Jewish / Northeast LA / Occidental Weekly

[Oxy Weekly] Temple Beth Israel, A Culutral Gem in L.A.’s World of Religion

By: Daina Beth Solomon

Issue date: 10/15/08

Section: Entertainment

The windows of Temple Beth Israel. Media credit: Daina Solomon.

Northeast Los Angeles is blessed with religion. The area surrounding Occidental is a landscape of world religions. An informal internet inventory revealed over 100 religious centers within Occidental’s 2.5 mile radius.

There are eight Seventh-Day Adventist churches, seven Foursquare Churches and three Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Halls. There are two Coptic churches-Coptic Catholic and Coptic Orthodox; and two All Saints Churches, one Catholic and one Episcopal. The Builders of the Adytum Temple of Tarot & Holy Qabalah? and the American Druze Society are represented. There are three locations for Buddism as well as the headquarters of the Self-Realization Fellowship. One directory lists a Pagan-Wiccan Church. And if you can’t find a place to worship right on your own corner, there’s always Eagle Rock Dial-a-Prayer.

One Jewish synagogue-Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock-sits on Monte Vista Street wedged between All Saints Episcopal and Highland Park Baptist. In commemoration of the Jewish year of 5769 that began at sunset on September 29th, it seems fitting to take note of this we recognize the value of this congregation that is significant in L.A.’s Jewish community as well as in Northeast L.A. Temple Beth Israel, incorporated in 1923 and established in Highland Park in 1929, is the city’s second-oldest synagogue according to the temple web site.

A September 2008 article in Los Angeles Magazine by Ed Leibowitz further explains the temple’s history. At the time the temple was founded, most L.A. Jews lived farther east in Boyle Heights. Still, Highland Park residents believed in the importance of a religious school and convinced their Jewish neighbors to form a congregation. At first, the group met in members’ homes and rented spaces. The land for the temple was purchased in 1923, but financial concerns and the Great Depression caused ground-breaking to be delayed. Finally, the first High Holy Day services were held in 1930. The temple’s website quotes their 1948 yearbook as noting that “the building consisted of “just the frame, unadorned, with cheese-cloth for plaster, and rough boards for flooring, but it was a temple.”

“The Little Shul That Could,” a Los Angeles Jewish Journal article by Jane Ulman, described the streamlined, modern building that was finally completed in 1949. The construction left the temple with just $17.57 in savings and a checking account balance of $38.04. Renovations in the 1950s added a new ark, paneling, new wooden pews, a new “eternal light” and lion of Judah wire sculptures above the sanctuary doors.

Between the 1930s and the early 1960s, temple membership numbered about 200 families, many of whom owned stores on nearby Figueroa Street, according to the L.A. Magazine article mentioned above. As the Depression led into World War II, synagogues declined all over the city as the Jewish population moved to the Westside and Valley. Despite its small size and lack of resources, Temple Beth Israel survived.

At Jewish High Holy Day services on October 9, 2008, temple president Henry Leventon noted that the congregation currently claims about 80 member families, although 120 congregants assembled for Yom Kippur services this year nearly filling the 156-seat sanctuary. Leventon spoke with pride about the dedication of temple members and praised their efforts and participation. Volunteer congregants lead religious services, conduct classes on Jewish traditions and holidays and are even creating a sustainable landscape of native plants in the 8,000-square-foot front yard. Volunteer members even offer to taking home the garbage after temple celebrations to save on waste disposal fees.

Light shining from the doorway and stained glass windows illuminate the temple’s hilltop site and the effect is dazzling on a dark night. Although the exterior is humble, the sanctuary is lit in rich golden hues. Brass Lions of Judah guard the doors, cobalt-blue and gold Star of David stained glass windows frame the torah ark, and the floor and wall panels are of a rich, dark wood. Attending services at Beth Israel, one has the sensation of being removed from worldly concerns. Yet neighborhood sounds invade the prayers and songs – an ice-cream cart’s tinkle, the roar of buses, the laughter of loitering teens and Mexican banda music blaring from a passing car’s radio.

The congregation’s warm, enthusiastic, welcoming spirit is shared among visitors and members alike. The temple’s web-site introduction is a greeting that welcomes interfaith couples, interested non-Jews, same-sex couples and Jews-by-choice. Members fondly refer to the synagogue as “Temple Beth Haimish,” combining English, Hebrew and Yiddish to signify a warm, family-like home. Visitors are invited to join the members in a potluck luncheon after services and participate in chanting the blessings and prayers of thanksgiving over bread and wine. The traditional “break-the-fast” lunch following The Day of Atonement is done potluck-style, involving the entire community.

As the neighborhood experiences gentrification, more Jewish families and singles are returning to this essentially non-Jewish neighborhood. In the meantime, the small but dedicated temple membership seem to be keeping the synagogue afloat.

From Occidental College, Temple Beth Israel is a two-mile walk or a short drive by bus or car. Oxy students are welcome to visit for Sabbath or holiday services. Certainly, no matter what our religious beliefs, we can all be grateful for the temple’s presence as our neighbor – a testament to our community’s rich history and cultural diversity.

© Copyright 2010 The Occidental Weekly

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