by Shmuel Gonzales and Caroline Luce
OriginsCongregation B’nai Jacob opened its synagogue on Fairmount Street in Boyle Heights in August 1927. The streamline-moderne style sanctuary was one of the largest in the neighborhood, its interior decorated with crimson velvets and dark brown wood benches with matching shtenders (stands for holding prayerbooks). The building’s façade was decorated with a large mogen dovid (Star of David), a central arched portico-style doorway flanked by two large windows, each adorned by menorahs, and a sculptural relief depicting the Ten Commandments with a crown guarded by the Lions of Judah on each side placed above the door. This façade remains today, the Fairmount Street Shul one of the few extant symbols of the Jewish life that once thrived in the surrounding area.
The establishment of the synagogue on Fairmount Street reflected the growth and geographic dispersal of Boyle Heights’ Jewish population. Whereas many of the Jewish families who settled in the area in the 1910s took up residence in the area south of Brooklyn Avenue in the area surrounding the Breed Street Shul, in the 1920s, an increasing number of Jewish residents settled north of Brooklyn Avenue closer to “the hills,” where homes and rents were more expensive. As described in a 1928 article in the B’nai B’rith Messenger, this trend was in part owed to a Jewish real estate developer named Max Kahn, who had been “the first builder to see the possibilities” of what the paper described as “the Wabash Avenue District.” Dozens of freshly paved streets extending into the hills enabled the construction of some 500 new homes in the hills north of Wabash in the 1920s, at least 100 of which were built by Kahn. The new homes, as the paper described, were larger and more modern than others in the neighborhood, with the “most up-to-date details in beauty, elegance, and comfort,” comparable to the finest homes in Beverly Hills. With beautiful views of downtown and “modern style and convenience,” the paper declared the hills north of Wabash Avenue to be the “Hollywoodland of Boyle Heights.”1
As a result of the new construction, the area surrounding Wabash became a new hub for religious observant Jews in the neighborhood, with the Fairmount Street Shul serving as the epicenter. The congregation is often said to have been “Orthodox by default,” its ritual practices and pattern of worship based on the traditions of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who formed its membership. The sanctuary building itself reflected these “old-world” influences: the cornerstones of the building were inscribed with Yiddish phrases and the bimah (ritual platform from where prayers were led) was placed in the center of the room facing the holy Ark bearing the sacred Torah scroll, as was the tradition in both Litvish and Hassidic synagogues in Eastern Europe. While less is known about the specific pattern of worship at the Fairmount Street Shul, there are reasons to believe that it hewed closely to those of the Breed Street Shul: Rabbi Solomon M. Neches spoke at the synagogue as part of his efforts to promote stricter observance of the halakhah (Jewish religious law), and nationally-renowned cantors and speakers who visited L.A. often performed at both synagogues during their tours. Just a few months after the congregation’s founding, B'nai Jacob officially joined the Union of Orthodox Congregations, then the United States’ largest Orthodox organizational body, represented locally by Rabbi Neches, who joined members for a celebratory banquet at the Shul.2 But unlike the Breed Street Shul, the sanctuary at Cong. B’nai Jacob did not have a separate women’s section, but rather “family seating” where women could sit alongside their husbands and children, suggesting that the congregation embraced a more “modern,” American form of Orthodox Judaism.
GrowthDespite the economic downturn that followed the collapse of the stock market in 1929, the Fairmount Street Shul continued to grow in the decade after its founding. The congregation formed its own chevrah kadisha (burial society) and purchased a congregational plot at the Home for Peace Cemetery nearby. The congregation also expanded their building eastward toward Evergreen Avenue, adding both a large new auditorium and a Talmud Torah (religious school) for Jewish children in the area. In addition to Shabbat services, they hosted two daily morning prayer services (mincha), as well as afternoon and evening services (maariv), with a congregational rabbi teaching Talmud throughout the day. Several rabbis served the congregation over the years, including:
- Rabbi Akiva B. Goldberger (1928-1930s)
- Rabbi Moses Kohm (circa 1932)
- Rabbi Dr. Henoch Singer (1935-1940s)
- Rabbi Morris A. Schwab (1940s-60s)
This growth may, in part, have been owed to the relative affluence of members of the congregation, the new buildings suggesting that at least some of the synagogue’s members survived the darkest years of the Depression unscathed and were eager to give back to the community. Members of the synagogue showed their generosity in other ways as well: in 1934, three concerned neighbors, Mrs. Dina Friedman, Mrs. Ida Lieberman, Mrs. Sam Sinelkoff, spearheaded efforts to organize the B’nai Jacob Free Loan Society. With a nominal membership fee of 10 cents per month, the Society pooled its resources to offer interest-free loans for people in need and/or who were being denied traditional loans by banks. They operated their free loan societies for over 18 years before donating the rest of their funds to the Jewish Free Loan Association funded by the Jewish community chest of Los Angeles. Women of the congregation were also active in local fundraising efforts in support of Mt. Sinai Medical Clinic at its new facility on Breed Street.
The Fairmount Street Shul also became a hub for Zionist organizations in the neighborhood in the 1930s, particularly those that blended socialist and/or progressive politics with their hopes of achieving Jewish liberation in Palestine, including local chapters of Po’ale Tsiyon and the Histadrut (General Organization of Workers in Israel). The Shul also regularly hosted Hadassah Jewish women’s organization meetings as well as the Shulamitch Chapter of the Mizrahi Women’s Organization, which was formed in the 1920s to create vocational schools for religious girls and women in Palestine. Along with ORT (Obchestvo Remeslenogo Truda or Association for the Promotion of Skilled Trades), which also met at the Shul and funded similar agricultural and skills training programs, these programs became particularly important in the 1930s as an increasing number of refugees, especially children, arrived in Palestine fleeing Nazi-controlled Europe.
But of all of its various programs and activities, what most attracted people to the Fairmount Street Shul was its reputation for cantorial singing. This congregation was known to spare no expense in hiring the finest hazzan for High Holy Days and religious festivals, including great liturgical cantors with operatic voices such as Cantor Max Feldman and Cantor Louis "Leibele" Waldman. Even as the size of the congregation dwindled in the postwar era, as Jews began to leave the neighborhood en masse, the Fairmount Street Shul continued to hire the finest cantors they could for services. In 1959, for example, B'nai Jacob hired Cantor Nathan Lewitsky to officiate their High Holidays services, anticipating that he would help to boost attendance and, by doing so, improve the synagogue’s considerable financial woes. Even as late as 1973, when just a handful of members remained, they hired Cantor Morris Shragowitz from Minneapolis to lead High Holiday services, suggesting that, as B’nai Jacob’s leaders saw it, visitors to the synagogue should been given the best experience they could, no matter how few members remained.4
A New ChapterIn the late 1970s, with only three elderly members remaining and costs for the upkeep and maintenance of the building mounting, Congregation B’nai Jacob made the painful choice to disband and sell the synagogue. In 1979, the Iglesia de Dios Israelita–the Israelite Church of God, an evangelical sect dedicated to celebrating the ancient Israelite roots of Christianity—purchased the building on Fairmount Street, initiating a new chapter in its religious history.
The Iglesia de Dios Israelite is was founded by a Spanish-speaking community of evangelical protestants from Central America and Mexico who had, along with many other Latino/a Christians in the 1960s and 70s, come to the conclusion that the modern Church had gone astray and broken away from their traditional belief-systems. These newly liberated people of faith contended that they needed to return to truer, more biblical forms of worship modeled on the practices of the ancient Israelites. Accordingly, some began to observe the traditions of the Jews—without building any spiritual or actual relationships to Jewish people–working to create their experience using only the Hebrew bible as their guide. So, for example, while most Christians hold their Sabbath services on Sundays, the Iglesia de Dios Israelite holds worship services on Friday night and in the morning and evening on Saturdays. And, in contrast to the loud and charismatic style of worship at most Spanish-speaking evangelical churches, this is a very quiet and studious congregation. When their attempts to recreate Jewish traditions clash with their fundamentalist reading of the Christian bible, however, the church always sides with Christian doctrine; for example, the church strictly holds to a fundamentalist reading of Corinthians 1 that holds that men are forbidden from covering their heads while in church (thereby prohibiting them from wearing yalmukehs), while women are required to cover their heads and keep silent in deference to men. They have also instituted separate seating for men and women believing (mistakenly) that this was the traditional practice in the temple.
While at times awkward, the church’s attempts to honor and preserve Jewish tradition have been greatly beneficial for the preservation of the synagogue building. Thanks to their loving care, the building remains to this day the most fully intact synagogue in the Boyle Heights area, with all of its original interior decorations retained—except for the central bimah, which was removed to open space for additional seating—and its exterior decorations, including the Yiddish inscriptions, repainted and restored. Owed to this preservation effort, the Fairmount Street Shul building qualifies for historical designation and landmarking, which the church is open to considering.
Citations1 “Boyle Heights – Where a New Jewish life is Arising,” B’nai B’rith Messenger, March 9, 1928: 6-9.
2 “B'nai Jacob Cong. Joins the Orthodox Union,” B’nai B’rith Messenger, Nov. 18, 1927: 19.
3 “Original Officers of B’nai Jacob Synagogue After Ten Years,” B’nai B’rith Messenger, Sept. 3, 1937: 29.
4 On Feldman, B’nai B’rith Messenger, Sept. 13, 1946: 8; On Waldman, B’nai B’rith Messenger, Jan. 7, 1944: 20; Howard Deutsch, “Congregation Bnai Jacob Engages Cantor Nathan Lewitsky,” B’nai B’rith Messenger, July 31, 1959: 18; On Shragowsky, B’nai B’rith Messenger, Sept. 14, 1973: 30.