December 11, 2019

Renewing the Breed Street Shul

For years, the only signs of life at Boyle Heights’ historic Breed Street Shul were the flocks of cooing pigeons flying in and out through the large hole in the ceiling. Graffiti covers the walls inside; outside, a fence topped with razor wire encircles the last remnant of East Los Angeles’ once-thriving Jewish community.

The former Congregation Talmud Torah came to life again Sunday, April 22, as more than two dozen local teenagers arrived at 7:30 a.m. to begin the process of renewal for the shul, a City of Los Angeles historic-cultural landmark. While this might sound like a job for SCFTY, USY or another Jewish youth organization, the kids with the shovels and brooms that morning were local Latino youth from Impacto, a program of the Dolores Mission’s Proyecto Pastoral.

Impacto serves the youth of Boyle Heights’ Pico-Aliso public housing community, the largest group of public housing projects west of the Mississippi. The program, whose name stands for Imaginando Mañana [Imagining Tomorrow]: Pico-Aliso Community Team Outreach, offers after-school programs, mentoring and community improvement to direct local youth away from gangs.

Many of the kids involved in the shul cleanup live within blocks of the building but never knew what it was. Impacto Project Director Christine Sanchez helped them get in the spirit of the day. "I told them, ‘Imagine this is the Dolores Mission, looking like this in 40 years, and the people who live here then pay respect to our community and work to bring it back to life like this.’"

She said the Breed Street Shul cleanup project serves some of Impacto’s goals. The youths involved get a better understanding of the rich history of their neighborhood, for one thing. Recalling a trip the previous week to the Museum of Tolerance, Sanchez noted that Impacto’s mission of improving local youths’ lives is well-served by teaching them about Boyle Heights’ Jewish history.

The cleanup also helped Impacto teenagers raise money for a weeklong leadership conference in Canada. Twenty-three of them left Wednesday, May 2, for the event, where they will reunite with teenagers of Canada’s First Nation Tribes, whom they hosted in Los Angeles last year. A few of the students cleaning up the shul said they would miss the Canada trip since they had to study for upcoming Advanced Placement exams but remarked that they still wanted to help beautify their neighborhood.

Much of the dirt and debris has been cleared from the site, but there remains plenty to do before the Breed Street Shul is reborn. One remaining task is to decide exactly what to do with the site.

That decision is in the hands of the Jewish Historical Society (JHS), which took over the shul from the City of Los Angeles last year and operates it through its subsidiary nonprofit corporation, the Breed Street Shul Project.

At the cleanup, JHS President Stephen Sass and Brent Riemer and Robert Chattel of Chattel Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Inc., directed the Impacto teenagers. Chattel, whose company specializes in historical preservation and who is also a vice president of JHS, donates his building expertise to the project.

"This building should continue to be a place of congregation," he said in discussing plans to turn the site into a community center that would merge services like a computer lab with displays recalling the community’s Jewish legacy.

Chattel said Impacto is not the only local organization affecting the future of the Breed Street Shul. To ensure that the site best serves the current community near Breed Street, JHS is also working with the Boyle Heights Neighbors Organization, the Japanese American National Museum and the primarily Latino arts collective Self-Help Graphics.

"If this can still be a Jewish site, and the people who live here now can use it for their own community needs, then we really have the best of both worlds," Chattel said. Sass agreed, voicing hope that the shul could be "more than a museum for a time gone by, when we have a chance to make it a living testimony to this community’s heritage."

With the dedication of people like Chattel and Sass and the input of local organizations, the shaping of the project is well under way. What will require more time is the fundraising process. Though architect David L. Gray, famed for his work on the hip Argyle Hotel, and structural engineer Mike Krakower are both donating their talents, seismically refitting a historic building like the Breed Street Shul does not come cheap. Chattel hopes to fix the hole in the roof before next winter, using money provided by FEMA, and State Assemblymember Gil Cedillo has proposed $1 million in funding for the project (AB368). Companies including Home Depot and BFI donated supplies for Sunday’s cleanup.

With so many individuals and organizations working toward the common goal of renewing the synagogue and so much work left to be done, the Breed Street Shul could become a common ground for Los Angeles’ widespread and diverse communities long before it is finished. As Christine Sanchez says, "We’ve only begun to touch the surface of the significance of this project."