History

History

L-R past president, Bill Fishman, current president, Mark Strunin, past president Henry Levinton

L-R past president, Bill Fishman, current president, Mark Strunin, past president Henry Levinton

Temple Beth Israel was incorporated on December 18, 1923. We moved into our present synagogue building in 1929. The interior was remodeled in 1948. According to what we can find out, we’re the second-oldest temple in L.A. that is still operating in its original location.

Artcle by Ed Leibowitz in Los Angeles Magazine, September, 2008

Ed knows our congregation well. He’s been an important part of our resurgence, and nothing has helped more than than his beautifully written article.

Truth Is Stranger

Jerome (Jerry) Share got his degree at the University of Minnesota in Design and Interior Design and then went to New York to work in the studio of Raymond Loewy, the premier industrial designer of the mid-Twentieth century. (Loewy designed the Coca-Cola bottle.) Jerry moved back to Los Angeles to take over the family business (bottling Pepsi-Cola), but he threw his creative energy and knowledge into redesigning the interior of Temple Beth Israel in Mid-Century Art Deco style. He kept the existing 1929 stained glass windows but covered the two windows at the front of the sanctuary and designed and had fabricated two brass frames that let the Stars of David shine through. It’s a wonderful effect, and quite inspirational as we pray. He also added a lot of warm wood paneling with zig-zag accents and designed two Lion of Judah sculptures that are installed over the doors. He also did a rendering of a proposed religious school building, but that was never accomplished.

Jerry and Gloria’s neighbor Adel lives in a house that she refers to as the Birtcher-Share residence. At one time it was owned by Jerome Share. Adel was cleaning out her kitchen one day when she came upon some old papers. These turned out to be Jerome Share’s original renderings of the temple interior, including various stages of sketches and the full-size cartoons for the Lion of Judah sculptures. Adel was nice enough to give these to Jerry and Gloria, who forwarded them to us.

The following is a statement by Jerome Share from The Observer, the temple’s newsletter at the time, from April, 1949. Some of the proposed changes were made, some weren’t, and some were made but differently than described.

There’ll Be Some Changes Made

Perhaps you have been wondering about all the buzzing around the Temple lately. It seems that our long-cherished dreams of expansion and remodeling are about to come true.

The first change to meet your eye will be the painting of the exterior of the Temple—dazzling white with trim of blue. And flood-lights will shine on the building instead of in your eyes. Minor surgery will remove the little shed-room which hides the really good lines of the Temple. Over the doorway will be mounted a bronze tablet proclaiming our Faith, and flanking the doorway will be a large wooden Menorah. If these confirm the suspicion that there is a Jewish Temple in Highland Park—GOOD!

Many extensive changes are planned for the Hall of Worship. We hope to make it just that—a Hall of Worship! One befitting the beauty and dignity of our religious services.

The Holy Ark will be fitted with sliding doors fashioned in the form of the two tablets of the Law and the inscriptions of the Ten Commandments will be hand-carved and lettered in gold on them. The entire Ark Wall will be of American Walnut, covering even the two windows. Only the stained-glass Stars of David will show, and at evening services, lights will shine thru. The Stars will be framed in a deep beveled shadow-box, which also forms a six pointed star.

Flanking the Ark will be two fluted walnut pilasters, these will slide together on recessed tracks to curtain the Ark when religious services are not being held. Both the pilasters and the Ark itself will be lined in asbestos to protect our Holy Scrolls in the event of a fire (God forbid).

The reader’s stand will be faced on three sides with fluted walnut to match the pilasters and the pulpit itself will be squared off to afford a more spacious stage.

The doors from the lobby and the doors to the social hall will be framed in a large sheet of walnut up to the ceiling and continue across it, connecting and unifying the entrances. Over each doorway will be a pair of carved Lions of Judah.

The other columns in the room will be faced in fluted walnut continuing across the ceiling to its opposite member in a similar manner to the door treatment. Behind these ceiling beams will be cold-cathode lights, creating an even lighting throughout the room.

To finish the scheme, the floors will be sanded and the walls and ceiling painted, not only in the Sanctuary, but in all the other rooms, also.

The expansion part of the program is the erecting of an additional room of over six hundred square feet of floor space. This will be added in the angle between the social hall and the kitchen. Not only will this space function as a much-needed class-room and club-room, but on occasions of larger gatherings, the doors will swing open to form part of the larger social hall. It will have its own doorway and cloak-room so that entrance through the Hall of Worship will no longer be necessary. And to facilitate the serving of refreshments (hear ye, hear ye) a door will be cut from the kitchen.

We hope this program meets with your approval. If it does, credit Jack Gordon and his hard-working committee. If it doesn’t, blame only yourself—you should have been in there helping.

Of course such a program requires financing—and that is the next problem to be solved. ANY SUGGESTIONS??

—JEROME SHARE

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE — Statement by Albert Gorian in Temple Year Book, 1948

For several years in the mid-1940s, the temple held an annual fundraiser and produced a yearbook, which was a small magazine with a few articles by officers and members and many ads from local merchants. The yearbook was primarily a fundraiser, but is a valuable source for temple history. The following article appeared in the yearbook for 1948.

TEMPLE IMPORTANT LINK IN JEWISH COMMUNITY LIFE
by Albert Gorian
President, Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock

It is both a pleasure and privilege for me to greet my fellow members on the occasion of the first publication of a Temple Year Book. The members of temple Beth Israel may be justifiably proud of their achievements during the past year.

Just one year ago Jewish life in our community was in a state of suspended animation. Our congregation was small and weak; our Temple lacked a qualified, modern, spiritual leader; our Sunday school children were instructed by older children. Religious services were limited to High Holidays and the Sabbath morning minyon, while the rest of the year the sanctuary was mostly dark. These deplorable conditions required immediate and drastic remedies in order to save this isolated outpost of Jewish life.

Just one year ago our little congregation charted a new course. Our little group of men determined with courage and faith to assume those obligations which dignify the name Jew. We determined to awaken within ourselves and within our lakadaisical Jewish neighbor that dormant spiritual spark, to correct existing evils and to strengthen our Jewish communal life.

And here we meet again one year later. Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock has become a beehive of activity, religiously, culturally and socially. We are blessed with a qualified and conscientious Rabbi who caters to the needs of the adults and the young. Our Sunday schools and Hebrew classes are thriving. Our membership has nearly trebled. We are no longer merely an isolated Jewish outpost in a vast city, but have become an important link in the Conservative chain of this western area.

Who is responsible for this miraculous transformation? Well, I would say it was all due to you – Plus our help. You who contributed a maximum of funds, or you who contributed a minimum of funds but who also repaired the roof or reseeded the lawn or persuaded other men to become members. You are surely the one who provided the spark that inspired men to join you in our sacred cause.

It has been a wonderful experience for me to play on your team and to contribute my small bit to our common victory. I salute you and congratulate you on a task perfectly completed. May we continue to merit the blessing of God in the work in which we are engaged.

ALBERT GORIAN

Artcle by Jane Ulman in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles,September 8, 2006

Jane Ulman’s article really captures what our congregation is like. She spent the time to get to know us and conveys it well. The article is on the Journal’s site, here.

The Famous Purim Play Photo from 1923, Starring Pauline as Queen Esther

The congregation was founded in 1923. Here’s a photo of our Purim play in 1924. We didn’t have a building yet, so the play was held in the local Masonic temple which, by the way, is now building number 89002268 on the National Register of Historic Places. The girl at the center of the row of people standing is Pauline playing Queen Esther. Pauline still comes to services most Saturdays. She’s 97 now. Somewhere in this photo is former CongressmanMel Levine’s father, according to Pauline.

Article by Ari L. Noonan in the Heritage Southwest Jewish Press of Friday, October 15, 1993

The following article was published in Ari Noonan’s column, which was called “Off the Path,” in the late Herb Brin’s weekly newspaper Heritage Southwest Jewish Press of Los Angeles.

Highland Park synagogue surprises everyone by surviving — and thriving
By Ari L. Noonan
HERITAGE SOUTHWEST JEWISH PRESS Friday, October 15, 1993
OFF THE PATH

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