In Search of Fairfax

Jacob Sonderling/Society for Jewish Culture-Fairfax Temple

While Jewish individuals initially moved into the Beverly-Fairfax neighborhood in the 1920s, it was not until the 1930s when the neighborhood began to attract religious institutions. The Society for Jewish Culture- Fairfax Temple, established in 1934 was the area’s first non-Orthodox “liberal” congregation. The temple's offerings included Sunday and Hebrew school classes for children, educations courses for adults, and Friday evening services in German and English to cater to the German-Jewish refugees that settled in Los Angeles during the 1930s. 

The Society for Jewish Culture- Fairfax Temple was founded under the direction and leadership of Rabbi Jacob Sonderling. Prior to coming to Los Angeles, the German-born Sonderling served as a chaplain in the German army during the First World War and a rabbi in Hamburg for 15 years. In Germany, Sonderling had experimented with combining art and religion; he thus brought to the Fairfax area (and Los Angeles more broadly) a religious outlook that was both humanistic and innovative. Sonderling’s services experimented with “dramatic lectures” and “dramatic interpretations" of worship.

Perhaps most notable, Rabbi Sonderling commissioned and worked with the prominent Austrian-Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg on a novel reinterpretation of the kol nidre service, which was first performed on the eve of Yom Kippur at the Ambassador Ballroom in 1938.  Sonderling was also involved in anti-Nazi activism and the Zionist movement in Los Angeles.  

Sonderling served as the rabbi for the Society for Jewish Culture- Fairfax Temple congregation for thirty years and garnered a reputation as a "leading rabbi" in Los Angeles. As Rabbi William Kramer recalled on the occasion of Sonderling’s funeral in October of 1964, “more than anyone else, he was the rabbi, the rabbi-par excellence of this community. His Fairfax Temple was a small Temple as these things are reckoned, but Rabbi Sonderling had the largest congregation in town. He was the rabbi’s rabbi and tens of thousands of Jews knew him, and lived more Jewish lives because of him."  

Sources: Lynn C Kronzek and Southern California Jewish Historical Society, Fairfax: A Home, a Community, a Way of Life (Los Angeles: Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, 1990); Jacob Sonderling, “The Jews Are Changing Their Music,” Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1938; Jacob Sonderling, 1935-1996, box 28, folder 13, Western Jewish History Archive (Collection 1739), Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

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