Los Angeles represents a cross-section of cultures, an amalgamation of different peoples populating and repopulating the same expanse of land. But what happens when one group moves on, leaving behind only the structural remnants of the rich life it led? What happens to the buildings, the homes, the street names — the echoes of generations for whom the place held a specific significance? What happens to those memories?
The primarily Latino population of Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, faces this dilemma on a regular basis, living in the same area which was once home to some 75,000 Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewish immigrants, making Boyle Heights the largest Jewish community west of Chicago. As a testament to its rich history, the Breed Street Shul (an affectionate nickname for the Congregation Talmud Torah or “Queen of the Shuls”) maintains its crumbling yet still stunningly majestic Byzantine Revival façade in the midst of a poverty-stricken community. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Boyle Heights’ median household income is $31,799 and over 29 percent of families live below the poverty level as compared to the citywide average of 18 percent.
The Breed Street Shul Project website cites that the area was once home to many different ethnic communities, “including Latinos, Japanese-Americans, and White Russians, creat[ing] a vibrant, diverse Los Angeles neighborhood that fostered cultural creativity and a remarkable degree of intergroup tolerance and understanding.”
In an attempt to revive this thriving multiculturalism and boost the local populations’ outlook and resources, in 1999, Jewish activists banded together to create the Breed Street Shul Project in order to bring together Jewish and Latino communities to “rehabilitate the Breed Street Shul and develop uses that meet the needs of its current neighbors.”
“When we embarked on this, our immediate goal was simply to stop demolition of something we considered a treasure, and to have there be an opportunity for the community to preserve its history and reclaim this important site,” Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, told The Jewish Journal. “As the project has evolved, it has taken on this additional, and I think equally — and perhaps even more — important aspect, which is using it as a resource and an opportunity to build a bridge between the Jewish community and the current neighbors of the shul.”
With no local Jewish population to serve, the shul is in the process of being repurposed into a “center of arts, culture, education and service for its current neighbors, and making it a place of learning, teaching and wonder for all,” according to the Breed Street Shul project website.
“I want to see people in a computer class, in a reading workshop, learning Yiddish,” Robert Chattel, a preservation architect on the Board of the Jewish Historical Society, told The Jewish Journal. “I see this variety of things happening and maybe some of them are literally cross-cultural — there is some event that happens between 11 and 2, and another that happens at 3, and they are so different that the hour in between is when the business of becoming a community happens.”
While this is an idealistic view of what renovation can accomplish — preserving a historic site while also making it relevant to the current population — how can a repurposed synagogue ever truly attain its former glory if it functions as anything other than a synagogue? According to Jewish Law, it cannot. Unused synagogues should lay barren, slowly turning into ruins over the ages, rather than being reused — or desecrated.
Although I hope that the future generations of Boyle Heights inhabitants appreciate the rich heritage and cultural gift that they are being afforded, I am admittedly pessimistic about whether or not the creators of the Breed Street Shul Project will be able to maintain a positive Jewish representation and cross segment of cultures for the participants. As The Jewish Journal writes, “Peace Over Violence, a community-based nonprofit that offers Latino youth academic support and leadership opportunities, and the Jewish Free Loan Association are slated to move in, [and] the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California will house its archives [at the shul], and there will be a space where people can share their own oral histories.” While this is true, I question how long the momentum will continue before fizzling out.
Will future generations of Jews be so passionate about preserving this segment of history even when they no longer have memories of parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents who proudly sang in the sanctuary of the old shul on high holidays? Is this a passing fad or a memorial to the history of Los Angeles Jews, forever to be etched in the landscape, and our collective memory? Only time will tell.