The Breed Street Shul: Rebuilding A Monument to LA’s Immigrant History
An empty silhouette of the ten commandments adorns the facade above the entrance to the Breed Street Shul. It was left behind by the mighty stone tablets when they dislodged in the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. Thirty-four years later, the steps below still sag with damage from the impact.
Expect a new set of commandments to rest in the bricks once more in the near future.
A piece of legislation recently signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom will provide the city of Los Angeles with $14.9 million to finish restoring the building. The bill was championed by Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D-Encino), who chairs the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, along with area representatives Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) and State Senator Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles, who both represent Boyle Heights.
For anyone wondering, Shul is the Yiddish word for meeting place, and colloquially means the same as a Jewish temple, or synagogue.
The former synagogue dates back to 1915. A second building, the one facing Breed Street, was added in 1923. The site is recognized as a historic-cultural monument by the city of L.A. and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But longtime efforts to restore the site are about more than saving a historic property. The Breed Street Shul Project, which began work to fix the buildings in the mid-1990s, is a 501c3 nonprofit that plans to house a cultural center there, including permanent exhibits that tell the neighborhood’s history. There’s also a plan to bring community non-profits and social services on-site.
'The Gateway Of Immigration In Los Angeles’
A tall, chain link fence with barbed wire atop guards the two former sanctuaries. It makes it hard to tell that just a few feet behind the damaged front building, the Breed Street Shul Project has already been hosting lectures, art exhibits, and children’s art and music classes for several years, though much of that has been on hold during the pandemic.
All that happens in the back building, the original Shul that was built in 1915 to serve what was then a thriving Eastern European Jewish population. At the time, Boyle Heights, formerly known as Brooklyn Heights, was home to the largest Jewish population in the West. It was also home to many Russian Molokans, along with Armenian, Mexican and Japanese immigrants.
Two doors down on Breed Street was the first Jewish Day School in L.A. The families started gathering nearby to observe services together. That’s where the original Talmud Torah name comes from: Talmud (Jewish teachings and the Hebrew word for learning) + Torah (Scrolls of the Jewish sacred texts, kept in every synagogue).
“Boyle Heights has really been the gateway of immigration in Los Angeles for over a hundred years,” said Dan Tenenbaum, who vice chairs the Breed Street Shul Project, or BSSP. “This project will celebrate that by telling the stories of the many groups that have come through Boyle Heights as immigrants.”
Launched by Steven Sass 25 years ago, the BSSP first sought to save the buildings from demolition after the official synagogue, Congregation Talmud Torah, dissolved in 1996.
For Sass, bringing the Breed Street Shul back to life is decades in the making. “Preservation is multigenerational and it takes a lot of time,” said Sass. “And raising the money is a big part of it.”
At first, the Shul’s grounds went the way of most abandoned buildings. In a short time, they fell into disrepair, and served as a canvas for graffiti, along with some property destruction. (The Shul project took care to note that none of the vandalism was antisemitic in nature.)
In 1996 Sass, who also leads the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, organized with others to have the city of L.A. install a chain link fence to protect the property from further destruction, in the hope of future revitalization.
Then came the ongoing struggle to raise the will — and the funding — to complete the project.
Restoration was completed for the smaller, original building in 2011.
The larger, front-facing structure built in 1923 is still in need of a lot of love, both inside and out. It’s not safe enough for the public to enter. A big, and costly, part of repairing the whole campus has been earthquake retrofits.
Restoration on the building has been stalled for ten years while waiting to finish the last 25% of those structural repairs, mainly to the roof. The BSSP couldn’t raise the last $2 million to make it happen. But the nearly $15 million in state money slated for the project should help with that.
Aside from the roof, there are other historical gems that need restoring: stained glass windows, wood ornamentation, and most spectacularly, the floor-to-ceiling paintings that served as backdrop for the rabbis who addressed the congregation.
The Breed Street Shul was humble in its original construction — a reflection of the working-class community it served.
“They didn't have elaborate interior decor,” said Tenenbaum. “So when you don't have actual gold and brass to work with, you paint. You do paintings of gold and brass.”
Just like the sanctuary paintings in the back building, already restored, the even larger displays inside the front building will need to have years of dirt and graffiti removed by a historic preservationist, with the support of an advising architect.
After the interior renovations are complete, including structural reinforcements, the walls will be strong enough to sandblast off the last bits of graffiti from the exterior.
Tikkun Olam, With The Community’s Input
When Sass founded the BSSP, his vision was not only to restore and preserve the rich Jewish history of Boyle Heights, but to honor and commemorate all the immigrant communities that have resided there, including the current, mostly Latino community.
It wasn’t enough to only protect the past, he thought, but to invest in the future. And a lot of that comes from the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, which translates to fixing or repairing the world. Sass said it’s a common idea shared by other faiths and cultures about making positive contributions.
“Being engaged in our community and using our time, our resources, our beings really to make the world a better place,” said Sass. “Jeremiah said, ‘Pray for the welfare of the city.’ And it's not just to pray, but it's actually to do. To be actively engaged.”
But what “repairing” the world looks like in practice can really vary on perspective and experience. In a neighborhood like Boyle Heights, where there’s a magnifying glass on the debate over gentrification, the influence of a big community project suggests some scrutiny.
Tanenbaum said the project has been designed in consultation with the community. “This was not about people from the Westside coming back and deciding what Boyle Heights needed,” he said. “This was the opposite. This is, ‘How can we be most useful to the neighborhood?’”
Plans are for the $14.9 million in state funds to help pay for an on-site community resource center where nonprofits, like legal and social services, can take up permanent residence, Sass said.
But locals will have a say, said Vivian Escalante, who founded Boyle Heights Community Partners, a non-profit that advocates for community preservation and engagement. She’s the historic preservation chair of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council that recently requested a presentation from the Breed Street Shul Project.
“There will be a message to the community, community organizers and leaders, to say, ‘What is it that you would like to see here at the Breed Street Shul?’” Escalante said.
Escalante echoed the potential for the space to be a bridge between the diverse communities that once lived and currently live in Boyle Heights.
“And many of us will be participating to voice our opinions...so that we can make sure that many groups are invited to participate in whatever it is that they're going to be offering, whether it's office space, community events — whatever it may be.”
The final design plans include a courtyard that will be open to the community. Currently, the walkway from the entrance on Breed Street to the back building is covered by wooden scaffolding to protect passersby from falling brick masonry.
But when the renovations are complete, that area and another on the north side of the building will become public outdoor spaces for people to gather.
A Bridge Between Communities
Sass hopes that reviving the Breed Street Shul to serve all of Boyle Heights will foster a closer relationship between members of the Jewish and Latino communities in L.A., and the rest of L.A.’s many cultures. With some emotion, he recalled a particular moment in a children’s program in the rear building called “History in a Box” that drove home for him the history of struggle shared by many immigrant groups.
“They do artwork based on the experience they've had in their own family histories, and one of the boys got up and his mom was there, and the painting he did was of her crossing the Rio Grande,” said Sass. “It's those stories, it's those connecting points that we want to continue to be told, and continue to inspire us going into the future.”
There’s lots of work ahead, but the restoration of the main front building is expected to be completed by 2023, its hundred-year anniversary.