Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights

Jewish Centers in Postwar Boyle Heights

Both the Menorah Center and the Soto-Michigan JCC thrived in the immediate years after World War II. The Menorah Center added a swimming pool and playground and the Soto-Michigan JCC began holding an annual “Festival of Friendship,” celebrating Boyle Heights’ racial and ethnic diversity, both institutions seemingly more popular than ever before. To meet the exploding demand for youth programs and activities, neighborhood residents even established a third facility in 1947, the City Terrace Jewish Cultural Center, at the corner of City Terrace Drive and Ramona Parkway. This third center, however, was more short-lived; just a few years after it opened, construction began on the Interstate 10 freeway, which followed the route of the Ramona Parkway and ultimately resulted in the Center’s demolition.15

The growth of the centers in Boyle Heights was but one part of a rapid expansion of the Jewish Centers movement in Southern California in the postwar years. Fueled by the postwar baby boom and the arrivals of thousands of new Jewish residents—most of whom settled in middle-class neighborhoods west of downtown and the sprawling new suburbs of the San Fernando Valley—the JCA established new facilities across the city, including flagship centers in the Beverly-Fairfax District and in the SF Valley. So too, did the Bureau of Jewish Education see an increase in enrollment in its affiliated Jewish schools, the number of students enrolled in Hebrew classes rising from around 4,500 in 1947 to over 14,500 by 1956. As Deborah Dash Moore has argued, such youth programs were particularly appealing to recently arrived Jewish families who settled in suburban areas and thirsted for meaningful forms of Jewish engagement for their children. As one mother described, “We moved here from Cleveland last August and… although my husband and I have never taken an active part in Jewish organizations we feel that our daughter should be given the chance to associate with her own people in school life.”16

Amidst this period of growth and expansion, however, controversy was brewing within the Jewish Centers Association. In 1948, the chairman of the California Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, State Senator Jack Tenney, summoned the director of the Soto-Michigan JCC, Joseph Esquith, to testify about communist influence at the Center, specifically the Center’s relationship to the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order (JPFO) which had been labeled a “communist front” by the federal HUAC in 1944. A contentious meeting of the JCA Executive Board followed, at which Esquith defended the Soto-Michigan JCC’s policies of free speech and openness to all neighborhood organizations and appealed to board members to protect the JCC against the charges of Tenney and his committee. The Federation of Jewish Welfare Organizations also applied pressure, writing to the Soto-Michigan JCC Board of Directors to demand that they deny the JPFO and other “subversive” organizations access to their facilities. Similar calls for expulsions were made in the L.A. Jewish Community Council, and soon the anti-communist hysteria engulfed nearly every Jewish organization in the city. But, at least for the moment, the Executive Board of the Soto-Michigan JCC rejected the attempts to meddle in their affairs and defended the JPFO as “an integral part of the Jewish community of Boyle Heights.”17

In March 1949, the JCA issued a Statement of Principles in an attempt to push back against the pressure now coming from all directions. They described their centers as being “like the public schools,” intended to be beacons of free speech, free association, and other democratic values, that “do not inquire into the political affiliation of individuals who make use of their facilities.” But, they added, those facilities “do not permit such individuals to use Centers as a means of promoting political ideologies” and insisted that applications for rentals be carefully reviewed. As Moore notes, the new rules were loosely enforced: at the Soto-Michigan JCC, forums and events were held on seemingly “political” topics including the Atomic Bomb and the Smith Act. But after the L.A. Jewish Community Council voted in 1951 to formally expel the fourteen lodges of the JPFO and its sister organization, the Emma Lazarus Jewish Women’s Club, from the Council, the JCA tightened its enforcement. Citing a “change in public attitudes,” the JCA formally barred individuals and organizations “charged with being unfriendly to American democracy” and moved to strengthen its oversight over its affiliated centers.18

In Boyle Heights, the JCA attempted to enforce its new anti-communist policies in two ways. First, it proposed that the Menorah Center and the Soto-Michigan JCC amalgamate, collapsing the two centers back into one where, presumably, they could execute more control over staffing and programming. The Board of the Menorah Center, however, forcefully rejected the proposal, citing the fundamentally opposing goals of the two institutions. “We here at the Menorah Center,” the Board members wrote, “are as much interested in the promulgation of Jewish culture and Jewish values as in intercultural activities, but our emphasis is on Jewish content, because a Jewish Center, which receives Jewish funds should emphasize what they were originally intended to do.”19

The JCA next moved to dissolve the Soto-Michigan JCC entirely and reconstitute it as the Eastside Jewish Community Center in 1952. The maneuver enabled the JCA to remove suspected “subversives” and other members of the staff, the administration, and the Board of Directors who offered criticisms of its approaches, including Joseph Esquith, who was transferred and replaced. The JCA took the same approach at the Beverly-Fairfax Center, where similar allegations of communist influence had been made: they closed the facility entirely and announced plans to build a new, larger Westside JCC on Olympic Blvd. with a reconstituted staff and administration.

The opening of the Westside JCC in 1954 dealt the final, fatal blow to the Jewish centers in East L.A., as the JCA and the L.A. Jewish Community Council announced they would no longer be offering any financial support to the Menorah Center or the Eastside [Soto-Michigan] JCC. They claimed to have based their decision on demographics: the Jewish population of Los Angeles was growing significantly in other, more affluent parts of the city, while in the same years, the population in Boyle Heights had declined by nearly 75%.20 Why would they continue to invest resources there, when they were needed elsewhere? But for the Jewish centers in East L.A., the decision spelled disaster: the Menorah Center issued urgent appeals for funds, again stressing the need to combat “juvenile delinquency” in the neighborhood. They reached out to non-Jewish organizations as well, including the East L.A. Youth Council and the Community Service Organization, even garnering the support of prominent CSO alumnus and City Councilman Edward Roybal, whose district included Boyle Heights.21 Their efforts kept the Menorah Center open for a time, but within a decade, it too had closed its doors. Moses Tolchinsky, the Menorah Center’s founding director, moved to the Westside JCC, where he continued to teach classes until his retirement, and the building itself was sold to the Salesians, a Catholic community organization that also operated a high school in the area. Fortunately, the Salesian Family Youth Center (formerly Boys and Girls Club) carries on the Menorah Center's mission of providing a safe space for children in the neighborhood to gather, learn, and play together.

The combination of funding cuts and staffing changes also devastated the Eastside (Soto-Michigan) JCC. The anti-communist crusades had resulted in a wave of both voluntary and involuntary departures of the JCC’s most active supporters, leaders who went on to nurture other fledgling centers; several families who had moved from Boyle Heights to the Valley as young adults became active at the Valley Cities JCC and another group of former Board members helped to establish an independent JCC in Silverlake (east of Hollywood).22 But the JCC at the corner of Soto and Michigan never recovered, officially closing its doors in 1958. The following year, the JCA sold the building and it reopened as the All Nations' Center, continuing on the center’s original mission to provide recreational and social activities for neighborhood children. Under the leadership of Bill Maxwell in the 1970s, the All Nations' Center expanded its arts programs to include a photography studio and gallery space for use by local artists.23 But funding again proved difficult to sustain and by the mid-1980s, the All Nations' Center closed as well, the building sold and converted into an event rental space.

In March 2006, to the shock of neighborhood groups, historical societies, and preservation organizations, the Raphael Soriano-designed building was surreptitiously demolished. Aaron Paley—then president of Community Art Resources, whose family had deep ties to the neighborhood and the JCC–encountered the wreckage of the razed building while giving a Jewish heritage tour of the neighborhood and raised immediate alarm. But calls from him and other community leaders to the L.A. Building and Safety Department revealed that no demolition permits had been issued. Finger-pointing ensued, with local officials claiming they lacked jurisdiction over the project because the land had been leased by the federal Social Security Administration, and federal officials claiming the property owner and contractor should have complied with local permitting rules. Ultimately, none of the outrage or the press coverage could make up for the loss. In the absence of a historical landmark designation—which the building would likely have received given its rich history and architectural provenance—the Soto-Michigan JCC, like so many of Los Angeles’ cultural treasures, remained unprotected from developers.

To learn more about how you can help protect Boyle Heights’ historic structures, visit the Los Angeles Conservancy or the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council.

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