From Bar Mitzvah to Yahrzeit, Breed Street Shul comes full circle

Milton “Muttie” Siegel celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1937 at the Breed Street Shul, the largest synagogue in Boyle Heights. Last month, Siegel’s family marked his yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death, at the same shul, which has recently been partially refurbished as a multiuse space for both the Jewish community and the Latino community that now lives in Boyle Heights.

Jerry Siegel, Milton’s son, gathered a minyan of 10 family members and friends, including his father’s infant great-grandson, to mark the yahrzeit, and he hopes to kick off a new tradition among descendants of those who lived in Boyle Heights, the center of The Los Angeles Jewish community from the 1920s to the 1950s.

“My father would be 87 if he were alive today. The idea that we were able to observe his yahrzeit in the temple he was bar mitzvahed in was a special feeling. It was very, very moving,” Siegel said. Milton Siegel died in 1988.

Among those in attendance last month was Jake Farber, a past chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who grew up in Boyle Heights and attended Siegel’s bar mitzvah.

Siegel rented out the small chapel building at the back of the property, and brought in his own prayer books and refreshments. In the last year, the pews, central pulpit and memorial plaques have been cleared out of the 3,700-square-foot wood-frame bungalow that was the original home of Congregation Talmud Torah when it moved from downtown in 1915. But the wooden Torah ark and richly hewed mural at the front of the room leave little doubt as to its original use. The building also has a small kitchen and some classrooms.

Siegel hopes the yahrzeit minyans can also serve as a fundraising tool for the Breed Street Shul Project, the organization that operates the space and is working to restore the main building. The 18,000-square-foot Byzantine revival structure was condemned after its unreinforced masonry was badly damaged in the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake.  Vandals and pigeons further sullied the building in its years of disuse.

This week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon visited the Breed Street Shul, which was declared a Los Angeles historical and cultural monument in 1988.

Temple Israel of Hollywood religious school students and their families gathered at the refurbished Breed Street Shul for their “LA is Our Classroom” alternative learning day.

Organizers envision the space as a bridge between the Latino and Jewish communities. In the last year, NFTY, the Reform youth group, held a program with Boyle Heights teens. New Community Jewish High School and the Mendez Learning Center, a charter high school in Boyle Heights, held a joint community service project where they planted bougainvillea on a walkway outside the shul. Eleventh-graders from Mendez have trained as docents to give tours of the Breed Street Shul.

An after-school music program operates out of the building, and Jewish Free Loan Association sees neighborhood clients there once a month.

Siegel raised close to $1,000 at his father’s yahrzeit minyan, and he hopes others will do the same. He also envisions building a memorial garden, where descendants of the Boyle Heights community members could purchase plaques on a tile wall.

Siegel himself manufactures yahrzeit plaques, through his company, Yahrzeitronix.

Before getting into the yahrzeit business, Siegel was an industrial liquidator, a business he inherited form his father. The family lived in Boyle Heights until the 1940s, when they moved west to the Fairfax area and then to Ladera Heights. Jerry Siegel’s mother, Doris Siegel, was the first female president of Sinai Temple. Milton was active at Sinai Temple and at Camp Ramah California.

The Breed Street Shul is holding its annual fundraiser June 24 at the shul. Honorees are Robert Chattel, a preservation architect who volunteered to oversee restoration of the 1915 building, and Lucy Delgado, a community advocate and founder of Mothers of East Los Angeles, who died on April 11.

For information, call (818) 416-2253, or visit

Yom HaShoah 2012 events calendar


The Museum of Tolerance screens award-winning Holocaust documentaries from its film division, Moriah Films, over the course of 10 days. Tonight features the 1982 Oscar winner for best documentary feature, “Genocide.” The series continues with “The Long Way Home” (April 16), “Liberation” (April 17), “Unlikely Heroes” (April 18), “Against the Tide” (April 19), “Echoes That Remain” (April 20), “I Have Never Forgotten You” (April 23) and “Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny” (April 24). Sun. Through April 24. 2:30 p.m. Free. Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Plaza, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2498.


The Holocaust survivor discusses his life in Poland, his experiences in Treblinka and Dachau, and his life in the United States after the war. Mon. 12:30-1:45 p.m. Free. CSUN Hillel, 17729 Plummer St., Northridge. (818) 886-5101.

Bauer, a pre-eminent Holocaust scholar and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute’s scholar-in-residence, will discuss the topics of genocide and the Holocaust during the institute’s inaugural Yom HaShoah lecture. Mon. 6-7:30 p.m. Free. University of Southern California, Taper Hall of Humanities, Room 101, 3551 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles. (213) 740-2950.


An approximately one-mile march commemorates Yom HaShoah, beginning outside of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and ending at Beth Jacob Congregation. A discussion follows with Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University. Wed. 6:45 p.m. (memorial march), 7:30 p.m. (memorial program). Simon Wiesenthal Center, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles (march meeting place).  Beth Jacob Congregation, 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills (memorial program). (310) 278-1911.

Join Rabbis Adam Kligfeld and Susan Leider, Cantor Magda Fishman and children from the Temple Beth Am community as they honor and remember children who perished in the Shoah. Stay for a screening of “Weapons of the Spirit,” a documentary that tells the story of a village in Nazi-occupied France, where 5,000 Jews were sheltered by 5,000 Christians, Wed. 7 p.m. Free. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353.

Rabbi Alicia Magal, spiritual leader for the Jewish community of Sedona and the Verde Valley in Arizona, returns to Temple Emanuel, where she served as program director from 1992 to 1998. Magal discusses the experiences of her mother, Nika Kohn Flessig, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, whose wartime experience she pieced together in the book “From Miracle to Miracle: A Story of Survival.” Wed. 7-9 p.m. Free. Temple Emanuel, Bess P. Maltz Center, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-3737.

The Catholic priest set out to find the truth behind millions of undocumented Jewish victims of the Holocaust in his book, “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews,” and he lectures about his findings today at Sinai Temple. Wed. 7:30 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518.


Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries and Café Europa, a Holocaust survivor group supported by Jewish Family Service, lead today’s commemoration event at its Hollywood Hills location. Sinai Temple’s Cantor Joseph Gole leads prayer and song during a service that features presentations by nine Café Europa members—survivors and members of the second generation –Sinai Akiba Academy and the Israeli Scouts as well as a candle lighting in memory of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Thu. 10 a.m.-noon. Free. Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries, Zarkheim Memorial, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angele. (866) 717-4624.

Poet Maya Angelou narrates this documentary directed by Hilary Helstein, which highlights Holocaust victims’ resistance through art. Thu. 7:30 p.m. (film screening). Free. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.

This docudrama about a rescue operation waged by Sir Nicholas Winton — the “British Schindler” — features interviews with the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel. A Q-and-A with filmmaker Matej Minac and Holocaust survivor Dave Lux, who was rescued by Winton, follows. Additionally, the Jewish Community Children’s Choir performs under the direction of Michelle Green Willner and Cantor Natan Baram. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2505.


Join Rabbi David Baron and the Beverly Hills congregation for a special Shabbat service that commemorates Yom HaShoah. Fri. 8 p.m. Free. Temple of the Arts, The Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 658-9100.

A traumatic wartime encounter inspires a man later in director Keegan Wilcox’s film, which highlights Beth Shir Shalom’s Yom HaShoah service. Cellist Lynn Harrell and John Dixon, who composed the film’s score, perform an original piece written in collaboration with Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels. Wilcox, guest speakers and Holocaust survivors reflect on the Shoah. Refreshments served. Fri. 7 p.m. Free. Beth Shir Shalom, 1827 California Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361.


Events will take place inside and outside of the museum and in Pan Pacific Amphitheater all day long. At 9:30 a.m., join an intergenerational walk with Holocaust survivors that turns Pan Pacific Park into a timeline, with survivors walking along a path pre-arranged with “Memory Markers”; at 10 a.m., children’s art activities begin and continue throughout the day; at 10:30 a.m., dancer Alexandra Shilling performs in the amphitheater and a survivor leads a talk inside the museum; at 11:30 a.m., the Third Wheel Musical Group performs in the amphitheater; at 12:30 p.m., opera singer Julia Adolphe performs; at 1 p.m., a survivor talk takes place in the museum, while Michelle Willner Choir performs in the amphitheater; at 2 p.m., a commemoration features keynote speaker Yehuda Bauer, a professor of Holocaust studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a performance by Theodore Bikel take place outside in the amphitheater; and at 4 p.m., singer Emiliano Preciado performs. Sun. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 100 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 651-3704.


Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of “Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity” and “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,” appears in person. Mon. Noon-1 p.m. Free. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Harvey Morse Auditorium, 8700 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. RSVP to (323) 866-6896.

Fariborz Mokhtari discusses the life of Abdol Hossein Mokhtar, who saved the lives of many Jews during the Holocaust, during a presentation on his book, “In the Lion Shadow.” Mon. 6:30 p.m. Free. Nessah Synagogue, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (818) 908-0808.

Claudio Sobral’s documentary focused on the descendants of Nazis, who confront their family’s past and communicate their most profound feelings of guilt by inheritance. A post-screening Q-and-A features Sobral, Bernd Wollschlaeger, son of a Nazi take commander, and (via Skype) Samson Munn, founder of the Austrian Encounter, which arranges meetings between descendants of Nazi perpetrators and Holocaust victims. Mon. 7:30 p.m. $10 (MOT members, students, seniors), $12 (general). Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2505.

Rabbi Heschel at 100 — still the voice of God

I had a life-changing experience on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 25th yahrzeit in 1997. After just meeting and befriending Heschel’s daughter and only child, Susannah,
she took me with her to all of the various memorial services happening around New York City in her father’s memory.

I went into the Heschel home and met his relatives — great rebbes and leaders of various Orthodox sects, who, regardless of the fact that their famous family member left Orthodoxy, came to pay their respects and honor his memory.

There was an intense Ma’ariv service at the Heschel School, one in which Susannah taught a Mishnah, a selection of oral law, in honor of her father, using the chanting and pronunciation of another world, another time. The experience swept me back into Eastern Europe, to the Polish village where Heschel came from, to the beit midrash, the study hall, where he emerged as the talmudic and biblical genius he was to become.

I had never felt such depth of prayer, such fervor of learning text, such intensity of emotion; Abraham Joshua Heschel’s spirit was alive in that room.

This past week was Heschel’s yahrzeit, which falls during Parshat Shemot, the beginning of slavery and our fight against Pharaoh, which is also when we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. How appropriate!

Heschel spent the end of his life fighting against injustice, screaming out against the Pharaohs of his day, using his prophetic understanding to try and end the Vietnam War, speak out against poverty and, of course, famously walking with and befriending Dr. King in his fight against racism and for civil rights. From the life of Jacob, the God-wrestler, to the battle against injustice, from Vayechi to Shemot, these are the mountaintops from which Heschel lived his life, combining love of Torah and God with a need for prophetic screaming against the injustices of our world.

Heschel taught that God, Torah, Judaism and one’s whole being are fully interconnected. There is no break among any of these moments in our lives. When we pray, we must give our whole selves over to the experience of connecting with God, the Divine. As Heschel wrote in “Between God and Man”: “One who goes to pray is not intent upon enhancing his storehouse of knowledge; he who performs a ritual does not expect to advance his interests. Sacred deeds are designed to make living compatible with our sense of the ineffable.”

Mitzvot lead us to this kind of life, even as we exist in the secular and material world. We must cultivate an inner sense of connection with the Divine so as to carry it forth in all moments of our lives. This takes work, patience, consistency and inner courage. Every moment with every falling leaf, every passing car, with every unseen sound, with every unseen breath, these are the moments of eternity, holy of holies. If only we can come awake to these moments, then Heschel will live in all of us.

Pathos for God, feeling the pain, sharing the joy, having a relationship — that is what Heschel lived with. There is nothing higher, nothing holier, than community connected in rich and meaningful prayer. It is never a performance, a show for the congregation to watch. It is an experience to partake in and fully contribute to.

Without all of us in it together, the experience is not complete. As Heschel wrote in “Man’s Quest for God”: “The act of prayer is more than a process of the mind and a movement of the lips…. What marks the act of prayer is the decision to enter and face the presence of God. To pray means to expose oneself to God.”

In today’s Jewish experience, we need to recapture the sense of awe and wonder that Heschel professed so often. Prayer must regain its sense of meaning for it to have value for us today. Life must be lived with a sense of the ineffable, which Heschel meant as seeing the great amazement of just being alive.

How many of us wake up each morning and give thanks for the new day? How many of us see the pain of the world around us and call out for justice? How many of us notice the beauty, the glory, the absolute magnificence that exists right here, right in front of us?

Heschel noticed the gnat on a wall, the bud on a tree just before it blooms, the face of the God in the homeless people he passed on the street each day. And, in all of these moments, he understood that there was a God, a Creator and Sustainer, a Life-Supporter and a Guide. We must do the work in this world, that is true, but it is God that offers us the chance to do mitzvot, it is God that smiles when we succeed and it is God that cries when we fail.

We all have the ability to become the prophet, to live with the voice of God in us. On this, Heschel wrote: “The pathos of God is upon him. It moves him. It breaks out in him like a storm in the soul, overwhelming his inner life, his thoughts, feelings, wishes, and hopes. It takes possession of his heart and mind, giving him the courage to act against the world.”

This is the mindset of Heschel, and while we can’t live like this all of the time, ultimately, this is the mindset that can be achieved through prayer, leading to action in our world. If only we commit ourselves to cultivating this sense. We must carry God with us on our journey in life, not just visit God when we come to the synagogue.

In honor of Heschel’s 100th year, I would encourage you to read, or re-read, something by him. His books have the potential to change your life if you read them with an open heart, an open mind and desire to be truly moved, shaken, uprooted and replanted with different vision, new motivation and a drive to make this world a more holy, special, just place, and to live a life filled with the awe and wonder that we seldom only see in our children. Heschel maintained his sense of wonder throughout his life, and, at the end, he recalled that fact as the most important kernel he had to teach:

“Live your life as a work of art,” he said in his final interview. What more can be said then, “Amen.”

A Little Light Seeps Into Dark Times

It is hard to recall such despairing times.

A young Tel Aviv man spat three times on Yitzhak Rabin’s memorial — the same number as the bullets that felled him — in front of a Channel 2 news crew a few days before the anniversary of his murder. Glaring swastikas were found splashed across the site on the morning of the yahrzeit (anniversary of his death). Both of these events bring to the surface some of the toxic undercurrents running through this country.

It is hard to believe, eight years later, that this national day of grief becomes an opportunity for some to demonstrate their despicable, baseless hatred. But maybe that is the point, as suggested by many since that terrible night, and in retrospect, we will remember it as the beginning of the destruction of the Third Temple. But just when you think we have sunk as low as we can go, more than 100,000 people turn out to honor Rabin in a memorial rally in the huge square that bears his name and to voice a collective "yes" for peace that hasn’t been heard here in the last three years or more.

It may be wishful thinking to say so, but the positive energy galvanized to express support for Rabin’s way — a political track, a sustained and determined peace process — might well signal, at last, the return of Israel’s "peace camp."

For three years, once-hopeful Israelis have been stunned into silence by suicide bombings and have lapsed into an acquiescent majority that nods its assent to both prolonged military occupation and aggressive responses to terror that are not accompanied by any serious, creative political initiative.

Oslo, it was concluded, did not work, period. Ehud Barak and his generous Camp David-Taba offer did not persuade the Palestinians to negotiate for peace, proving that they do not want a peaceful compromise. So muscle is the only answer.

But after three years and nearly 1,000 Israelis deaths, compounded by the sinking realization that a strong economy and an endless conflict do not go hand in hand, the level of frustration and trepidation about the future has reached an all-time high.

This loss of hope is best illustrated by the sheer apathy of the Israeli voter in the recent local elections. Figures showed 41 percent came out to vote for their mayor, compared to 57.4 percent who voted in the last round of municipal elections, making this the lowest voter turnout in Israel’s history. The gloomy economic statistics released the day before the elections, plus a runaway government deficit and looming Histadrut (labor union) action that has already been tagged the "mother of all strikes," all put the country in a miserable mood.

The numbers were overwhelming: close to 11 percent unemployment, with towns across Israel rating as high as 27 percent (Kseife) in Arab and Bedouin towns and 12.4 percent (Acre) in Jewish towns; 300,000 families (triple the 1988 figure) living below the poverty line, meaning that one in every three children in the State of Israel is living in poverty.

By staying home, the voters made clear that they have lost faith that the political system can do much to remedy the grim situation. What does this augur for Israeli democracy?

Still, national security issues dominate the public agenda.

As support grew within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for an easing of restrictions on the Palestinians, the remarkable admission to the press by Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon that Israel’s failure to have done enough in that area not only contributed to the fall of Mahmoud Abbas but, in fact endangered Israel dominated the headlines and rocked the establishment.

Ya’alon, who was identified as the "high-ranking IDF officer" quoted in the explosive article written by Nahum Barnea in Yediot Aharonot, said, "The ongoing curfew is causing damage to Israel’s security: It destroys the agriculture, it increases hatred for Israel and strengthens the terror organizations."

Public criticism, first by pilots who refused to take part in air force attacks on civilian population centers, then by the grieving parents of soldiers killed in the territories and, finally, by the army’s top brass, is making life increasingly uncomfortable for Ariel Sharon.

To top it off, the prime minister was grilled for seven hours by police investigators over corruption charges. Sharon’s main line of defense, according to press reports, was that he knows nothing of these matters and the police should talk to his son, Gilad — a rather cynical response considering that Gilad, all along, has been "pleading the fifth."

All of this was accompanied by the announcement of the Geneva accords, the joint U.S. tour of Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, the Israel Democracy Institute’s first public discussion of a 50-page paper examining Israel’s departure from the settlements and the mass turnout at Rabin Square.

The Histadrut strike hasn’t materialized, at least for now, pushed off by a late-night Labor Court order. And, as it turns out, some cracks of light have appeared in the government’s dark refusal to talk to the Palestinian Authority, when Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter met with Jibril Rajoub — former head of preventative security in the West Bank — and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met with Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.

With a full 71 percent of the Israeli people supporting a renewal of political negotiations with the Palestinians (according to the latest Steinmetz Center poll released Nov. 5), a final glimmer of hope comes from the unsubstantiated rumor that Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei will meet this weekend — bringing us back full circle to Rabin and his way.

If nothing else, let them talk.

Roberta Fahn Schoffman is an expert in U.S.-Israel relations and Diaspora Jewry and founder of MindSet Media and Strategic Consulting.