The run-down synagogue in the heart of Boyle Heights sat neglected for years, an eyesore surrounded by barbed wire, the words “Torah Talmud Congregation” only faintly visible above the gated entrance. But thanks to the work of the Breed Street Shul Project, the once vibrant Jewish synagogue now has a new lease on life.
As part of a 12-year rehabilitation project, the shuttered Breed Street Shul reopened on Christmas Day — the first step in its new life as a community center and a meeting place that connects historical and modern day Boyle Heights.
Constructed in 1915 and expanded in 1923, the Breed Street Shul, known once as the “Queen of the Shuls,” is located on North Breed Street near East César Chávez Avenue. It is made up of two buildings, the larger front building visible from Breed Street and a smaller one tucked behind it. Shul is the Yiddish word for a Jewish house of worship or synagogue.
The city deeded the synagogue to the Breed Street Shul Project in 1999. Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Los Angeles, who represents Boyle Heights, helped the project obtain $250,000 in federal funds to transform the buildings into a community center. Since its inception, the Breed Street Shul Project has received more than $3 million in other public and private donations.
The work on the rear building is complete now. A soft opening celebration was held last fall for about 100 people on Dia de los Muertos, when many former and current residents came together to celebrate memories of Boyle Heights. A Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish coming of age ceremony and celebration, was held last Christmas Day– the first such celebration here in more than 40 years.
Now, the Breed Street Shul Project is working on a five- to seven-year fundraising campaign to raise $15 million to renovate the larger front building.
The goal of the project is to serve the Boyle Heights community, as well as the larger Los Angeles community, with a center for art and culture exhibits and social activities. The center also will house archives from the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.
Hub for Immigrants
From 1920 to 1930, Boyle Heights’ Jewish population grew from 1,800 to 10,000, according to the National Register of Historic Places. The synagogue, designed by architect Abram M. Edelman, was once one of 30 synagogues in the neighborhood. It was the largest and first synagogue constructed on the West coast. Irv Weiser, a former resident of Boyle Heights and a member of the shul as a child, says, “The shul represented both personal history and community history. For me personally this was a place where I spent a lot of time learning.”
The shul once held regular Saturday services for 1,500 people and served as a hub for immigrant Jews, many of whom had survived the Holocaust.
The Breed Street Project
Boyle Heights once boasted a varied immigrant population of Japanese, Russian Jews, Molokans (a sect of Russian Christians), and other groups, but today the neighborhood is almost all Latino. While the cultural diversity is gone, Stephen Sass, chairman of the Breed Street Shul Project, says this makes it all the more important to create a place that will bring people together.
Sass says Boyle Heights was once unique because so many immigrant groups lived there together. He says he hopes the shul “will bring people toge-ther to share stories”¦improve themselves and to learn about different cultures.”
Among the goals is the creation of a library, “where people can come and do oral histories of any culture,” said the project’s executive director, Tsilah Burman. “We really want the shul to be a place where people can meet and bring people together.”
Future plans for the shul include more than art and history. The shul will also have a space for a nonprofit organization that serves the community. (The project is looking at prospective tenants.) In addition, the shul has a large community space available that can be rented for Quinceañeras, concerts, Bar Mitzvahs, or other celebrations. Another Bar Mitzvah is scheduled, and other events being planned.
Local business owners hope the shul will have a positive financial impact on Boyle Heights. Leticia Aguirre, owner of Aguirre’s Shoes, has been in business on César Chávez since 1953. She hopes that the shul “will bring more people into the community”¦ And the economy might pick up because of that.”
The renovated synagogue would be the first large community center in Boyle Heights with the potential for attracting people from outside the neighborhood. Boyle Heights resident Amelia González-Sánchez, another business owner on César Chávez, likes the idea. “It’s beautiful because everyone has their culture,” she says, and “it’s good because we are going to learn how to coexist with a lot of people.”