes the evening’s program, a history of the Yiddish language and links to Yiddish resources. Even a nar (fool) could realize that this evening’s agenda is not just a kitschy visit to the alte velt (Old World).

Immediately the chorus begins singing, “O, Vee Gut un Vee Voyl Iz,” a Yiddish version of “Hiney Ma Tov.” They segue seamlessly into “Meer Viln Ale Nor Sholem,” which is “Heveynu Shalom Aleycheim.” People are clapping and singing along.

More people enter, and I count more than 100 guests.

After a break to greet one another, Chalin says, “Yiddish is the language that childproofed what parents said.”

Chalin herself studied German and, in her early 20s, sang in a Yiddish adult choir in Philadelphia. There, singing songs about the early labor movement, she felt electric, establishing a deep bond with the language. Later, after graduate school, she enrolled in a two-month Yiddish immersion class at Columbia University in New York.

“Many of us have this romantic relationship with Yiddish. It speaks to us about a time gone by,” she says. But she cautions that we can’t have a relationship if we relegate it to little pockets or little sayings.

The songs that Chalin has chosen for the choir quickly dispel any sense of romanticism. “Un Du Akerst, Un Du Zeyst” (“And You Plow and You Sow”), written in 1864 for the German Workingman’s Federation, taunts workers for how little they have to show for all their hard work. Others were written during the Shoah, giving comfort to the Jews in the same ways the Negro spirituals sustained the slaves.

Chalin introduces Lilke Majzner, Yiddishist and president of Los Angeles’ Yiddish Culture Club, founded in 1926. A native of Lodz, Poland, and a survivor of seven concentration camps, Majzner came to the United States in 1950 at age 17.

“I came without any script,” she says in a booming, confident voice. “I came to talk to you in English about Yiddish. That’s silly. That’s very silly.”

People laugh. But it’s clear that this diminutive figure, 84, professionally dressed in a beige suit and sensible shoes, isn’t here to entertain us.

She proves that further by reading a poem by Yiddish writer Malka Tussman. It begins, “You have a Jewish mouth, so speak Yiddish.” It ends, “Let there be Yiddish. That’s how I talk.”

How Majzner talks is even more emphatic: “I am shouting into your Jewish ears. Let there be Yiddish.”

And shouting she is. She educates us about the 1,000-year history of Yiddish — a history not just of words, of grammar and of curses but also of political parties, of freedom and of going on strike for Jewish and human rights.

And she exhorts us — passionately and convincingly — to take up the banner of her legacy, to learn Yiddish to make up for the 3.5 million Yiddish-speaking Jews who were murdered in the Shoah and to build a better world.

“And when you don’t feel the heaviness of the legacy, I will put some rocks in it,” she says.

She receives a standing ovation.

After services, a crowd gathers around Majzner, some speaking Yiddish.

I talk to Davi Cheng, a Chinese American Jew-by-choice. She grimaces as she describes the frustration of mastering the guttural sounds of Yiddish.

“There’s no ‘ch’ sound in Chinese,” she explains.

I also sit briefly with Chalin who tells me how, in her experience, she finds a disproportionate number of gays and lesbians studying Yiddish.

“In my classes at Columbia, we talked about how Yiddish doesn’t have a country and how often the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] community feels like a people without a country,” she says.

Chalin thinks many of those who desire to speak Yiddish fluently, like gays and lesbians, long for the notion of a secure community.

At evening’s end, as people leave, I notice the samovar is empty and the apple cake and kugel gone.

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.