Finding Sanctuary

Since its founding in 1923, Temple Beth Israel in Highland Park has quietly held on, at times just barely. For one lapsed believer, the struggle to keep L.A.’s second oldest synagogue alive has become a test of faith
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So this is what the faith of our fathers has come to.Through the lattice of chain-link, through a locked gate, my eyes wandered in, lingering a moment on the broken, battered sign advertising the fall of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock. Then my gaze resumed its ascent up a mound of dead grass to the summit and the shul itself. Built in 1920s Spanish colonial revival mode, it must have been a sweet and modest sanctuary once. Now the paint was peeling, the stucco patched. Stars of David and menorahs woven into the wrought-iron window screens protected its stained glass from local kids bent on mischief. The temple shared this stretch of Monte Vista Street with other houses of worship and ramshackle bungalows and apartment buildings, but here in Highland Park, a decaying neighborhood northeast of downtown, Jesus was king. His triumph was made manifest not only by the girth of the Catholic, Methodist, and Episcopal churches but by the area’s dominant Latino population,
a demographic that, when it gets religion, usually chooses Christ.

My girlfriend, Mary, and I had stumbled upon the synagogue in her red pickup, as we had so many other places in Greater Los Angeles. Reporters both of us, we meandered across the city in those years, hoping to uncover something quirky and wonderful, and usually we did—a tiki bar in Rosemead with 111 fish tanks, a South Pasadena hardware store that sold the world’s best grapefruit. We poured such finds into a column we wrote for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. But Beth Israel seemed a dismal candidate for the tongue in cheek. It was plain tragic, signaling a lost way of being, a sprig of the Jewish Diaspora that had withered and died.

When we got back to our Los Feliz apartment, I was surprised to find the temple in the phone book. I dialed, and an answering machine kicked in. A man’s voice with a reedy Irish brogue informed me that Beth Israel was a Conservative temple and held Shabbat services Saturdays at 10 a.m. In just a couple of months, September 1995, the synagogue would be celebrating High Holidays for the Jewish year 5756.

I hadn’t been searching for a temple. A secular Jew my adult life, I wasn’t interested in joining one. Mary and I were intrigued by Beth Israel mainly as a bit of urban anthropology. We wanted to connect a face with the voice on the answering machine, to see who might show up for services in a neighborhood seemingly devoid of any Jewish presence. Above all, we wanted to look inside.

A few weeks later on a Saturday morning,  Mary and I weren’t so much greeted as ambushed by Beth Israel’s Belfast-born president, Henry Leventon. His prayer shawl covered his scrawny body; his grizzled beard framed a smile as he fixed his eyes on us through smudged glasses. He grabbed our hands to shake them—or was it to prevent us from turning tail?—and told us he was “delighted! Just delighted!” that we’d deign to be here. The sanctuary was frayed but as inviting in its way as Henry. Its interior apparently had been updated in the 1950s with a midcentury redesign that was about to become hip again—deep walnut paneling behind the bimah, or dais, and a polished soffit traversing the ceiling, two enormous globes hanging down from it like otherworldly cow udders. Lions of Judah, abstract and made of brass, guarded the two exits.

However noble the Eames-era attempt at modernity, its effect was canceled out by the windows that lined the eastern and northern walls of the sanctuary. The morning light, filtered through those panels of golden stained glass, with their thin, six-pointed blue stars, suffused the interior with the sepia tones of a bygone photograph. The room couldn’t have held more than 150 in its heyday; now there were fewer than a dozen, including us. It was a decimated religious gathering, or minyan, and long in the tooth. We noticed there was no rabbi to preside over this Shabbat; the temple hadn’t been able to afford one for 20 years. Cantor Ken Rothstein’s day job was driving a cab. With the exception of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, built in 1929, endowed by movie moguls and as opulent as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Beth Israel was the oldest continually operating synagogue in Los Angeles. The air was redolent of Russia-Poland and the Lower East Side, of a Judaism from the shtetl and the ghetto—places I’d tended to romanticize.

Henry delivered the announcements for the week and introduced Mary and me. “As you know,” he said, “I like to call us Temple Beth Heymish because we’re homey.” OK, I was familiar with the Yiddish word heymish, which means “folksy” or “friendly.” “And Temple Beth Flexible,” he continued, “because we’re…flexible.” That required more explanation. As a Conservative synagogue Beth Israel was supposed to adhere to a fairly strict interpretation of religious law and ritual that divided the Jewish people from the rest of humanity. But later I’d discover that the temple bent those rules, embracing interfaith couples such as Henry and his late wife and me and Mary, who, though not religious, grew up on Easter eggs and Christmas trees. Gay Jews, recent converts still clinging somewhat to Jesus, and curious Mexican and Central American immigrants were welcomed without raised eyebrows. Henry pressed on with his Saturday-morning blend of blarney and schmaltz, tossing out puns and zingers and fielding the gentle broadsides offered up by the worshipers.

Beth Israel had an off-kilter ambience that spoke to us both. We returned for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To lead services for the Jewish New Year and  the Day of Atonement, the period of fasting and remembrance, the temple had hired a rabbi, the most recent in a procession of freelancers willing to work for meager wages. But Henry was the power behind the bimah, and he summoned me there for an aliyah, the recitation of the blessings before and after the reading of the Torah. It was an honor I hadn’t had since my bar mitzvah—and that I had no earthly right to expect now.

As a boy I had mastered the technique of slipping in and out of the High Holiday services—in the closing minutes of the silent Amidah prayer or the lull before the rabbi’s sermon—to avoid sitting through the entire presentation. At Temple Beth Israel, I couldn’t leave. The head count was so low that my departure would put a serious dent in it; the frail old lady right behind me might again need my help reaching the bathroom. Besides, Henry would notice any attempt to escape, and I’d surely hear about it later.

During Yom Kippur’s Yizkor service commemorating the dead, golden light enveloped the ancient faces of the mourners: Esther Simonoff and Minnie Cramer, tiny octogenarian sisters; Morrie Gutenstein, a retired organic chemist at Caltech, wearing a tattered baseball cap and shuffling toward the bimah with a walker that had split tennis balls for feet; Elsie Taussig, who had fled Czechoslovakia before the Nazis stormed in yet still said her prayers in a pronounced accent; Hy and Elaine Jaffee, two of the temple’s greatest benefactors; and the grande dame, Pauline Weinstein Ledeen, whose parents were temple founders. Partial to floral-print dresses, her wispy white hair swirled into a bun, Pauline smiled a lot and was unstinting with her opinions, which she usually punctuated with an index finger made crooked by arthritis. A retired lawyer in her eighties, she spent her time reaching out to Jewish inmates in L.A. prisons. The guards called her “Bubbe Teresa.” In the temple’s minuscule business office, you could see a photograph of her as a 14-year-old starring in the congregation’s 1924 Purim play—a raven-haired Queen Esther, berobed and bejeweled, her grin a mix of pride and mild embarrassment.

While the temple looked to be a third empty on this holiest moment of the year, the Beth Israel memorial boards were crowded. White with incandescence, they honored the friends, relatives, husbands, and wives who had once prayed here, noting their names and dates of death. Two volunteers read aloud the contents of the bronze plaques—Libby Lew, Freda Plotkin, Gertrude Zager, and dozens of others. In the stifling heat, Henry asked each of us to raise a hand to invoke the names of those we had lost who weren’t on the boards. “Don’t hesitate,” he said. “Don’t hesitate.” When it came my turn, I said the words “Samuel Bernard Leibowitz.” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spoken my father’s full name, but I remembered the last time I’d read it: on his gravestone, ten years earlier.

Nowhere else was the simple arithmetic of one’s own demise clearer than in this sanctuary, where the bright lights of the dead outshone the living. Nowhere else in this city did the deck seem so stacked against Judaism’s survival as it did in this threadbare neighborhood—never a significant center of Jewish life but long ago losing what vitality it had to the Westside, the San Fernando Valley, and Orange County. The ranchera horns blared; the car alarms cried; the stray dogs barked. Collectively they penetrated the sanctuary like the drone of a siege engine. What amazed me, what awed me on this Day of Awe, was that Temple Beth Israel had persisted, as Judaism itself had stubbornly persisted, despite the dictates of common sense, despite all the vectors pointing to its oblivion.

I wasn’t yet sensing the presence of a merciful or compassionate God, whom I had abandoned so many years ago. But the prayers, sung in such company, were not the usual empty melody. In this room I could once again feel Yom Kippur’s stirring power, the whole liturgy turned into something alive. Would it be too hyperbolic to tell you that as I rose for Yizkor, I felt roots spreading through the rubber soles of my shoes and piercing the hardwood? At the end of the service, Beth Israel was my own. I would drop by a handful of Saturday mornings a year to be showered with praise from Henry—delighted!—and weather his pitch-perfect Jewish-mother guilt trip about why I hadn’t visited more often. Mary and I became members, got married, and would return for a decade of High Holidays, until Morrie and Hy and Elaine and Esther and Minnie had joined their friends, siblings, and spouses, their plaques filling up ever scarcer real estate on the memorial boards, their own names read out at Yizkor. Some new, determined people joined the Shabbat minyan—not enough to take the places of the dead but enough to keep the doors open on Saturday mornings and the foundations from completely crumbling beneath. From his post on the bimah, through an open stained-glass window, Henry would peer out onto the street for familiar faces or fresh arrivals. He looked like the harbormaster of a forsaken port, waiting for a ship that would never return.

Before I found Beth Israel, I would sometimes buy a seat for High Holidays at this or that synagogue—perhaps out of some dim expectation that the fervor that had seized me as a teen in suburban New Jersey would resurface. But Judaism is sparing with its miracles, and inevitably, the experience would only confirm that my faith was moribund. There couldn’t have been an alternative outcome, surrounded as I was by other anonymous ticket holders, part of a vast paying audience without equity—spiritual or otherwise—in any of these places I drifted in and out of.

Judaism is at its core a patriarchy, so maybe it wasn’t the best fit for me. My birth father was a tightly wound engineer who worried about every penny and for whom every crumb in his Plymouth Valiant was a calamity. When my mom went into labor with me, he left her in order to buy stamps—the arrival of the baby announcements in our friends’ and relatives’ mailboxes weighing heavier on his mind than, well, my arrival. His mother was by the time I knew her a Jew for Jesus who sang worshipful songs in a shrill falsetto—It took a miracle / to put the stars in the sky! I began life in a home ruled by his neuroses, but before I turned one, my mother had fled with my sister and me to her brother’s place. Though we were hardly in hiding, more than a month went by before my father caught up with us. Following the divorce, my sister and I visited him each weekend, then twice a month, and then less than that. When I was ten, he sank into a red velvet chair in our living room. Listening to what my mother, my sister, my stepfather, and I had to say, he agreed to let my stepfather adopt us, to have nothing to do with us again.

As he rose from his seat, I took in the totality of my father—the nerd glasses and crew cut straight out of 1955, the scarecrow body, the mouth shaped so much like mine. I had told him that I wanted this separation, but what else was I going to say? In the seven years since my mother had remarried, Bernie Leibowitz had more than proved himself a father to me. Bernie was stocky, smiling and laughing instead of tamped down like my birth father. He was generous with his hugs and spent lavishly on my sister and me. Still, no matter how unfavorable these comparisons or how much I loved Bernie, I felt a bond with my birth father that was, at bottom, biological.

We had a party to celebrate the adoption. Conspicuous among my gifts was a miniature silver mezuzah, the ornament holding Judaism’s essential prayer, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Usually it is nailed to the front doorpost, but this mezuzah was meant to hang around my neck on a silver chain. Engraved on its face were my new initials “E.L.” Like nothing else it brought home that the name I was born with wasn’t mine anymore. From then on, whether I aced the English final or broke my arm, starred in the camp play or got the crap kicked out of me, whether I succeeded spectacularly or fell flat on my face, I would do so as Eddie Leibowitz.

It was a good time to be Bernie’s son. He’d risen beyond his working-class upbringing in Bensonhurst to become an executive vice president of a girls’ clothing company. He had a prime view of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade out his office window and a company-leased Buick Electra in our garage, which he’d discard after two years for a newer model. The size 7½ double-E shoes Bernie wore were Bally of Switzerland; his watch was the same Omega Speedmaster that the astronauts had taken to the moon. He carried around an Italian leather “man purse” years before people knew what to call that singular accessory. Much of his ostentation harked back to the old neighborhood—the platinum-and-sapphire pinkie ring, the thick gold rope chains, the oversize Star of David that rested atop his barrel chest like a flattened crown.

Bernie and my mother were High Holiday Jews—nonbelievers whose religious obligations didn’t go much further than saying the Yizkor prayer for their parents. They weren’t about to observe the Day of Atonement on an empty stomach. At home we celebrated Passover and Hanukkah, but that was about it. My parents revered the heritage, the history of suffering and the deep divide between Judaism and Christianity, while dismissing the Scripture and the practices that underlie it all. They reveled in the achievements of Albert Einstein and Woody Allen, secular Jews tapping into a wellspring of cultural genius. Always they reminded us that we too were different in a sense that meant “better.” Oh, and because we were better, half the world had always wanted to kill us.

The Conservative synagogue they joined, Temple Emanu-El of Englewood, New Jersey, was, as I recall it, an institution where wealth and status held sway, where the families of the machers—insurance agents, businessmen, lawyers, and other big donors who had the most to gain from their temple connections—commanded the first ten rows at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The sanctuary accommodated more than a thousand, but my family’s High Holiday worship went on outside it. We were relegated, with other members who paid only basic dues, to the adjoining social hall. An accordion partition between the two rooms had been flung open so we could see the bimah in the distance from our white folding chairs.

Temple Emanu-El wasn’t simply another congregation of Jersey strivers. It was among the most highly regarded Conservative synagogues on the East Coast, reflecting the renown of its rabbi, Arthur Hertzberg. Stout and imposing, with black horn-rimmed glasses and a voice that could move heaven and earth, Rabbi Hertzberg was an eminent Jewish thinker of his generation. President of the American Jewish Congress, acclaimed scholar, writer, and university professor, he bore himself majestically, as if the temple was lucky to have him, which it was. He was no shepherd to lead a young flock.

Rabbi Hertzberg criticized some of the extreme measures taken by Israel in the name of survival, and he once wrote that American Jews derive too much of their identity from memories of the Holocaust. Had he been more involved with Temple Emanu-El’s Hebrew school, he might have been appalled to find that students were exposed to  documentaries like the one in which heaps of murdered concentration camp victims were bulldozed into mass graves. The rabbi’s absence was just as conspicuous as we studied for our bar and bat mitzvahs. Our cantor taught us the blessings and the haftarah passage we’d read on the big day.

At Temple Emanu-El the hard work of haftarah was rewarded by moments on the bimah alongside Rabbi Hertzberg, a bland, artery-clogging banquet, a kitschy cover band, wet kisses, weeping relatives, and naturally, fistfuls of cash and checks—some of which I used to buy a color television for my room. In the weeks after my bar mitzvah my parents began noticing that I didn’t want to eat chicken parmigiana anymore (meat with milk, unkosher!) and that on Saturday mornings the TV stayed off.  When I awoke I’d slap a yarmulke on my matted hair and read a page of the Bible in bed. I devoured The Chosen, Chaim Potok’s coming-of-age saga about Brooklyn’s Hasidim. The rebbe’s son in the novel rebelled against his future, but I was jealous: Judaism as sketched by Potok had such authenticity; it offered belonging and permanence. It seemed so distant from the deracinated suburb in which I was marooned—the spotless streets deserted, the neighbors strangers, and one’s family not part of anything that could be called a community.

My parents encouraged my newfound faith. My mother made my meals as kosher as possible in a household fond of bacon. On Saturdays my father and I would go to temple together, where we’d get close enough to see the cantor’s neck muscles tighten as he sang, the rabbi’s brow cloud over as he spoke. Bernie’s company had shut down some months after I turned 13. My bar mitzvah celebration at the local country club turned out to be his last hurrah as a big shot, and he was drifting into the first of a number of failed ventures and sales jobs, each worse than the last. As he sang in synagogue, his face appeared relaxed, bearing none of the anger and frustration that consumed it while we sat in our season seats to watch the foundering New York Giants. The prayers—in their cadence and content—were identical to those he had heard growing up. When the services were over, Bernie would give me a hug, his beard scratching my cheek as he kissed it, and we’d make our way to the social hall. Over Manischewitz and challah, Rabbi Hertzberg might say some words to my dad, then single me out, calling me his little genius. Not exactly accurate, I thought, but then there were few 13- and 14-year-old boys in the sanctuary upon whom to bestow that kind of praise. Most had moved on to worshiping Led Zeppelin.

What I wanted from Judaism, beyond God Himself, was to connect to something more meaningful and enduring than suburban New Jersey in the ’70s. Instead, all the rules and rituals—huddling under the covers with my Bible and my yarmulke, forgoing pork, and not shopping for records or watching Bugs Bunny on Saturdays—only cemented my isolation. I found it impossible to be truly observant in such surroundings, and I began viewing God less as a benevolent force than as a taskmaster focused on me alone, for whom no sacrifice was good enough. The services brought me closer to my father, but as the jobs got shabbier and his anger and self-pity scalded, the need to detach from him overpowered empathy or love. Meanwhile Emanu-El remained what it had always been for me, scarcely more welcoming when there were 30 people inside than when there were a thousand. The stratification line between our family and those who counted was just as sharply drawn.

By 16, I was a confirmed agnostic. One weekend I went back to Temple Emanu-El for a rummage sale with my friend Danny, whose dad was a macher there. We ran into Rabbi Hertzberg, who brightened when he saw Danny and then, turning to the little genius he had bar mitzvahed, said, without a trace of recognition, “Hello, I’m Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg.”

From the moment Mary started showing, everybody said we were going to have a boy. We didn’t want to know the gender of our baby in advance, but for us, too, there was never really a doubt. We’d settled on three possible names, and when our son came out, we decided he looked like an Isaac. It was a symbolically loaded choice, naming our son after the son of Judaism’s first patriarch, the first baby to be circumcised under the religion’s oldest covenant. “He will laugh” is the English translation of the Hebrew word Yitzhak. In Genesis the birth of Isaac isn’t an event of unmixed joy, leading as it does to the banishment of his half brother Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, who was Abraham’s slave. Only after Abraham proves his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at the altar does God promise to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. Even when I believed, I was hard-pressed to find a moral in such a test of faith. Now, with the naming of our child, maybe I was testing mine.

      Since discovering Temple Beth Israel ten years before, I had backslid as an agnostic, but my devotion to the synagogue was stronger than any religious feeling. We’d moved to Eagle Rock, much closer to the shul, and we continued showing up on High Holidays and the occasional Shabbat. However prodigal we were, those times we stepped into the sanctuary we felt a little closer to something we knew to be sacred.

There are men who desire to give their sons what their fathers gave them. I wanted Isaac to have none of the rejection and bitterness I’d experienced. If my memories of organized religion were of a hierarchy in which my family was at the bottom, in which the social pressures outside the sanctuary became worse inside it, I wanted Judaism for Isaac to be a comfort and a refuge, connecting him to his heritage as well as to other Jewish children of his place and time. I wanted him to be part of a community not directed by the machers with the largest pocketbooks or the rabbi with the peerless résumé but motivated by a shared sense of struggle, a shared faith.

I wanted, in short, to give him everything Beth Israel had offered me, but that seemed an impossibility. Over the years the temple had launched new social events and made some physical improvements. Through the exertions of its members, California native plants had replaced the dead grass of its front lawn. A new air-conditioning system meant that on Yom Kippur we didn’t have to fast and broil. The temple’s backlit sign was restored and remounted. Still, for Isaac, and for us as his parents, the synagogue could provide nothing—no women’s association, no Hebrew school, no other families with young children. Mary and I had doubts it would be around by the time our son reached 13. Already the congregation had dwindled to about 38 memberships, made up mostly  of single people and retirees.

In the spring of 2006, after Isaac’s second birthday, I was approached by Bill Fishman, a Macintosh software specialist with a white handlebar mustache, who had assumed the temple presidency after Henry retired. He told me about a talk he’d had with Lewis “Buz” Bogage, the latest of our High Holiday rabbis. Both thought that I might want to take a crack at getting a family program off the ground and that the best way to do it was to join Beth Israel’s board.

From the earliest days of our relationship, Mary had abided my tendency to fight for lost causes. She indulged me when I decided to shop exclusively at mom-and-pop stores in an age of retail chains, when I insisted we drive miles out of our way to fill up on gasoline that couldn’t enrich the regimes of Myanmar or Nigeria, and when I’d fritter away days helping friends who seemed bent on snipping the safety nets I tried to stretch out for them. This notion of reviving family life at Beth Israel might have seemed another pointless campaign had Mary’s own love for the temple not colored her judgment. She couldn’t think of another place she’d prefer to have Isaac bar mitzvahed, any other environment in which she’d feel so much a part of his growth as a Jew.

My first board meeting was an unsentimental education in Temple Beth Israel politics. We convened on a Sunday morning in the synagogue’s social hall, with its musty drapes, folding tables, and the corkboard collage of magazine clippings celebrating Israel’s 25th birthday (never mind that the rest of world Jewry was celebrating its 58th). For our nosh we had watery coffee and freezer-burned bagels with cream cheese.

Henry, now president emeritus, served on the board. Surrounding him were such Saturday stalwarts as Jayne Kaplan, a fiery attorney whose soprano rendition of a Holocaust song on Yom Kippur always brought me to tears; Mark Strunin, a former Hebrew school principal and currently a public health care manager; and Robert Czinner, a Hungarian émigré who played classical piano in Nordstroms around Los Angeles.

At 96, Pauline Weinstein Ledeen remained the board’s strongest children’s advocate. In 1993, two years before I came to Beth Israel, a group of local parents—“the hordes of Mount Washington,” I’ll call them—started availing themselves of the sanctuary for Friday-night services and retained their own rabbi; they wanted nothing to do with Shabbat morning. A majority of the temple’s leaders saw this as the beginning of a hostile takeover. Henry remembered the heated telephone call in which a newcomer asked him, “How long do you think you’re going to be around?” The hordes were expelled. Beth Israel’s secretary-treasurer and sometime chauffeur for its elderly, Ken Ofgang, recalled driving Pauline and Elsie Taussig home one day after temple. From the back seat Pauline was castigating congregants for pushing the Mount Washington families away. Elsie kept her silence, but after Pauline got out she said to Ken, “I didn’t want to say anything when she was in the car, but those people were terrible.”

Unlike the Mount Washington hordes, I was a member in good standing. During that first meeting, I submitted to the board a written proposal for a Beth Israel “Parent and Me” class, to be held once a month on Sunday mornings. “A New Demographic,”one section began, asserting, based on the flimsiest of evidence, “a vast transformation of the L.A. real-estate market, which has brought more Jewish families into the Temple’s vicinity than at any time during its history.” Nobody appeared to read past a couple of sentences, but within ten minutes my plan was approved unanimously. Igniting far greater passion was the prospect of once again koshering the temple kitchen for Passover. Before I knew it, despite the best efforts of President Fishman, rival camps were engaged in fierce combat over whether our drawers and countertops should be safeguarded against any traces of leavened bread by covering them with aluminum foil sheets or paper towels.

My children’s program would continue to have enthusiastic backing, but as a whole, the leadership didn’t seem convinced that Beth Israel was facing extinction. Provided the stalwarts were able to chant the prayers and parade around the Torah on Saturday mornings and wage world-historical battles over preparing the kitchen for Passover, how could the temple not survive?

The founders of our temple came from neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, and Brooklyn, where the synagogue and the kosher butcher were always within walking distance. Many of them had prospered, but spiritually their new home of Highland Park was barren. How to raise a Jewish child in such a wilderness? When this group of Jewish families got together to establish what would become Beth Israel in December 1923, the spiritual future of the next generation was foremost in their thoughts. The congregation was called “The Highland Park Hebrew School Association.” “Intellectual advancement of children of the members” was a founding principle.

The next year they purchased a site for their sanctuary—a high bluff with a sweeping view of the streetcar traffic and commerce along Monte Vista Street. For the next six years the land lay dormant as they held services and functions at the local Odd Fellows Hall and Masonic Temple. In 1930, with the Great Depression pounding down and a mortgage of several thousand dollars to meet, the men of the association dropped plans to build a synagogue. Their wives, convening in a library basement, decided to break ground without them and go further into debt. That September, Beth Israel observed its first High Holiday services—its exterior walls a mass of exposed plaster, its front steps a scaffold of two-by-fours.

The Depression shuttered synagogues and dissolved Hebrew schools across Los Angeles. World War II, with its austerities, continued the decline. Unlike the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Beth Israel hadn’t any studio heads in the congregation. Nor was there the strength in numbers that the Breed Street shul drew on in Boyle Heights, then the city’s most densely settled Jewish neighborhood. By the war’s end, Highland Park’s synagogue had survived but was a shambles.

 

“Jewish life in our community was in a state of suspended animation,” Beth Israel president Albert Gorian wrote in the temple’s 1948 yearbook. “Our congregation was small and weak. Our Temple lacked a qualified, modern, spiritual leader; our Sunday school children were instructed by other children. Religious services were limited to High Holidays and the Sabbath morning minyan, while the rest of the year the sanctuary was mostly dark.” To pull the temple out of its torpor, the leaders hired Beth Israel’s first full-time rabbi, circled Jewish-sounding names in the phone book, and began knocking on doors—“to awaken within ourselves and within our lackadaisical Jewish neighbor that dormant spiritual spark,” as Gorian put it. Conditions were conducive in a way they hadn’t been before nor would be again: The Nuremberg Trials were revealing the depths of the Holocaust, and Israel was fighting its way into existence, galvanizing the secular and the religious. Just as crucial, faced with a tight postwar housing market, Highland Park’s Jewish families were staying put. Within a year of the outreach effort, Beth Israel’s membership had nearly tripled.

Over the next decade, the temple’s sisterhood thrived, and its lights seemed perpetually switched on to accommodate a social calendar of dances, charity drives, and holiday celebrations. Beth Israel’s Hebrew school swelled to 60 students from around the neighborhood. Jerome Share, a temple member who had worked for designer Raymond Loewy in New York, conceived the sanctuary’s stylish midcentury makeover.

The renaissance would last 12 years. By 1960, the Jewish education program had folded for lack of fresh pupils. The decade would cripple what Jewish community remained on L.A.’s Eastside. Jews began flooding into the city in unprecedented numbers, but they bypassed the older neighborhoods for the Fairfax District, the Valley, West L.A., and Beverly Hills. Many of the temple’s families and a few of its rabbis joined them. Highland Park followed the typical blueprint for urban blight—as the middle class abandoned it en masse, the vacuum was filled with new immigrants who couldn’t afford better. Crime rose with economic privation. Soon after Henry Leventon attended his first High Holiday services in 1976, Rabbi Mayer Joel Franklin, the temple’s last full-time rabbi, died of a heart attack, and Beth Israel ceded all claims to viability.

 “This place is on fire,” Bill Fishman declared. He seemed as if he were about to jump out of his socks, giddy on the Beth Israel bimah as the seconds ticked down on Yom Kippur last year. It was not exaggeration. The temple president was beaming at a packed house. Almost everyone was standing, and many of those standing were not more than a few feet tall. Never had I seen the sanctuary so celebratory and abloom with life. Bill had called up to the bimah at least 20 boys and girls with their parents. At the signal, the kids put their toy shofars to their lips and blew. I watched as Isaac’s cheeks puffed out, his blond curls shimmering in the fading light as he joined the cacophony that heralded not just the end of this Day of Atonement for the Jewish Year 5768, but for the temple, some hope of regeneration.

Things hadn’t started out so auspiciously for our children’s program. In the spring of 2006, with our “Parent and Me” mandate, Mary and I began by overhauling the kiddie corner in the temple’s social hall, sifting through faded stuffed toy Torahs, a Noah’s ark missing its animals, a 1950s flapping duck, Jewish textbooks from the dawn of the Eisenhower administration. We supplied crayons, construction paper, and clay. We went to Ikea to buy a cheery red table shaped like a peanut, which Mary drove to a machine shop to have its legs sawed down to toddler size. I leafleted the local coffeehouses and helped write an ad for the community newspaper—without a nibble. No one seemed to be interested. At the time, I figured the problem lay in the product I had to sell. Aspiring to ritual purity yet stopping short of orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism calls for rigorous religious practices that most of its adherents don’t follow and refuses to accept children of interfaith marriages as Jewish unless the mother is Jewish. It has been in decline for generations. Temple Beth Flexible’s brand of conservatism wasn’t nearly that strict, but I was certain that the affiliation was enough to scare many people away before they could find that out.

Our new group would amount to only six families—mostly friends of friends. Among our founding parents we counted a German plant ecology professor and a pediatric oncologist who sported a beard like C. Everett Koop’s, an Argentine cancer researcher, and a women’s knitwear designer with a tattoo of the Little Prince on her shoulder. We busied our toddlers with holiday-themed art projects and hamantaschen and challah, traded parenting tips, and watched them develop a sense of balance and a sense of humor. We were a resolute bunch. Rarely did any of us miss a gathering.

Three months before the 2007 High Holidays, the temple leadership approved my proposal to broaden the children’s program to include toddler High Holiday services and a Shabbat family gathering the second Friday night of each month. Since the synagogue was broke as always, several board members pledged their own money to get us going. Mark Strunin eagerly signed on to lead us. It had taken too many months, but by now I had finally gotten it through my head that if there existed a reverse exodus of Jewish families into the Highland Park area, the way to reach them wasn’t by xeroxed circulars or ads in the local paper but via e-mail. The Web alerts I had sent to our little group had been forwarded and forwarded until maybe a hundred Jewish families knew about our events. Others had found us through the temple Web site Bill created.

The High Holidays had gone much better than imagined. I had no reason to expect a stronger commitment to our Friday services than I had demonstrated on Saturday mornings, but the first family Shabbat drew 40 people. We’ve usually managed to attract about that number since, following our worship with potluck spreads that tend more toward Tuscan bean salad, quiche, and Two Buck Chuck than herring, horseradish, and Manischewitz. Toddlers and second graders were once again stars of the Purim play, and Beth Israel’s Hanukkah party overflowed the social hall into the sanctuary. At our packed seder the synagogue had to rent extra folding chairs, an expense it probably hadn’t incurred in half a century. Fourteen families have joined, accounting for nearly 50 percent of the congregation. I haven’t done the math, but I’m willing to bet that during the past year, the average age of a Beth Israel member has plunged at least decades. Like myself, some of the parents we’ve attracted found their childhood synagogues hierarchical, austere, and way too large. In Beth Israel, they have discovered the kind of community they had known only by its absence.

Since Alison Becker, one of our devoted moms, has joined the board, I’ve noticed there haven’t been as many shouting matches and there’s more common cause. Still, the family program lost what was to me its most inspirational voice when Pauline died in December. She had attended a few Friday nights. At 97, she’d become frail, but her eyes lit up at the sight of the children. “It’s wonderful—I think what you’re doing is just wonderful,” she told us.

Exactly 78 years after it was built for Pauline’s generation, Beth Israel is shaping Isaac’s earliest notions of what it means to be a Jew, just as it is shaping those of Tovi and Eliam, of Ben and Gus, of Jake and Alexa, of Sam and Aaron and Shane and Hannah and Victor and other children from the surrounding neighborhoods. For the toddlers, Judaism means leaping off the bimah and tearing around the temple grounds, but it also means absorbing the rhythms of the service and the melody for the closing prayer of Adon Olam—a gentle introduction to the “Lord of the World.” It means anticipating the lighting of the Shabbat candles and the prayers that precede the grape juice and the challah, and knowing that the worship and connectedness that happen inside the sanctuary belong to them.

We’ve got plans that, by Temple Beth Israel’s standards anyway, are audacious. We’re about to launch a religious school for seven- to nine-year-olds, taught by Mark, to begin charting a path to bar and bat mitzvahs. The board has hired Faith Tessler, a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion who’s just beginning her rabbinical career, to preside not only over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur but on Saturday mornings once a month. I can sense all this momentum, then our turnout will be sparse one Friday night, our finances will seem particularly grim, or some urgent e-mail I’ve sent out will be greeted by near silence, and I’ll begin to wonder whether any of these setbacks could signal the beginning of the end, whether the piano will indeed fall from the sky and crush everything our synagogue has accomplished.

Of course, because I’m Jewish there’s always more than one half-empty glass to brood over. Although our families number fewer than 20, I  worry that we’re getting too large—any more success and we’re bound to dilute what has made us so vital. There are times, too, when from the standpoint of simple belief I’ll question whether I’m the right person to be doing all this. Will my own religious feelings, stronger but not what they were when I was a newly bar mitzvahed teen, ever solidify into something resembling certainty? Then I’ll remind myself of the covenant our congregation has entered into—that if Judaism can somehow be made to grow again in the once inhospitable soil of Highland Park, then surely it can grow inside us as parents, and in our children, despite the doubts and distractions that divert us elsewhere.

Recently Mary, Isaac, and I spent a long weekend camping at a wooded trailer park near the mountain town of Julian. With us were two families we had met at synagogue who’ve become friends. Together we lit Shabbat candles on the picnic table and blessed the wine and the challah. Worlds away from the temple this Friday night—surrounded by wild turkeys and old travel trailers and manzanita trees gnarled in the moonlight—Isaac launched into a spontaneous rendition of “Shabbat Shalom.” Beth Israel’s spirit within him, he knew exactly where and who he was.
 
Photograph by Michael Kelley 

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