by Caroline Luce and Shmuel Gonzales
OriginsFor decades, Congregation B'nai Brith (f. 1862, later known as the Wilshire Blvd. Temple) was Los Angeles' only formal synagogue. But as Los Angeles' Jewish population began to grow after the turn of the twentieth century–rising from an estimated 2,500 people in 1900 to around 20,000 by 1920–so too did religious life in the city. Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe brought with them distinct cultural traditions and patterns of worship they were eager to preserve in their new home. L.A.’s second congregation, Kehal Adath Beth Israel, aimed to recreate the traditional model of Lithuanian (Litvish) Orthodoxy whose origins traced to the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalmen), a prolific Talmudic scholar of the 18th century known for his rationalistic method of Torah study and emphasis on strict observance of halakhah (Jewish religious law). Known as the Olive Street Shul after it opened its downtown synagogue in 1902, Beth Israel eventually hired a spiritual leader trained in those traditions, Lithuanian-born Dr. Isaac Werne.1
In 1904, recent migrants to the city came together in order to reestablish another aspect of Litvish religious tradition: a religious school for Jewish children. Students of the Vilna Gaon had systematized his style of study and learning and established a network of yeshivas throughout Europe as well as schools for younger learners known as talmud torah. In the American context, talmud torahs—both Ashkenazi and Sephardic—provided classes in Hebrew language, Judaism, and Jewish history for boys and girls in the afternoons, since most attended public school during the day. But to that point, no such school existed in Los Angeles, prompting a group of families to pool their funds and purchase a small home on Rose Street downtown (today’s Little Tokyo) where they could open their own. The community soon formally incorporated, calling themselves Congregation Talmud Torah.
Both the school and its membership grew quickly, and soon Cong. Talmud Torah found itself in need of a larger space. In 1913, its leader announced their intention to purchase a lot “upon which to build a modern place of worship,” ultimately deciding to focus their search in Boyle Heights where land was affordable and an increasing number of Eastern European Jewish immigrants had been settling.2 They first bought a house at the corner of Breed Street and East First and then an empty lot a few blocks north near the corner of Breed Street and Brooklyn Avenue. There, they began construction on a beit midrash (“House of Learning”) to use for Torah study and for their school while they continued to raise funds to erect a larger synagogue. By 1915, the beit midrash was completed and Cong. Talmud Torah came to be known as the Breed Street Shul.
Rabbi Solomon Neches (1891-1954)In 1920, the Breed Street Shul hired its first spiritual leader, Rabbi Solomon M. Neches. Born in Jerusalem, Neches brought with him prestigious bona fides: he claimed to be a descendant of the Vilna Gaon and studied at Etz Chaim Yeshiva (est. 1855) in Jerusalem under Chief Rabbi Shmuel Salant, a graduate of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, as well as Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1910, he served congregations in Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, and Columbus and became an author of some renown and translator of Hebrew literature and other Jewish texts. In Los Angeles, he served at both the Olive Street Shul and the Breed Street Shul and worked to build other institutional elements of Litvish communal governance, including a beit din (rabbinic court), an apparatus to oversee the observance of kashrut (kosher dietary laws), and tsedakah gedolah (charity fund) to coordinate the distribution of aid to the poor.3 As he described in a 1924 pamphlet, Neches counseled his predominantly immigrant congregation that there was no inherent contradiction between American citizenship and traditional halakhic Judaism, instead arguing that America was “the land where [one] can legally have equality of opportunity and at the same time not make any concessions as to his religion.”4
Upon Neches’ arrival, Cong. Talmud Torah broke ground on construction of their new synagogue on Breed Street, hiring architect Abraham Edelman, son of Los Angeles’ first rabbi who, along with his nephew, designed the new Sinai Temple downtown, Hillcrest Country Club, and later the Wilshire Blvd. Temple. On the exterior of the building, Edelman incorporated Mediterranean and Byzantine influences reflective of contemporary regional architectural trends: large arched doorways, decorative palmettes, alternating bands of light and dark colored bricks, and a stone bas-relief of the Ten Commandments centered above the main entrance. But in the interior of the sanctuary, Eastern European folk influences predominated: the bimah (platform) was placed in the center of the sanctuary, surrounded by stained-glass windows and hand-painted with decorative images of the malazot (Jewish zodiac) in between, and, in keeping with strict halakhic prescriptions, there was a separate women’s seating section in a balcony above the main floor as well as in the beit midrash.5
When the new Breed Street Shul opened in 1923, it was by far the largest in the neighborhood, its membership reaching over 400 families within five years. While largely concentrated in Boyle Heights, a sizable portion of these member families lived miles away from the neighborhood, likely driving or taking the streetcar to worship at the synagogue, reflecting the Breed Street Shul’s status as the epicenter of Orthodox Judaism not only in Boyle Heights, but also across Southern California.6
Created by Caroline Luce using data from Membership List, 1931, as appears in "Congregation Talmud Torah of Los Angeles Records, 1926-1937" (SC- 7457), American Jewish Archives.
In 1935, Rabbi Solomon Neches left the Breed Street Shul to serve as dean of the Western Jewish Institute, a religious school, synagogue, and, later, teacher’s seminary in the Fairfax District west of downtown. A new rabbi, Osher Zilberstein (Rabbi Yisroel Aharon Zilberstein) came to replace him the same year, serving in the role for nearly 40 years.
Rabbi Osher Zilberstein (1888-1973)
Zilberstein’s education and lineage were quite different from his predecessor: he was born in Meztrich, a village outside near Wołyń, Poland (today Volhynia, Ukraine), the descendant of a prominent Hasidic dynasty. Inspired by the teachings of Yisrael ben Eliezer, known as the Ba’al Shem Tov (or Besht), Hasidism emerged as a rival to Lithuanian-style Orthodoxy, particularly in the southern Poland (northwest Ukraine) where the Ba’al Shem Tov settled near the end of his life. Critical of the elitism of the Gaon’s insistence on rigorous learning and Torah study, the Ba’al Shem Tov instead claimed that every Jew could have an intimate, emotional relationship to God accessible through intensive prayer. He preferred his teachings to be transmitted orally through stories and folktales (rather canonical texts) that would be accessible to those without a formal education and, accordingly, the Hasidic movement he inspired spread through charismatic leaders known as tzadikim (“righteous ones”), including Dov Ber ben Avraham, the so-called Maggid of Mezritch (also known as Rabbi Dovber). Raised deeply immersed in this rich Hasidic tradition, Zilberstein became the religious leader of Meztrich when he was just a teenager after the passing of his father. But, amidst the violent civil war that engulfed the region following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, he and his family fled, first seeking refuge in Kiev and later in Winnipeg in 1924.7
In Europe, rivalries between Hasidic tzadikim and their opponents (known as misnagdim) had been fierce and long-lasting, making Zilberstein a somewhat surprising choice for the Breed Street Shul. But his background was also similar to that of members of the congregation, many of whom themselves were immigrants from Eastern Europe, giving his sermons–which he often delivered in Yiddish–a familiar, haymish feel. To honor the Breed Street Shul’s particular traditions, he also renewed its foundational commitment to Jewish education, first expanding the after-school program and then, in 1937, establishing the Los Angeles Hebrew Academy (LAHA), Los Angeles’ first Jewish (parochial) day school. LAHA grew quickly, moving into its own building next door to the synagogue at 233 N. Breed a few years later, and within a decade, it had 100 full-time students and another 250 attending Hebrew classes in the afternoons. In 1946, LAHA also established its own summer camp, the first of its kind for local Orthodox youth.8 While LAHA’s Breed Street location closed some decades later, it lives on as Yeshivat Yavnah (Yavnah Hebrew Academy) in Hancock Park and its former building home to a bilingual preschool and Early Learning Center.
By blending both Hasidic and Litvish traditions, Rabbi Zilberstein became the de facto leader of the Orthodox community in Boyle Heights and the Breed Street Shul, in turn, a central community hub. Renowned rabbis and cantors from across the country visited for holy days and festivals and the Shul’s front steps served as a gathering place for Jewish residents to share news about local happenings and world events. The Shul was also a center for religious Zionism in the neighborhood, hosting a community-wide celebration of Israeli Independence in 1948. For these reasons and more, the Breed Street Shul was widely recognized as “the Queen of the Shuls,” a most prominent and visible symbol of Jewish life in the neighborhood.
A New ChapterIn the decades after its Israeli Independence celebration, the Breed Street Shul’s membership, along with Boyle Heights’ Jewish population as a whole, declined precipitously. While other Orthodox synagogues in the area closed their doors, Rabbi Zilberstein continued to hold services and daily Torah study at the Breed Street Shul until he passed away in 1973, having served the congregation for almost four decades. But by then, only a minyan of elderly, observant Jews who lived scattered across the neighborhood, remained. With the synagogue largely abandoned, the building was left neglected and subject to repeated acts of vandalism. Then the Whittier Earthquake of 1987 inflicted significant structural damage to the main sanctuary, the resulting safety concerns placing the Breed Street Shul in real danger of demolition. Fortunately, a coalition of volunteers and neighborhood residents quickly took action, lobbying city leaders to designate the shul a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1988 so as to prevent its destruction. They formed the Breed Street Shul Project (BSSP), a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, submitting plans to remake the property as a cultural, educational, and community center that persuaded the City of Los Angeles to turn the historic building over to them to spearhead its reconstruction. The BSSP succeeded in having the Shul listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 and initiated a massive fundraising campaign, using almost $2 million of donations and in-kind contributions to clean out the beit midrash and begin the required seismic retrofitting of the main sanctuary. While that work continues, reconstruction of the smaller beit midrash was completed in 2011, the shul hosting its first minyan and bar mitzvah in decades just weeks later.
Learn more about the Breed Street Shul Project and their rebuilding efforts at https://breedstreetshul.org/
Citations1 Max Vorspan and Lloyd Gartner, History of the Jews of Los Angeles (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1970), 103, 109, 160-161. Vorspan and Gartner vaguely described the congregation as “preserving the Judaism remembered from Eastern Europe” but then note that its first rabbi, Isaac Werne, as hailing from Slonim, Lithuania (today Belarus). More on Isaac Werne at Joshua Fogel's Yiddish Leksikhon blog.
2 “Congregation Talmud Torah,” B'nai B'rith Messenger, March 14, 1913: 8; “Congregation Talmud Torah,” B'nai B'rith Messenger, Jan. 17, 1913: 6.
3 “Rabbi Solomon M. Neches Noted Scholar, Author, Orthodox Leader, Dies,” B’nai B’rith Messenger, Feb. 19, 1954: 1, 16. Los Angeles joined the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America in 1926. Neches’ leadership in the effort to join was noted in Y. L. Malamut ed., Southwest Jewry, vol. 3 (Los Angeles: Published by Los Angeles Jewish Institutions and their Leaders, 1957), 155-56.
4 Neches, “The Jew and American Citizenship” (Los Angeles, 1924), 15.
5 Robert Chattel, (2001-05-08). "Historic Places Registration - Breed Street Shul". National Register of Historic Places, 8-9, 12.
6 Details on the congregation's membership and map below come from "Letter to D. W. Edelman (Cong. B’nai B’rith) from the Cong. Talmud Torah Board of Directors," Jan. 31, 1928, Congregation Talmud Torah of Los Angeles Records, 1926-1937 (SC 7457), American Jewish Archives.
7 “Honor Rabbi Zilberstein,” B'nai B'rith Messenger, Sept. 23, 1960: 1, 3.
8 "Historic Places Registration - Breed Street Shul," 20-21.
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This page references:
- Breed Street Shul in the Jazz Singer, 1980
- Solomon M. Neches, "The Jew and American Citizenship," 1924
- Beit Midrash at Breed Street, 1980s to 2017
- Rabbi Osher Zilberstein
- Rose Street Synagogue, ca. 1917
- Los Angeles Jewish Academy, 1950
- Rabbi Isaac Werne (1877-1940)
- Rabbi Solomon Neches, 1930
- Opening Day, 1923
- Breed Street Shul, Interior Sanctuary
- Israel Independence celebration, Breed Street Shul, 1948