I may very well be wrong and there are older living Jewish homes of worship on the West Coast – but this past wknd I stumbled onto what sure feels like one of the oldest, and most magical of ye old shuls. The pleasure of walking into ruin rich with fragments and fragrances of the past, crumbling stories.
The Breed St. Shul – http://www.breedstreetshul.org/ – is in Boyle Heights – once upon a time, around the early decades of the 20th century the landing zone for Jews in LA. Like the Lower East Side it has emptied out as Jews moved on up and out. Now the hood is Latino and the shul has been shut down since the mid 90’s – boarded up graffiti zone of needles in the trash. The earthquake of the early 80’s knocked it around earlier, gangs shot bullet holes into the stained glass windows, the roof caved in to pigeons and rains. But now it’s being restored, lovingly, as a community center for the local residents – a great role model for making the sacred spaces live again for real use and real local need. There are many empty shuls all over the world – including empty ruins in Poland and Tel Aviv – that could benefit from this model of recycling use for the local community.
This one has beautiful artwork dating to the 1920’s still seen on the tall walls – including trees with roots, the full Hebrew Zodiac, musical instruments and camp fires (?)
In time for Tu Bishvat – two large trees painted on the Eastern Wall – both of them depicting the full tree and its rich cluster of roots. One of the trees is an Etrog tree, depicted with large yellow fruits and deep roots that lead into a rusty ‘Exit’ sign.
Old newspapers dating to the 1940’s, crumbling prayer books, a rusty tzedaka box, piled up pews and ‘shtendars’ – the whole thing felt like I really was in Poland – but it was Downtown LA… Who said there was no history in Tinseltown? Even Hillary Clinton visited here a few years ago – the building is now on the registry of historical landmarks.
The good folks who are fixing it up for communal use are doing a great job and could use help. My friend Mitch Kamin who is on the board had his son’s Noah’s Bar Mitzvah – Storahtelling style there this past Shabbat – which is how I got to see this great treasure upclose. We celebrated the first Shabbat service there since 1996. Then had a Mexican lunch.