Finding holy ground in Pico-Union

With the purchase of the Welsh Presbyterian Church in Central Los Angeles’ Pico-Union neighborhood, Craig Taubman said he is keeping in mind the words of a poem by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, “Thinking Ought,” which urges one to look not at what is but what could be.

That’s because the musician and producer behind programs such as Sinai Temple’s “Friday Night Live” has a long way to go in order to realize his vision of turning his new acquisition — a 15,000-square-foot building near the corner of Valencia and 12th streets that was the original home of Sinai — into a multicultural and interfaith performing arts center and house of worship.

“We’re just dreaming about what we need to do,” Taubman said.

On Dec. 17, Taubman closed escrow on the church, home of a Welsh Presbyterian community since 1926 and where Sinai was located from 1909 to 1925. In 1977, the city declared the building a Los Angeles historical-cultural monument.

While Taubman declined to state how much he paid for the property, the price was “much lower” than its appraised value of  $780,000, according to Frank Williams, an elder at Welsh Presbyterian and chairman of the church’s board of trustees.

“We gave it at a good deal because we wanted it to go back to the Jewish people, because it’s part of their history,” he said.

Despite serving as a church for more than 80 years, the building’s Jewish elements remain: Stars of David appear in stained-glass windows, the ceiling medallion and tile work at the building’s entrance. The inscription “5669,” the Hebrew calendar’s equivalent to 1909 — the year the building was constructed — appears faintly in a cornerstone at the bottom of the building’s exterior.

Taubman has multifaceted plans for the two-story building, including partnering with multiple nonprofit arts organizations for programming.

One of his biggest plans, a project that he calls “Holy Ground,” is to work with Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), which provides culinary arts education and employment to underserved youth. It would transform a space the church used as a social hall into a training kitchen for C-CAP students and a cafe staffed by graduates.

Taubman called it “perhaps the most important project we can do. If you get people to eat together, you can get them to pretty much do anything together.”

Other organizations might use the building as a laboratory theater space for professional actors; a place where the Advot Project, a nonprofit using theater to promote social justice, can engage the neighborhood’s youth; and where dance companies such as BODYTRAFFIC and Keshet Chaim might teach classes and hold performances.

The new name for the entire building, which is within walking distance of Staples Center and L.A. Live, is “Pico Union,” Taubman said.

The purchase represents a milestone for Taubman. His career began in writing commercial jingles. Later, he signed with Disney and wrote music for kids, and for the past 15 years, he has created events for the Jewish community, working primarily at Sinai Temple, where he performs at the monthly Friday Night Live service, one of L.A.’s most popular Shabbat services, which he created with Rabbi David Wolpe.

Via his independent label and production company, Craig ’N Co., Taubman also has put on interfaith concerts such as Faith Jam and Let My People Sing and runs Big Jewish Tent, which facilitates large-scale recreational community events.

To pull off his long-term plans at 1153 Valencia St., Taubman will have to kick-start major fundraising efforts. For now, though, he is more concerned with more nuts-and-bolts work, including meeting Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines.

Two church congregations, one Hispanic and one Korean, will continue to rent space for weekly services. Plus, Taubman’s agreement allows for the Welsh community to hold infrequent events there for the next two years. Taubman said that two Jewish congregations are interested in holding Shabbat services there, too, but he declined to name them.

Other possibilities abound, such as working with the Islamic Center of Southern California, Christ Our Redeemer AME Church and NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change on interfaith programs, Taubman said.

The first official event under the musician’s ownership will be March 17, when the site hosts an interfaith Passover seder.

A TED conference-style event will take place in May, examining how to keep faith communities alive in an environment when they’re dying, Taubman said.

He said he has raised more than $250,000 for deferred maintenance improvements, transforming the parking lot into a more sustainable space that has fruit trees and making the church’s pews portable so they can be reconfigured. So far, support has come from private money, he said, but he hopes that some foundation grants will come through soon.

Taubman also hopes to create an urban park for children on 12th Street, but that would require permission from the city because it is a historical-cultural monument and significant exterior changes are not permitted.  

Fundraising is taking place under the fiscal sponsorship of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Taubman said he hopes to convene a diverse board of directors by April. Yechiel Hoffman, former executive director of LimmudLA, will be working with Taubman on the vision and mission for the building.  

The site is the oldest remaining synagogue building in Los Angeles. Before it was built, there were two area congregations — Congregation B’nai B’rith and Congregation Beth Israel, both of which were located in the downtown area. 

B’nai B’rith was progressive (today, it would be considered Reform), and Beth Israel was traditional (Orthodox). Meanwhile, a group of Jews wanted something in between, where men and women could sit together but pray in Hebrew. So, in 1906, they formed what became Sinai Congregation, Southern California’s first Conservative congregation (then known as “Rabbinic Judaism”). 

For three years, Sinai met in different locations around Los Angeles before raising enough money to commission S. Tilden Norton to build a synagogue. The year was 1909, and Norton — an accomplished architect and the son of Bertha Greenbaum Norton, thought to be the first Jewish woman born in Los Angeles — was up to the task. 

Norton’s Greek revival structure, brick with white columns at the entrance, cost $30,000. Sinai’s dedication ceremony took place in September 1909 under the leadership of Rabbi Isadore Myers, father of Carmel Myers, the famed silent-film actress. 

Challenging tradition, the congregation decided to install an organ shortly after moving into the building. It was created by Murray M. Harris, who built the world’s largest organ for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Considered one of the finest organs in California, the instrument with more than 700 pipes remains in the building, playable. Taubman plans to maintain it.

Sinai stayed in the building until 1925, when, like its congregants, it moved west, into a building in the Wilshire district. In 1960, Sinai held its first service at a location in Westwood — where it remains today. One of the largest Conservative synagogues in the country, Sinai Temple counts 1,950 families as members. 

As for the Welsh community, it was outgrowing its own downtown location in 1925 when it paid Sinai $50,000 for the Pico-Union site. Membership began to decline in the ’80s and ’90s, however, as congregants left the area for the suburbs. Still, it took on a three-year, $250,000 seismic retrofit of the building in 1988, according to Gwyn Phillips, a church elder.

With Sunday service attendance closer to 10 people in more recent times, church leaders considered selling, and they immediately thought of the historical society, which has stopped at the site for years. Stephen Sass, president of the historical society, eventually contacted Taubman, knowing of his connection to Sinai, where Taubman became a bar mitzvah.

Taubman told Sass he was interested but didn’t think he could afford it. To which the other man replied, according to Taubman, “I don’t think you can afford not to afford it.”

Brief negotiations followed and, by July 2012, the church and Taubman had an agreement, making him the building’s third owner in its 103-year-history.

On Dec. 16, the Welsh congregation gathered at the building for its final service. It was also the last day of Chanukah. More than 100 churchgoers filled the building’s pews, singing along with organ-accompanied hymns in between farewell addresses by the church leadership and stories told by congregants.

“We’ve had a tremendous asset in this building,” said the Rev. Peggy McDowell-Cramer, speaking from the pulpit. Then turning to Taubman and Sass, who sat in the front row, she said, “As we pass this building [on to you] … may there be peace within your walls. That’s what we wish for you here.”

Revitalizing Our Past and Future in Pico-Union

Among these earlier settlers were many Jewish families, who, notinterested in joining the growing ersatz shtetl up in Boyle Heights,built their graceful homes in the tony new district.

“That area was for the more affluent families — it wasn’tworking-class like Boyle Heights,” says Steve Sass, president of theSouthern California Jewish Historical Society. “It was the place forthe acculturated and upwardly mobile.”

Among those attracted to the area were Asher and Hanna Hamburger,who owned the city’s first department store — the Hamburger People’sStore, along 8th and Broadway — and the Morris Cohen family, thecity’s first garment makers and whose descendants later founded theveritable fountainhead of the California sportswear industry, Cole ofCalifornia. The district also saw, in 1909, the construction of theoriginal Sinai Temple, Los Angeles’ first conservative synagogue,and, in 1928, Kolting House, the Hamburger family-financed home forJewish “working girls.”

Today, few Jews live in this area, now widely known as Pico-Union.Most of the residents are Latino working-class families, many fromCentral America. Many of the old homes and buildings still exist, butlargely because economic progress and investment long ago passed bythis district. The synagogue is now a Presbyterian church, and theold Hamburger Home still services poor people, but under non-Jewishauspices.

Although the Jewish residents and places of worship havedisappeared, Jews remain involved, both directly and indirectly, inthe economic life of the struggling district. Many Pico-Unionresidents work in Jewish-owned garment factories either in theimmediate area or nearby in the fashion district. And, of course,Langer’s, the landmark delicatessen, still serves up the traditionalspecialties from its location on Alvarado and 7th.

But the Jewish involvement extends far beyond borscht andshmattes. After seeing many of their friends die in the 1973Yom Kippur War, two Israelis, Jerry and Ron Azarkman, left thePromised Land for the arguably safer climes of Southern California.Not knowing much about Los Angeles, they started selling electronicsgadgets — the business they had done back in Israel — door to doorin Pico-Union.

“I didn’t know English or Spanish,” says Jerry, from his officesat the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Union Avenue. “But I felt verycomfortable with Spanish-[speaking] people because they wereimmigrants too. They were welcoming and warm.”

Being from the “Holy Land,” he says, was a big help with many ofPico-Union’s devoutly Christian residents. Slowly, the Azarkmansbuilt a major retail operation, offering credit — much like some ofthe earliest 19th-century Jewish Los Angeles merchants — to theLatino customers, who often could not get any from mainstreambusinesses. By the early 1990s, their company, La Curacao, had becomeamong the largest retailers in the district.

Not that it was easy. In the 1992 riots, which devastated much ofPico-Union, La Curacao burned to the ground, along with millions ofdollars in merchandise. The Azarkmans considered pulling out, butthey decided to rebuild. “One thing that swayed us,” Jerry Azarkmansays, “is that we couldn’t leave our employees.”

So instead of retreating, the Israeli businessmen advanced,eventually purchasing the two office towers on Olympic (they have alarge La Curacao showroom on the bottom floor) and opening a secondfacility in heavily Hispanic Panorama City. Today, the two storesdraw more than 100,000 credit-card-carrying customers. They now enjoysome of the highest per-square-foot sales in Southern California.

But the Azarkmans’ dreams for Pico-Union extend beyond La Curacao.With their Olympic towers as their base, they dream of turning thearea into something of a “Little Central America,” much along thelines of the adjacent and sprawling Koreatown. In this effort, theyhave enlisted many Central American consulates, lawyers and businessgroups, including the El Salvador Chamber of Commerce.

Gena Levy, longtime president of the El Salvador Chamber, saysthat there are several Jewish businesspeople in her group. For onething, she reminds us that, in the years before the Holocaust, ElSalvador accepted upward of 35,000 European Jews, saving them fromthe concentration camps. In the ensuing generations, many of theserefugees became prominent Salvadorans in commerce, the professionsand the arts. But with the turmoil that struck El Salvador in the1970s and 1980s, some of these Jews migrated again — this time, toLos Angeles.

Today, these merchants, along with the Azarkmans and Jewishgarment manufacturers , are playing an important role in turningaround Pico-Union. Signs of progress may be rarely noted in thepress, but local business people recognize them — less graffiti,improved homes, new markets and shops.

Jews throughout Southern California, notes Sass, should realizethat they, too, have a “stake-holder interest” in the revitalizationof a district so intertwined with both our own past and our city’sfuture.

Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin Fellow at the PepperdineInstitute for Public Policy.

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