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.”

Multifaith concert to express ‘Unity’

Craig Taubman, the singer/composer/maestro known for bringing large-scale cultural events to synagogues and other venues across town, is hoping for an audience of 2,000 for his upcoming interfaith concert at Sinai Temple on Nov. 15.

Billed as a “multifaith celebration of Israel,” this second “Unity in Concert” features an array of artists from various cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds performing songs, dance, music and poetry. The aim is to transcend differences through art, Taubman says. “Inspiration is not limited to any one religion, any ethnicity or race, or any one age bracket,” he said. 

The lineup includes platinum-selling Israeli musician David Broza; Israeli-Arab singer and actress Mira Awad; Neshama Carlebach, daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach; Ethiopian-Israeli singer Aviva Desse; Christian gospel singer Ericson Alexander Molano and others. All proceeds will benefit Ariela U.S., which advocates for Israeli youth of Ethiopian origin. Tickets are $10-$36.

Additional speakers, community leaders and performers are slated to appear, including actor-comedian Larry Miller, Sinai Temple Rabbis David Wolpe and Nicole Guzik, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel, African-American civil rights leader the Rev. Cecil Murray and, of course, Taubman.

The Sinai Temple Israel Center, an Israel-awareness program and resource center, is presenting and funding the event produced by Craig N’ Co, Taubman’s independent label/production company. 

The inaugural “Unity” concert was held in 2010 and coincided with Israel’s Independence Day. Although this time the concert falls later in the year, Guzik emphasized a strong connection to Israel, saying it shows the power of “unity between religions and ethnicities, but the core foundation of the concert, and that was same mission two years ago, is unified support for Israel.”

Prior to 2010, the event had several names, including “Let My People Sing” and “Faith Jam.” The events date back as much as 10 years and have been held in churches, synagogues and even once at an Islamic cultural center. Sinai Temple became an exclusive partner in 2010, rebranding the event as a “Unity” concert.

This year’s concert theme, around which the evening will be structured, is “alone we are strong, together we are stronger,” Taubman said. Instead of a headliner who plays longest, each artist will perform two songs, and, for at least one of them, is required to collaborate with another artist from another walk of life.

Mira Awad

Broza will perform one song with BODYTRAFFIC, a Los Angeles-based contemporary dance company. Co-founded by Tina Finkelman Berkett, a congregant at Sinai, the dance company helped launch this year’s season of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall last September.

Broza and Awad will perform together, as well. The daughter of an Arab physician father and a Bulgarian mother, Awad, who is an Israeli citizen, garnered international attention — both positive and negative — when she and Israeli-Jewish singer Noa performed as a duo representing Israel at the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest.

Additionally, Neshama Carlebach, a star in the world of Jewish music, will perform with the choir of Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal (COR-AME). Murray, the John R. Tansey chair of Christian Ethics in the School of Religion at the University of Southern California and his protégée, the Rev. Mark Whitlock of COR-AME, also will appear, offering words of inspiration.

Another collaboration will bring together the special-needs children’s choir from Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services and the gospel LIFE Choir, which has performed with such greats as Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and others.  

The event demonstrates the ongoing collaboration between Taubman and Wolpe. Together they created Friday Night Live, a monthly musical Shabbat service at Sinai that has been drawing large crowds for more than 14 years. 

Taubman’s experimentation with the “Unity” concert, of bringing together Jewish and Muslim voices, caused a minor backlash following the 2010 concert, when a performer’s chanting of “Allahu Akbar” upset some attendees. The performer chanted in Arabic, alongside a cantor chanting in Hebrew and a Christian woman chanting a psalm.

Soon after the concert, one of the attendees wrote a letter saying that he was offended by the Arabic chant and that it did not belong in a celebration of Israel. The letter found its way onto the Web site of a blogger in the Pico-Robertson Jewish community and circulated via e-mail.

Taubman, who scripted the chant into the 2010 performance, has cut “Allahu Akbar” from this year’s program, out of sensitivity to the feelings of as many people as possible, he said.

Controversy aside, approximately 1,000 tickets had been sold to this year’s concert as of Nov. 2. 

As a way to encourage attendance by a multifaith audience, Taubman has given away approximately 150 tickets to leaders of different faith communities, including Whitlock, who is bringing people from his church, Irvine’s COR-AME. The First African Methodist Episcopal Church and Latino artist Molano will also be bringing people to join the crowd.

In order to raise funds, Ariela U.S. is selling VIP tickets to its benefactors at a higher cost. Additionally, community organizations and synagogues can purchase higher-cost tickets, which buys them a table at the event to promote their programs, and two tickets.

Taubman said interfaith events show how far the Jewish community has come, recalling how, approximately 10 years ago, it was radical for a Conservative synagogue to come together with an Orthodox synagogue. This “is the next step,” he said.

“Not that we all have to be the same,” he added. “I don’t expect Orthodox to become liberal or a liberal Reform Jew to become Conservative — that’s not the agenda. But I do see the value of collaborating and coming together and sharing what it is we all have in common.”

“Unity in Concert” takes place at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles on Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m. For more information about the event, visit or call (818) 760-1077.

L.A.’s birthday party for Israel

Loving Israel is a given. Celebrating Israel is easy. Talking about Israel is not. And these three themes deftly wove their way through the festivities marking the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary.

Certainly no one expected — or even wanted — serious dialogue impinging on the party scene, but celebrating Israel’s existence without sincere reflection seemed almost pointless.

Credit should be paid to Craig Taubman, the central force behind “Let My People Sing 60-4-60,” a collaborative project that programmed a 60-hour, start-to-finish franchise designed for L.A. Jews to celebrate Israel’s six decades as a Jewish state.

Well advertised, well funded and well attended, “Let My People Sing” meant one of the world’s largest Diaspora communities (including a significant Israeli population) could party like they lived in the Holy Land. With offerings for every age and interest, from the inventive Alternative Israel Expo put on by the Professional Leaders Project to the epic love prose posted on “60 Bloggers for Israel” to the megaconcert culmination at the Kodak Theatre, “60-4-60” demonstrated its attunement to a powerfully pro-Israel community.

Here’s the roundup:

Crushed into the pews of Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church, FaithJam for Israel flexed its interfaith musical muscle when Sukhawat Ali Khan played Middle Eastern Sufi melodies in the same lineup as the COR A.M.E. gospel choir. Although the concert was less “jammy” and more mellow, the drumbeats of Yuval Ron, the vivacious vocals of Alberto Mizrahi and the folksy crooning of Michelle Citrin amounted to a varied, if not slightly mismatched, musical arrangement. A fresh tune from Taubman stood out as a treat, the sweetly tender song providing background music for the passionate choreography of the new modern dance troupe, Body Traffic.

Spirited dancing continued the following night at Friday Night Live, as a circus of people swirled about Sinai Temple.

If success was measured in numbers, Friday Night Live was rich with accomplishment at its grand ode to Israel, but the magnitude of attendance amounted to a melee. Luckily, the ATID after-lounge saved the day when sizzling Israeli superstars HaDag Nachash rocked their reggae-tinged, leftist hip-hop until the wee hours.

Less than 24 hours later, Israel’s fleet of megatalented musicians spilled onto the stage of the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland, site to some of the biggest bashes in the entertainment biz — from the Academy Awards to “American Idol” — yet the spectacular setting and near-perfect acoustics did little to emotionally energize a packed house. Even the high-caliber performances seemed underappreciated among an eerily apathetic and predominantly Israeli crowd.

Beginning with the compulsory praise of the country, Consul General Jacob Dayan, obviously tired from multiple engagements that week, failed to excite the crowd with what was likely his thousandth speech about Israel that week. Even Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, a remarkable orator, seemed tame as he introduced Kirk Douglas, whose sweet remarks about Israel elicited more an applause of gratitude than an eruption of feeling.

The Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble opened the performance segment of the evening with a dramatic biblical narrative, “Shuva Israel,” which set the tone for an intense journey into Jewish nationalism. Then Idan Raichel writhed to his own rhythms, gyrating atop the piano bench while his leading vocalists crooned with soul, power and depth. HaBanot Nechama, an all-female trio clad in hippie clothes and wild hair, belted folksy ballads in three-part harmony — a triumph of earthy, natural and glam-free girl power.

The sexy songstress Noa, or Achinoam Nini as she is known is Israel, tried to spice things up with her sultry singing voice, quivering hips and a sheer black shell that showcased her chiseled Israeli abs. She addressed the audience once, channeling John Lennon’s ghost, crooning “love, love, love,” before Rami Kleinstein played piano man, singing his famously beautiful love ballads.

Since celebrity spirit was in the air, Kleinstein unleashed his inner-Roberto Benigni, running through the aisles, standing on top of seats and balcony ledges, snapping photos with fans and bringing the crowd to their feet.