July 15, 2019

Returning Home: Pico Union Project Bears Fruit in Central L.A.

Taubman in front of PUP

For musician Craig Taubman, eclecticism has always been the name of the game.

For more than 15 years, Taubman led the popular Friday Night Live service at Sinai Temple with Rabbi David Wolpe. His independent label and music production company, Craig ’N Co., has put on interfaith concerts including Faith Jam and Let My People Sing. He has published the annual High Holy Days collection “Jewels of Elul,” featuring spiritual wisdom by faith leaders, thought leaders and celebrities.

His latest venture, launched in 2013, is the nonprofit Pico Union Project (PUP), which is redefining what it means to be a faith-based organization. PUP is a hub of artistic, spiritual and social service programming operating in the oldest remaining synagogue in Los Angeles. The Greek revival structure is located at 1153 Valencia St, on the corner of 12th Street, just west of the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

According to its website, the PUP “is dedicated to the Jewish principle to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ It elevates this teaching into practice in a historic building by bringing diverse cultures together.”

On a recent afternoon at the PUP, the scent of fresh vegetables fills the air of the two-story building and light pours through the stained-glass windows. On the first floor in the main sanctuary space, there’s a flurry of activity as fresh produce, including apples, cantaloupe, zucchini and asparagus, is packed by volunteers from the Westside and Valley and then donated to neighborhood families. On a stage at the end of the room, a world music band is performing high-energy grooves, banging away on bongo drums and providing an appropriately kinetic beat to the activities. Upstairs, in a conference room, children are doing yoga, stretching their bodies in downward-facing dogs and warrior poses. 

“This is community,” Taubman, 60, says. “It’s service to the community and of the community.” 

Taubman performing during Shabbat Table, a program of the Pico Union Project. Photo by Linda Kasian

PUP evokes a time when the Jews were based in the downtown and Boyle Heights areas. Sinai Temple, then known as Sinai Congregation, commissioned the construction of the building in 1909. The congregation remained there until 1925 when, following the westward migration of Jews in Los Angeles, the community moved to the mid-Wilshire district, just east of Hancock Park. It then relocated to its current home in Westwood in 1960. 

In 1926, the Welsh Presbyterian Church bought the building, leaving the Stars of David in the stained glass windows intact. In the wake of dwindling membership, the church put the building up for sale in 2013.

At the time, Taubman was not looking to get into the property-owning business. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California (JHSSC), which conducts tours of historic Jewish landmarks, pushed Taubman to buy the building because of Taubman’s personal and professional history at Sinai Temple.

“ ‘You’re Mr. Sinai to me, you’re the guy who can get stuff done,’ ” Taubman recalled JHSSC founder Steve Sass telling him. “‘Why don’t you check it out?’ I was in the heat of Friday Night Live and community activism and I was the crazy guy who would run with it.” 

Buying the church in 2013 for an undisclosed amount represented a milestone for Taubman, who began his career writing commercial jingles and children’s music for the Disney Channel and eventually became a central figure in the non-Orthodox community in Los Angeles.

“I’m — what’s the expression? Post-denominational,” he said. “I’m a chameleon. Wherever I am, I feel comfortable.”

Taubman grew up on the Westside in a Conservative household, with Camp Ramah and United Synagogue Youth forming his identity. His first job, at the age of 15, was as the music teacher at Sinai Temple, where he also had his bar mitzvah.

“I’m definitely a product of the Conservative movement,” he said.

He recalled riding his bike from his family’s home in Brentwood to the Westwood congregation, where he taught 100 kids in the mitzvah choir. “I had my guitar and I left it in the music room at Sinai Temple, because I couldn’t ride my bike with a guitar on my back,” he said.

“Taubman’s work has not come without challenges. For one, the Pico-Union neighborhood is not a likely place for a Jewish organization in Los Angeles.”

He attended UCLA, then studied in Israel for three years at Hebrew University. While there, he performed for then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, collaborated with other Israeli entertainers and met David Broza, whose music inspired Taubman. He went on to build a reputation as a prolific Jewish songwriter, making Jewish music more accessible for day schools, camps and synagogues.

“He really crafted his own work,” Taubman’s wife, Louise, said. “He came up with good ideas. People believed him.” 

Similar to his inventive approach to Jewish music, Taubman has brought innovative thinking to the PUP. In addition to Vida Sana, which is Spanish for “Healthy Lifestyle” and is the PUP’s bimonthly farmers market feeding people in the community, the PUP hosts weekly Arabic classes organized by the Markaz, a Middle Eastern arts center; stages concerts by Jewish and spiritual musicians; and operates the Sanctuary@Pico Union, which holds High Holy Day services.

Those who volunteer at the PUP and attend services at the Sanctuary@Pico Union connect to Judaism through social justice and music, and are drawn to Taubman’s personality. 

“He is Mr. Gregarious,” television writer and producer Norman Lear said in a phone interview. “I’ve never seen anyone more gregarious and more tuned into life. It’s remarkable what he does there [at the PUP].”

Kathy Finn, the secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers 770, met Taubman years ago when he worked with her special needs son, Quinn Lohmann, on a musical project. She said the PUP appeals to her because of its focus on Tikkun Olam.

“I’m not a religious person and I don’t believe in God,” Finn said. “The thing that kept me connected to Judaism is the social justice aspect of it.”

Sanctuary@Pico Union is a beneficiary of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which provides grants to Jewish organizations and projects in the community.  In 2016, the program received a $200,000 grant from the foundation.

“I’m — what’s the expression? Post-denominational. I’m a chameleon. Wherever I am, I feel comfortable.” ­
— Craig Taubman

Although Taubman said grant dollars have been fundamental for running the PUP, he also has sought alternative funding sources. Sid the Cat, a concert booker, has been holding concerts featuring secular bands at Taubman’s venue — not necessarily in line with the mission of the PUP to be a religious organization committed to promoting the idea of “Love your neighbor as yourself” — but enabling Taubman to do the programming that furthers his vision of promoting inclusivity through song, story, food, art and prayer.

Lear, known for the TV shows “All in the Family” and “One Day at a Time,” was among the approximately 400 people who attended High Holy Day services at the Sanctuary@Pico Union last month. 

“When we speak about the brotherhood of man, love thy neighbor, all those ways of putting it, what is better than walking into a place of worship and seeing all kinds of people there, whether they be Asians, African-Americans, South Americans, Latinas or Jews?” Lear said. “Everybody’s there. You can’t make that representation better.” 

Taubman’s work has not come without challenges. For one, the Pico-Union neighborhood is not a likely place for a Jewish organization in Los Angeles. According to the L.A. Times “Mapping L.A.” project, more than 85 percent of the approximately 42,000 people in the surrounding area is Latino. Education levels are low — fewer than 7 percent of residents ages 25 and older have a four-year degree, and median incomes average under $27,000 per household.

After launching the PUP, Taubman said he struggled to connect with the people of the area. He held poorly attended arts and yoga classes before realizing he didn’t know how to bridge the gap between him and his new neighbors. The turning point came three years ago during a Thanksgiving food drive. The PUP provided more than 500 turkeys to people in the community. 

“‘Ooh, now there are people,’” Taubman said, recalling the turkey drive. “It ends up that the food was the bait. Food was the calling card but it was then an invitation to do all the other stuff.”

Vida Sana is the manifestation of Taubman’s realization that food unites people. Last month’s Vida Sana kicked off with a demonstration led by Seeds of Hope, a food justice organization and a ministry of the Episcopal Church. 

Stephanie Hansma, a member of Oasis L.A., a Pentecostal community that rents the PUP space for services every Friday and Sunday, sat in the pews as Steve Trapasso and Erica Nieves, program coordinator and assistant program coordinator at Seeds of Hope, led a bilingual presentation on how to prepare a healthy summer salad. As Trapasso explained how folic acid in the arugula has benefits for pregnant women and how the vitamin A in tomatoes keeps the eyes lubricated, Hansma told the Journal she valued the opportunity to learn how to lead a healthier and more nutritious life. 

“When we speak about the brotherhood of man, love thy neighbor, all those ways of putting it, what is better than walking into a place of worship and seeing all kinds of people there, whether they be Asians, African-Americans, South Americans, Latinas or Jews.” — Norman Lear

“The church is beautiful to come to and visit if you have a couple of hours to entertain,” she said.

Seeds of Hope, which also provides the produce to the PUP for its Vida Sana farmers market, is one expression of interfaith action at the PUP. Rev. Nathaniel Katz, associate rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, chairs the board at the PUP. 

Katz, 38, who is Jewish on his father’s side, said he has found an unlikely second spiritual home at the PUP. 

“For the first time in my life, I can be an Episcopal priest but also tie my work here into my Jewish heritage,” he said. “I can’t think of any other places where that’s possible, but it can be here. To me, this is what religious life in L.A. looks like.” 

Multifaith organization Pico Union Project, operating in the oldest synagogue building in Los Angeles, is located at 1153 Valencia Street, on the corner of 12th Street, just west of the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Pico Union Project

As the day progressed, the light through the stained glass windows began to dim and the crowds thinned out. The stacks of produce that had been piled on tables alongside the wooden pews had dwindled, along with the bags of new and donated kitchen supplies the PUP collected as part of a High Holy Day kitchen drive. 

Taubman, dressed in cargo shorts, had spent much of the drive walking his dog, Theo (named for the late actor Theodore Bikel), around the room, chatting with people and making sure everything was running smoothly. 

Now he sits in one of the pews, taking a breath.

“[The PUP] represents everything I love,” Taubman says. “It represents the Jewish community. It represents tradition. It represents hope. It represents the Jewish commitment to Tikkun Olam and being an active and participatory member of a community.”