Friday, April 3, 2020

‘A Lot of Life Left’

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At first glance, Temple Beth Zion, on a busy stretch of OlympicBoulevard in the mid-city, looks stark and abandoned.

The front door is locked, the religious school has been closed foralmost four decades, and the daily minyan and Friday-night serviceare gone (many of the some 135 members, most of whom are aged 75 to80, can no longer drive at night).

In the last six months alone, the acting president and the rabbi’swife died; one board member suffered a stroke; another had a legamputation; another sustained a fall and is temporarily in aconvalescent home; and the executive vice president had open-heartsurgery.

Yet the congregation struggles along, despite the difficulties andlosses. Each Saturday morning, there is at least a minyan in thespotless sanctuary, which is decorated with 10 lovely stained-glasswindows depicting Jewish life. The building is paid for in full;there is a well-attended Passover seder; and, on the High Holidays,the shul is filled with members’ children and grandchildren.Friendships of five decades continue in the Sisterhood, which is ledby Sylvia Greenberg, 83; members who drive pick up those who can’tfor the bimonthly meetings.

Photos from Temple Beth Zion, above, circa 1940s.

Above, Rabbi Edward Tennenbaum today.Settling behind his scuffed desk in a tiny, windowless office,Rabbi Edward Tenenbaum, a vigorous man of 79, says that the templehas been beating the odds since he first arrived in 1966.

“At that time, our members were mostly senior citizens, and theyfelt we had only one, maybe two, years left before we closed up,” hesays, peering from behind horn-rimmed glasses. “Today, it’s been 32years, and we’re still managing, though, of course, not withoutdifficulty. Really, it’s a kind of miracle that we’ve been able tosurvive with so many setbacks.”

The congregants at Temple Beth Zion are half American-born andhalf European-born. They speak Yiddish but do not follow theYiddishist-socialist philosophy of their contemporaries at theWorkmen’s Circle. Rather, the flavor of shul life is reminiscent ofsuburban American Judaism of the 1950s. The emphasis is on family, ontogetherness, on Zionism and raising money for Israel. There areMother’s Day, Father’s Day luncheons and sisterhood fund-raisers andlectures on topics such as medical ethics, Jewish living andpractice.

Temple Beth Zion was founded in a storefront in 1943, as LosAngeles’ Jewish population was moving west from Boyle Heights.Several years later, the synagogue moved to its current location in aformer house at Olympic Boulevard and Dunsmuir Avenue. The founderswere mostly small-business owners, and, by the 1950s, the temple hadmore than 400 members and 300 children in a Talmud Torah. Filmdirector Rob Reiner was bar mitzvahed here, and TBZ was the firstWest Coast Conservative shul to hire a woman cantor, the rabbi says.

May Bierman recalls how, in the temple’s heyday, the El Rey movietheater was rented to handle the High Holiday overflow crowd. Inthose days, she served with her Sisterhood friends in the PTA ofWilshire Crest Elementary School.

But the younger generation grew up and followed the next Jewishmigration to West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Theneighborhood became less and less Jewish (now it’s 37 percent AfricanAmerican, 20 percent Asian and 11 percent Latino, the Los AngelesTimes said of a census report), and temple membership dwindled.Funerals and 50-year wedding anniversaries began to replace brisesand bar mitzvahs as the predominant life-cycle events. Members diedor moved away to convalescent homes or to be closer to grownchildren.

Today, those who remain are determined to persevere despiteincreasing physical infirmity. Henry Gross put in long hours revisingthe yahrtzeit list because “we say ‘Kaddish’ even if there are nofamily members left to remember.”

Bierman continues to sell entertainment books and insists “we dothings a little slower now, but we do them.” Her husband, Morris, whois the recent amputee, showed up to the last board meeting in awheelchair. When he arrived, his colleagues greeted him with astanding ovation. “There is so much love here,” May says, withemotion.

Several years ago, the synagogue suffered a series of break-ins,in which thieves stole all the silver Torah ornaments, the kiddishcups, the typewriters, a copying machine and even the silver liningof Tenenbaum’s robe. The rabbi then trudged to every pawnshop in thearea until he found much of the filched silver.

The congregants, in turn, rallied around him, “taking overcompletely,” when his 11-year-old granddaughter died in a roadaccident years ago and when his wife passed away in February. “We arelike a big family here,” he says, with tears in his eyes. “This is asecond home for all of us.”

On a recent afternoon, in fact, the rabbi introduced the staff andvolunteers to a visitor as if they were members of his own family.There was a Latino maintenance man, a young Iranian secretary who atlast is putting all the temple files on computer, and an Iraqi-borngeneral contractor who is helping repair a vandalized fence at anominal cost. When asked why, the contractor shrugged and said heused to blow the shofar for 20 years at a synagogue in Jerusalem.

Now, the hope of the shul is its two new co-presidents, LynneSturt Weintraub and Judy Sturt Hollander, who are atypical in thatthey are members of a younger generation (they decline to give theirages). The sisters grew up in the synagogue, and their father servedas president, for eight years, until he died in 1993.

They have retained strong ties to the temple, in part, because ofthe family Torah, which sits in the ark. It was commissioned by theirgreat-grandfather and their grandfather, who survived pogroms andlost several children while waiting for the scribe to finish. Thepatriarchs literally carried the scroll out of Russia. “The Torah isa survivor, just like the shul,” says Lynn, who, with Judy, isseeking donations for an auction and envisions singles events to drawa younger crowd. The sisters are even hoping that the synagogue willagain hold Friday-night services.

But don’t suggest to anyone that Temple Beth Zion’s days arenumbered. “Please, God forbid,” says Nettie Berkson, 81. “Where elsewould I go to find the camaraderie I’ve had all these years?”

“A few groups have approached us to either merge or buy thebuilding,” Tenenbaum says, “but the board feels we’ve still got a lotof life left. No one wants to give up. There’s a determination tocarry on, and every year, it seems, there is another miracle.”

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