Off the Path - Ari Noonan

Below is an excerpt from Ari L. Noonan's column "Off the Path," appearing in the Heritage Southwest Jewish Press on Friday, October 15, 1993.

Heritage Southwest Jewish Press was the weekly newspaper of the late and great Herb Brin.

 

Highland Park synagogue surprises everyone by surviving — and thriving

Jewish life in Los Angeles is so tightly stereotyped that when a Jewish community is discovered beyond the borders of the Westside and the San Fernando Valley, the newly-found Jews tend to be treated as if they were Martian oddballs or illegal aliens.

It may even turn out that way for the unusual denizens of stubborn little Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, who are participating in an amazing story on the congregation’s 70th anniversary.

Yiddishkeit always has been pretty thin in this northeast sliver of Los Angeles. “A Jewish desert” is what Henry Leventon, one of the temple’s presidents, calls the area, which is mostly inhabited by Spanish-speaking immigrants.

But Temple Beth Israel not only isn’t dying, it is thriving — a Conservative congregation that seems to have reason to pound its chest in pride.

IT HASN’T CHANGED MUCH — Temple Beth Israel, an unusual Conservative congregation in Highland Park, has been at home at 5711 Monte Vista Ave. since the High Holidays of 1930, and the cream-colored building scarcely has changed much in the intervening 63 years, from its well-manicured lawn to its tidy, spacious interior.

No one is quite sure why Temple Beth Israel is enjoying a rejuvenation, except that, as Leventhon explains, when there aren’t many Jews around, the few who remain stay close together and rely only on each other.

Also for reasons that are not clear to anyone, 16 young professional families with small children somehow wandered off the Jewish path in recent months and found their way into the handsome 140-seat, paneled sanctuary.

Membership, what Leventon calls “a mix of young and established families,” stands at 70. They come out for Shabbat services every Saturday at 10 a.m. and once a month on Friday nights.

If you had been standing alongside the cream-colored synagogue a couple of Sunday mornings ago, and if you had closed your eyes, the sounds could have been mistaken for Pico-Robertson or Fairfax. A happy, noisy blend of kids, bubbes and zaydes was milling around the spacious sukkah. Others were inside in the roomy social hall, standing or sitting at rectangular tables, creating imaginative sukkahs out of sticks from ice cream bars.

***

Now it is another warm but cloudy morning, and Leventon is behind a desk in the small paneled front office of Temple Beth Israel.

He is bursting to tell the recent story of this unique little community. Wearing his favorite blue gabardine yarmulke, the curly-haired, gray-bearded widower is as charming as a leprechaun — for good reason. Every syllable still drips with a rich Irish brogue, although more than 40 years have passed since he left his native Belfast.

Henry likes to call his synagogue “Temple Beth Flexible.” It is a Conservative congregation where many members have intermarried. But at Temple Beth Flexible, the officers have a policy to include non-Jewish spouses.

Leventon is a 63-year old retired bank vice president. He recalls poignantly how his late wife Josephine, who was not Jewish, would joyously carry a Torah around the sanctuary on Simchat Torah before dying of cancer at the age of 32.

Henry, Josie and their three young children had found Temple Beth Israel, set well back off of the street and up an incline, in the late summer of 1976 when they moved over from Glendale.

The rabbi, Mayer Franklin, died three days after the High Holidays of 1976. His successor also passed away. Marc Sirinsky, a rabbinic intern studying at the University of Judaism, leadsservices now.

Friday night services were dropped a few years ago. Members were aging, the synagogue did not have a parking lot and the senior citizens didn’t want to walk through the neighborhood after dark.

When monthly Friday night services resumed last June, one longtime member recalled that there were 47 adults “and about 2,000 children. It was wonderful!”

The next Friday night service is on Oct. 29.

Beth Israel never has trouble making a minyan on Shabbat morning. Leventon remembers only three misses in the 17 years he has been a member.

As part of the congregation’s revival, Rabbi Sirinksky is leading a recently formed chavurah, to keep members stimulated and spirtually hungry.

FROM THE INSIDE — The sanctuary of Temple Beth Israel rings with the laughter of children’s voices every Shabbat morning as a growing number of young families are finding a home in Highland Park.

Reuben Shavit was the cantor of Temple Beth Israel for 23 years. He carried a name that now resonates throughout the Conservative movement. His son-in-law, Bradley Shavit Artson, is nationally regarded as a major rising rabbinic star.

Readers of HERITAGE will recognize the rabbi of Congregation Eilat, Mission Viejo, as one of the newspaper’s most popular columnists. Rabbi Artson has achieved celebrity in his father-in-law’s temple, too. Occasionally, his column on the Torah portion of the week is read to the congregants of Temple Beth Israel.

Leventon wears several yarmulkes as an officer. As the treasurer he reports that the price for family membership — which includes two seats for the High Holidays — lately has been increased to $100. That is roughly 10 per cent of what other synagogues might charge, officials say.

As Leventon’s thick brogue travels through the 70 years since founding families began meeting at the Odd Fellows Hall in the old Miller Building, contemporary music rocks out of the kitchen, across the sanctuary and into the front office. Taking care of Temple Beth Israel turns out to be a family affair. Mollie, one of Leventon’s three daughters, is busily cleaning the Social Hall, making it sparkle again after the latest oneg Shabbat.

LEARNING THE TRADITION — Mollie Leventon of Eagle Rock shows her 21-month old son Daniel one of the favorite traditions of Jewish children, building a sukkah with ice cream sticks.

***

Ida Waller, 90 years old, is the senior member of the congregation. Before last Shabbat, she announced that this would be the 77th anniversary of the bar mitzvah of her late husband. Could she lead the Maftir service? She already knew the answer would be yes.

“I hate the expression that people are turned-off to Judaism,” said Leventon. But many new members use that expression to Weiss and Leventon when they describe unpleasant past experiences with Yiddishkeit. In response, Weiss, Leventon and the other officers, have made Temple Beth Israel an egalitarian congregation. They give honors not only to women as well as men but to non-Jews too.

“We are Conservative but not rigid,” Leventon said. “If you want to encourage people to participate, you don’t come up with negatives to keep them out.”

The Jewish background of members is not questioned. “No one asks to see their Green Cards,” Leventon said. In an era when larger congregations are sinking, Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock is showing Los Angeles that you don’t have to be in the mainstream to be se...


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