Shul En Español: Shifting Demographics Gives This Synagogue a Creative Second Act

Visitors to Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights might be surprised to learn that the now predominantly Latino neighborhood was once home to a vibrant...

Visitors to Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights might be surprised to learn that the now predominantly Latino neighborhood was once home to a vibrant Jewish community. Once filled with Jewish tailors and kosher bakeries, the Jewish community dwindled after World War II as residents began to move west. Formerly Jewish spaces were put to other uses, as one by one, the businesses and community centers closed their doors. The former Menorah Center on Wabash Avenue in City Terrace became the Salesian Boys and Girls Club, Brooklyn Avenue was renamed Cesar Chavez Avenue, and former synagogues were reincarnated as churches.

The neighborhood’s largest synagogue, the Breed Street Shul (shul is Yiddish for synagogue), was the last to close its doors. Once “the center of the Jewish universe in Los Angeles,” according to Sherry Marks, the Executive Director of the neighborhood’s Breed Street Shul Project, the synagogue retired its main brick building in the mid-1980s after an earthquake left it with a gaping hole in the roof and no funds to fix it. In 1996, with almost no Jews left in the area, the synagogue’s smaller building also ceased holding religious services.

With its gates shuttered and no community to take care of it, the buildings fell into further disrepair, providing a haven for gangs and drug use, and eventually becoming foreclosed upon by the City of Los Angeles. Despite being designated as a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1988, the shul was now in danger of demolition. But sustained efforts by the Jewish Historical Society convinced the city to let them and their newly created subsidiary, the Breed Street Shul Project, rehabilitate the buildings and, through them, breathe new life into one of Los Angeles’ most crime ridden, low-income communities.

The Breed Street Shul Project spent two years talking to anyone and everyone, trying to determine how to best remake the space. “They interviewed individuals who had been members of the shul and had lived in Boyle Heights, as well as current residents, members of other neighborhood non-profits, and Jewish organizations, really trying to get a sense of what the general feeling of what the building should be,” Marks told me. “What they decided, with the help of all this input, was that it should be a center for arts, culture, and education, and to bring social services to the neighborhood.”

With the help of a dedicated (and decorated) Board, including Vice President of Legal Affairs, Original Programming for HBO, Stephen J. Sass, and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicities at the University of Southern California, George J. Sanchez, the organization has already hosted a number of successful neighborhood events like the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra’s Winter Concert, a pre-Grammy party honoring Boyle Heights-nominated musicians, and a book launch for Jewish author Janice Steinberg’s novel, Tin Horse.

Without a doubt, there's still a lot of work to be done to bring the buildings back to their former glory, and the Breed Street Shul Project is just beginning to implement their plans. But already, the shul is having an impact. As Michael Hudson, the musical director of the Youth Orchestra told the L.A. Times in December, "It's not just a music program, it's a social change program," he said. "You create music and equality and greater opportunities for these children."

Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and here to download GOOD's Neighborday Toolkit and a bunch of other fun stuff.

Images courtesy of Breed Street Shul Project

AFP News Agency / Twitter

A study out of Belgium found that smart people are much less likely to be bigoted. The same study also found that people who are bigoted are more likely to overestimate their own intelligence.

A horrifying story out of Germany is a perfect example of this truth on full display: an anti-Semite was so dumb the was unable to open a door at the temple he tried to attack.

On Wednesday, October 9, congregants gathered at a synagogue in Humboldtstrasse, Germany for a Yom Kippur service, and an anti-Semite armed with explosives and carrying a rifle attempted to barge in through the door.

Keep Reading Show less
via Andi-Graf / Pixabay

The old saying goes something like, "Possessions don't make you happy." A more dire version is, "What you own, ends up owning you."

Are these old adages true or just the empty words of ancient party-poopers challenging you not to buy an iPhone 11? According to a new study of 968 young adults by the University of Arizona, being materialistic only brings us misery.

The study examined how engaging in pro-environmental behaviors affects the well-being of millenials. The study found two ways in which they modify their behaviors to help the environment: they either reduce what they consume or purchase green items.

Keep Reading Show less

One of the biggest obstacles to getting assault weapons banned in the United States is the amount of money they generate.

There were around 10 million guns manufactured in the U.S. in 2016 of which around 2 million were semiautomatic, assault-style weapons. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry's trade association, the U.S. industry's total economic impact in 2016 alone was $51 billion.

In 2016, the NRA gave over $50 million to buy support from lawmakers. When one considers the tens of millions of dollars spent on commerce and corruption, it's no wonder gun control advocates have an uphill battle.

That, of course, assumes that money can control just about anyone in the equation. However, there are a few brave souls who actually value human life over profit.

Keep Reading Show less
via Reddit and NASA / Wikimedia Commons

Trees give us a unique glimpse into our past. An examination of tree rings can show us what the climate was like in a given year. Was it a wet winter? Were there hurricanes in the summer? Did a forest fire ravage the area?

An ancient tree in New Zealand is the first to provide evidence of the near reversal of the Earth's magnetic field over 41,000 years ago.

Over the past 83 million years there have been 183 magnetic pole reversals, a process that takes about 7,000 years to complete.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Pixabay

The final episode of "The Sopranos" made a lot of people angry because it ends with mob boss Tony Soprano and his family eating at an ice cream parlor while "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey plays in the background … and then, suddenly, the screen turns black.

Some thought the ending was a dirty trick, while others saw it as a stroke of brilliance. A popular theory is that Tony gets shot, but doesn't know it because, as his brother-in-law Bobby Baccala said, "You probably don't even hear it when it happens, right?"

So the show gives us all an idea of what it's like to die. We're here and then we're not.

Keep Reading Show less