Koreatown residents visit the synagogue next door
When Charles Kim called Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple last year, it didn’t take long for the Korean American leader to get to the point.
“He was wondering if the temple was for sale,” said Stein, head of the synagogue’s Center for Religious Inquiry. “I can’t sell you the temple, I replied, but I hope I can sell you on a relationship.”
A series of discussions about how to bring the Korean and Jewish communities together followed. After Stein accepted an invitation to address a Koreatown Rotary Club meeting in December, he invited the Korean American community to the Byzantine-style synagogue on Feb. 27.
During an evening open house reception at Wilshire Boulevard Temple that featured desserts such as sticky sweet rice cakes and hamantaschen, Korean Americans and Jews gathered to dialogue about mutual understanding and to discuss conditions in the formerly Jewish Wilshire Center district, which is now home to the largest Korean population outside of Seoul.
While the Jewish and predominantly Korean communities have had dialogues before, this intercultural initiative marks the first time the Wilshire Center synagogue has opened its doors to the surrounding Korean community, which is predominantly Christian. About 80 people attended the event, which included Korean business and educational leaders as well as synagogue clergy, staff and congregants.
“It took us 34 years to get here,” said Kim, national president of the Korean American Coalition. “Thank you for making us feel at home. Shalom.”
A major topic of discussion between the Jewish and Korean communities was the shared use of the building’s facilities, which already house a predominantly Hispanic charter school during the day. Proposed joint ventures include introductory Judaism courses taught in Korean, a brown-bag lunch lecture series, and educational trips to Israel and Korea.
But a more daunting, shared problem facing the area is gang activity, Stein said. Among the 11 most dangerous L.A. gangs recently identified by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one is active in Koreatown.
“That’s our neighborhood,” said Stein, gesturing to the entire room. “We all have to work on that.”
Kim echoed Stein’s enthusiasm for cooperation between the ethnically, religiously and culturally distinct communities.
“Up until now, we have been like many islands, instead of one community,” said Kim, who traveled to Israel in 1987 as part of an Asian goodwill delegation.
This is not the first attempt at Korean-Jewish togetherness. A decade ago the American Jewish Committee launched a project to bring local Korean and Jewish business and political leaders together, and in 2005 the Simon Wiesenthal Center and The Jewish Federation held a “Talking Tolerance” discussion with Koreans and Jews. In the heart of Koreatown, the Rev. Yong-Soo Hyun runs the Shema Educational Institute, which promotes the study of Hebrew and Jewish culture.
Wilshire Boulevard Temple hopes to become an ongoing and significant partner in the life of the neighborhood.
The corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Hobart Street was once known as “the Jewish address” in Los Angeles, according to the synagogue’s literature. Originally dedicated in 1929, the building is actually the third inhabited by Los Angeles’ oldest synagogue community, founded as Congregation B’nai B’rith in 1862. After much of the Jewish population shifted West, Wilshire Boulevard Temple built the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus on the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Barrington Avenue in the mid-1990s.
The synagogue recently commissioned a demographic survey to determine how many Jewish families live in the surrounding mid-Wilshire area, and officials were surprised to discover a near 30 percent increase in Jewish residents within a 20-minute drive of the Koreatown campus.
“We are deeply committed to this neighborhood and plan to be here for hundreds of years to come,” Senior Rabbi Steven Z. Leder said.
Following the reception, guests were led on an hour-long tour of the synagogue, which features biblical murals by artist Hugo Ballin and a 100-foot dome in the Edgar F. Magnin Sanctuary.
“It is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” Kim said of the sanctuary.
When Stein told the story of a synagogue’s Torah scroll being rescued from a barn in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust, the Korean guests were awed.
“Wow,” said Jun Su, executive director of the Korean Institute of Southern California, an educational organization. “A miracle.”
Stein nodded and smiled.
A spirit of hope and optimism surrounding a new friendship dominated the event, but there was one point of dispute between the Jews and Koreans. During the press conference, Kim strode up to the podium after Stein and said in a very solemn tone, “I have one correction to make.”
Kim looked to Stein and joked, “I never asked Stephen to sell me the temple. I asked him to give it to me.”
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Chabad Expands in Vegas
Across the parking lot of the neighborhood pub/casino in the Summerlin suburb of Las Vegas, Jewish residents, community leaders, local officials and passersby stood in the 110-degree heat recently to watch the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a new Chabad shul.
The imposing $4.5 million structure, built from Jerusalem stone, stands at the corner of an outdoor shopping mall, not far from a day spa, French bistro, lakefront clubhouse and residential communities that boast one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in the United States.
The new shul is a testament to the Jewish community’s growth in the area, which already houses another equally large Chabad campus close to the Las Vegas Strip.
Chabad of Summerlin, located about 12 miles northwest of the Strip, first made its appearance in the community about 10 years ago, when it held Shabbat and holiday services in a storefront. The number of congregants grew over the years, until some people had no choice but to pray standing in the aisles.Rabbi Yisroel Schanowitz, the shul’s rabbi, hopes that the new Chabad of Summerlin will “continue the growth of the Las Vegas Jewish community and also build strong youth activities.”
Chabad recently hired a couple from New York to assist with youth programming to make the shul experience in Las Vegas more holistic and diverse. They now have the facilities to do so: classrooms, offices, social hall, kitchen and a mikvah.The woman’s balcony of the new shul overlooks the spacious sanctuary and the delicate woodwork of the ark of the Torah.
At the opening, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada) addressed the crowd, sharing her positive experiences with Chabad and praising it for its contributions to Las Vegas.
While Jewish tourists are more likely to use the Chabad campus near the Strip for services, Schanowitz believes that Chabad of Summerlin is more likely to draw visitors seeking to make their home in Vegas.
“There has been interest from people in Los Angeles to relocate here,” he said. “When they find out there is an active Chabad center, it helps their decision to move.”
For more information, visit www.chabadofsummerlin.com.
— Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer
Oy! What A Ringtone!
A company is bringing Yiddish humor to the masses with new ringtones. MyNuMo, a California-based company that enables users to publish mobile content and sell it, announced this month that it will provide “yentatones,” Yiddish and Jewish humor ringtones voiced by San Diego actress Martha Kahn.
— Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Support Pledged on Marking Historic Ruling
May 17 will mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education that outlawed separate educational facilities as inherently unequal.
Less well-known is Orange County’s role in establishing that historic precedent. In 1947, a group of parents led by Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez of Westminster fought to end California’s segregation of its Latino school children. Their suit came to the attention of the state’s governor at the time, Earl Warren, who went on to hear the Brown case as chief justice of the nation’s highest court.
"This is an opportunity for us to join with the fastest-growing community in Orange County," said Marc Dworkin, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s local chapter. "We are natural allies over civil liberties," said Dworkin, who recently met with Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana). He pledged the Jewish community’s support for a pending congressional resolution to give national recognition to the Mendez family’s role in history.
Dworkin had company. He enlisted support from Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Chelle Friedman, staff to the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council, to champion Jewish issues in a collaborative approach. "This way we can have a more coordinated effort," Dworkin said. "It strengthens everyone to go in together."
Cultivating Latino-Jewish relations is a priority for Dworkin. Last month, he helped convene a two-day regional summit between Latino and Jewish leaders in Arizona and San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties. He has also asked the O.C. Human Relations Commission to help start an ongoing Latino-Jewish dialogue this spring among leaders, similar to the diverse "living room" discussions started after Sept. 11.