Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights

Hebrew Sheltering and Home for the Aged

The history of the Jewish Home for the Aged began with an appeal in the B’nai B’rith Messenger—then Los Angeles’ only Jewish newspaper—written by the paper’s editor, Victor Harris, who called on his fellow Jews to do more to honor the religious mandate of hachnosas orchim (to provide shelter for less fortunate Jewish newcomers). Among the first to respond to his call for action were Mrs. Ray Corenson and Mrs. Sadie Zuckerman following a visit to the Los Angeles County Poor Farm near Downey in the spring of 1910. Hailed as a model of self-sufficiency, the 120-acre facility provided housing and medical services for indigent, homeless, and elderly men and women who did not have families to care for them in exchange for their help tending to crops and raising dairy cows, chicken, and pigs. But for elderly Jews, residence at the County Farm meant being completely isolated from Jewish life, unable to access kosher meals or a synagogue in which to worship. Corenson and Zuckerman, along with her husband Mr. H. Lew Zuckerman and friend Simon Lewis, rented a cottage in the Temple Street neighborhood near downtown to house homeless Jewish men during the Passover holiday, hosting the first public seder there in the city’s history.1 Reluctant to return the men to the County Farm when the month they had paid rent for was up, they decided to establish a more formal organization to support their efforts, calling it the Hebrew Sheltering Association.

While animated by Jewish communal and religious values, the Hebrew Sheltering Association emerged in the context of a broader promotional campaign waged by real estate developers, civic and business leaders to boost Los Angeles' reputation and attract home-seeking, white, middle class families (primarily from the Midwest) to resettle in Southern California. The boosters viewed the growing multiethnic and multiracial indigent population in the city as a threat to that project, believing such "tramps" to be vectors of vice, vagrancy, and social disorder who would destabilize their imagined (and marketed) Anglo American paradise. Wealthy Jewish Angelenos—some of who, like the boosters, stood to profit tremendously from the city's growth—shared an interest in ensuring that single, itinerant, Jewish men had access to stable housing in and around L.A.’s downtown era, their efforts aiming both to help their co-ethnics and to create a social and spatial buffer between poor Jews and the much stigmatized tramp population.2

Mrs. Corenson and Zuckerman put on dozens of banquets, picnics, and balls until the organization had raised enough money to purchase larger space: the fifteen-bedroom Gless family estate at 131 S. Boyle Avenue. The Association’s new Hebrew Sheltering and Home for the Aged opened on August 29, 1915, providing housing to around forty full-time residents ranging from seventy to ninety-three years old, as well as daily kosher meals, clothing, and free religious services at Congregation Tiferes Israel (located just across the street on East First) to all of those in need.  

Even that large home, however, was not enough to meet the needs of the ever-increasing numbers of elderly and indigent Jews in the city. The Association launched another fundraising drive to expand their facilities in 1921, publishing heart-rending appeals describing the plight of their residents and their ambitious plans for development, and soon purchased the four-acre Workman estate at 323 S. Boyle Avenue. The Workman family home on the property became a new administration building and other existing structures were used to house 150 residents. Slowly and steadily, they expanded the campus: in 1923, Cong. Tiferes Israel relocated to a new building on site; new plants and orange trees were added to the richly landscaped grounds; and in the late 1920s, local businessman and Treasurer of the Home Emil Brown donated funds to erect a large auditorium, dining room, and synagogue. They hired architect Max Maltzman, known for his stylish apartment buildings in Hollywood, to design three new, Mediterranean-Revival style buildings around a central courtyard, dedicating the buildings in September 1930. That same month, they laid the cornerstone for a new, four-story dormitory structure with space for over two hundred residents. 

Unfortunately, the onset of the Great Depression soon slowed progress on the new dormitory to a halt. Like many other social service providing organizations in the city, the Home was both overwhelmed by the needs of the local community and desperately in need of financial resources itself. With many of its foremost supporters in financial trouble of their own, the Home soon found itself deeply in debt. Fortunately, two new groups of supporters formed in the late 1930s to help save the Home from its woes. The first was the Guardians, organized in May 1938 by Nathan Weisman, who was then a member of the Board of Directors. Weisman organized a group of local businessmen and executives to serve as guardians of the Home by covering its debts. By the 1950s, the Guardians had over one thousands members and provided some 25 percent of the Home’s operating costs annually. 

The other crucial source of financial support in the late 1930s was the Home’s Junior Auxiliary, led for over twenty years by Mrs. Ida Mayer Cummings. Mrs. Cummings was the older sister of studio mogul Louis B. Mayer and a prolific fundraiser, tapping her connections to Jews and non-Jews alike in Hollywood to impress upon them the importance of the Home. With the help of the members of the Junior Auxiliary, she spearheaded a successful campaign to pay off the Home’s mortgage, hosting hundreds of social events, often at the Hillcrest Country Club, and piloting an “Adopt a Grandparent" program where donors could sponsor specific residents.  During World War II, when the Home’s finances had stabilized, Mrs. Cummings also engaged the Junior Auxiliary and residents at the Home in the war effort: they formed a unit of the “Defenders of Democracy” at the Home, using salvaged materials to make garments for soldiers’ families, and sold more than $400,000 worth of War Bonds.3 

Mrs. Cummings was almost single-handedly responsible for persuading actress Mary Pickford to donate funds for a new Pickford Building on the campus in the 1940s, and for convincing former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to visit the Home in 1946. She also donated $50,000 of her own money to fund a new Medical Center on the campus. She maintained personal correspondence with donors and potential donors alike, following-up with birthday greetings and season’s greetings for decades. Her collection of letters, housed at the archives of the Jewish Home, includes correspondence with actors Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Mae West, as well as former President Herbert Hoover. In Mrs. Cummings' twentieth year as president of the Junior Auxiliary, Rabbi Edgar Magnin described that she was, “…a rare person who has devoted much of her life to the cause of caring for the aged. Only a deep love for humanity can account for her extraordinary energy and tireless efforts because she has been and still is a veritable dynamo.”4 By the 1950s, the Jewish Home for the Aged was one of the city’s largest and most beloved Jewish organizations.   

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