Craig Taubman—a singer-songwriter known within the Jewish community for creating a music-driven Shabbat service at Westwood’s Sinai Temple—has found his calling in a church. In 2012, he purchased Welsh Presbyterian’s former chapel near downtown and began converting it into a diverse house of worship that he renamed the Pico Union Project (after the neighborhood). A few years of outreach later, the space now serves five congregations: a Methodist Episcopal ministry, an Evangelical and Pentecostal church, a Korean Christian church, the first all-women’s mosque in the country, and a newly formed Jewish group. Coordinating the services will become even more complicated for Taubman, as he hopes to add an LGBT-friendly church to the fold. We called the Pico Union’s newest leader to find out why
You’re a Jewish man. What inspired you to buy a church?
I’ve been around a lot of Christians the last few years, and if I was using their language, I would say it was a calling.
I was introduced to the space by Steve Sass, who runs the Jewish Historical Society. He said, ‘You’ve got to come down and see this building.’ I said, ‘Sounds interesting, but I’m really busy,’ and I kept procrastinating. Finally he said, ‘They’re selling it, and I think you’re going to love it.’ I walked in, and it was just, Duh, this is the next thing I’m supposed to do in my life.
I wasn’t 100 percent sure what ‘it’ was that I was going to do, but I knew it would be interfaith. I knew it would be around a building. I’d never had a building. I’d always had ideas, and I couched my ideas in events or in books or in recordings, but now I could have a building, and a building gives you credibility. A building gives you a foundation, literally. In this case it gave me roots that were over 100 years old.
The building is a Historic-Cultural Monument, and owning one comes with a lot of red tape. Do you feel a sense of responsibility for the property because of its history?
It’s huge. The people who sold me the property understood that I understood it. In other words, they could’ve sold it to any developer who would’ve made it into a restaurant or condominiums. They knew I wanted to preserve this thing for the next generation.
It’s not unusual for congregations to rent spaces for services from time to time, but for different congregations to share a primary house of worship is unusual. What gave you the idea?
It wasn’t this brilliant idea from the get-go. Things happened here that reeked of ‘it was meant to be.’
The Welsh church said to me, ‘We’d really like to continue to be able to have services here a few times a year,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’d hope you’d have services here every month.’ They thought that was the coolest thing in the world.
Then I had a meeting with Chip Murray, who created First AME Church downtown. I said, ‘You’ve got to come by and see my new church.’ So he comes in and says, ‘Saint Craig, Saint Craig! You’re going to bring life into the Pico Union. I need to bring and seed a church here.’ He brought a pastor here the next week, and I fell in love with her.
And then when people in the Latino community found out that there was a new owner, they came to me and said, ‘This used to be the first home of something called Victory Outreach,’ the largest Latino Ministry in the world. They said, ‘We would love to come back,’ and I said, ‘Well, bring it on.’
Within a month or two, what I had originally thought would be a community space for theater and music became a multifaith house of worship.
And then I got a call from Aziza Hasan, and she said, ‘I want to hook you up to this woman that wants to start the Women’s Mosque of America,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, home run. This is amazing.’ And they could not believe that we would be open to it.
Have you encountered people who don’t think a multifaith chapel is a good idea?
Sure, because they live in their own bubble. Because they don’t know Korean people or they don’t know Jewish people or they don’t know Latino people, straight people, rich people, or poor people. Put them all under the same roof—suddenly they know them. There’s nothing to be scared of.
Has it been more difficult to make headway with some communities than with others?
The Jewish community.
Why do you think that is?
[Conservative Jews] are into conserving. We’re into keeping the way things used to be. And for many, many people that works.
You were associated with Sinai Temple for many years. But the temple’s not involved in this project. Is that right?
Very, very little. We are doing things together, but it’s not their project; it’s my project. For example, Rabbi Wolpe and I no longer do Friday Night Live, but this summer we’re doing Friday Night Live downtown.
Sinai Temple’s mission is far more about Israel. I lived in Israel for three years. Israel will survive. The only thing that will get in the way of that survival is when we lose our values and lose our way, and one of our primary values is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
So when people come and say, ‘Why are you focusing on these people downtown when we’re worried about our own survival?’ I’m not worried about our survival. I’m worried about our community, and our community is not just Jewish.
I know there are people who think I’m out of my mind. Some of them are my biggest funders, people who over the last 20 years supported me because they looked at me as this great spokesman for the Jewish people helping the Jews. I think being Jewish is much more than just taking care of our DNA. What I stand for is fixing the world. That, to me, is Jewish.
But you are now welcoming a Jewish group into the fold. What’s the status of that congregation?
I didn’t want to “hire a rabbi.” I wanted a group of people to come to me and say, ‘We want to use your space to create a Jewish faith community here,’ and that’s essentially what’s happening with Rabbi Sherre Hirsch. She was the associate rabbi at Sinai Temple for ten years and left to have children. We are going to be leading High Holiday services here for the first time this year. It’s called the Sanctuary at Pico Union, and it’s a safe place to celebrate Judaism.
What do you hope will be the project’s ultimate impact on the city?
In two, three years, I’ll still be doing this without question, and there will be a lot of day-to-day grind. But I think the model of the Pico Union can be scaled in congregations all over America. Churches and synagogues are folding every week because they are not financially viable. What if the Pico Union model, where you share expenses and space, was used in communities all over America and, for that matter, all over the world? What if faith communities took the lead in building bridges instead of creating walls and becoming inclusive spaces instead of becoming exclusive spaces? It’s doable.
We’ve already been offered five times what we bought the building for in cash. This area is on fire. It’s going to be Abbot Kinney. It’s going to be Melrose. It’s going to be Silver Lake. I want it to keep its indigenous, ethnic essence.