18 May 2009

Los Angeles: Boyle Heights' Jewish roots

The Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles was once a vibrant Jewish neighborhood, perhaps the largest Jewish community outside of New York, according to a Los Angeles Times story.

The Fiesta Shalom event, at the Breed Street Shul, honored the area's Jewish and Latino bonds and Israel's 61st anniversary. The story is here.

On a sunny Sunday when men with 10-gallon vaquero hats mingled with men wearing yarmulkes, Sonny Estrada, his wife Susan Miller and their 9-year-old daughter Eliana stepped into the aging synagogue in Boyle Heights as unwitting symbols.

The Mexican-American-Jewish family was celebrating the 61st anniversary of Israel's independence outside the Breed Street Shul -- while also honoring Jewish and Latino bonds in a part of town that once was home to the largest Jewish community outside New York.

As a teenager, Estrada used to accompany his gardener father to tend the yards of West Los Angeles homes that often belonged to Jewish families. When Estrada and Miller married 19 years ago, they exchanged vows in English, Hebrew and Spanish. About eight years ago, Estrada converted to Judaism.

Though they had never stepped foot in the Breed Street synagogue, it seemed only natural that they should come to Sunday's celebration.

Miller, 51, cried when she entered the old shul, whose ornate and colorful stained glass windows were pocked with holes. The altar and cracked wooden floors were dusty.

"To think, people were married here, they were mitzvahed here," Miller said. "It's a treasure that needs to be restored."
Jewish Historical Society of Southern California president Stephen Sass said one goal of Fiesta Shalom was to raise awareness of the need for restoration. To learn more about the Breed Street Shul Project, click here.

The last services in the synagogue were held in 1996. The goal is to reopen the site as a neighborhood cultural and social service center. Some $5 million is needed for repairs.

Through World War II, Boyle Heights was the center of the LA Jewish community. Streets were lined with kosher delis, bakeries and Jewish businesses on what was Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). The area's Jewish residents began moving to West Los Angeles and the Valley in the 1950s.
Lucy Delgado, an 85-year-old Mexican American who has lived in Boyle Heights since birth, said she had friends of many cultures when she was growing up in the neighborhood that is now almost entirely Latino. She recalled a rabbi inviting her into the Breed Street Shul, and marveling at the chandeliers. Like many people who streamed through the synagogue Sunday, Delgado was saddened by its current state.

So was Brenda Mandelbaum, 68, whose father, Mendel Friedman, had once been a rabbi and president of the shul. She had not stepped into the structure since about 1951, when she last lived in Boyle Heights."I was a little surprised to see the way it is," she said as she walked out of the synagogue. "It's a shame, because it was beautiful."
Read the complete story at the link above.

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