Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights

The Menorah Center: 3218 Wabash Ave.

In 1929, the Modern Talmud Torah and Social Center’s popular Hebrew teacher, Moses Tolchinsky, resigned from his post to form an organization of his own, calling it the Jewish Educational Association. Rather than locate his institution near Boyle Heights’ commercial center on Brooklyn Avenue, he chose a base of operations on Wabash Avenue, nestled against the hills, where there were new, larger and more expensive homes with sweeping views of downtown. According to a 1928 article in the B’nai B’rith Messenger, in the preceding years, 500 new homes had been constructed in the area (which was later known as City Terrace), many of them designed and built by Jewish real estate developer Max Kahn. Several Orthodox synagogues had opened in the area in the preceding years as well, drawing an increasing number of religiously observant Jewish families to the area. Within weeks of opening his doors, Tolchinsky’s Jewish Educational Association was already offering classes to over 250 Jewish children.10

In contrast to the integrationist goals of the Soto-Michigan JCC, Tolchinsky directed his efforts toward the Jewish home, aiming to soothe the “constant strife” he observed between immigrant parents and their American-born children. As they acquired “American ways of doing and thinking,” he argued, Jewish kids could not understand the more traditional ways and customs of their often religiously-observant parents, causing conflicts that forced them out on to the streets where they could be corrupted by all sorts of “anti-Jewish” influences. Of particular concern to Tolchinsky—who had fled his home east of Kiev amidst the violent civil war that engulfed Ukraine in the wake of Bolshevik Revolution of 1917—was the growing influence of communism in the neighborhood, which he viewed as a major factor in the rise of Jewish juvenile delinquency. He viewed his Association as a mechanism to combat these insidious influences, dedicating himself to three primary goals:

• “the conservation of our traditions and enlightenment of present problems of Jewish life in the light of American principles so as to build up a community to bear intelligently our responsibilities as Jews and as citizens.
• To create educational, social, and recreational activities for young and old with the purpose of creating a Jewish atmosphere that shall enable us to come into contact with every phase of Jewish problems of the past and present.
• To create a sympathetic understanding between parents and children through Jewish and American citizenship.”11

By restoring the foundation of the Jewish home and its “traditional customs,” Tolchinsky believed that his Association could “make worthy Jewish and American citizens” of local Jewish youth.

Tolchinsky’s efforts soon caught the attention of more affluent members of the local Jewish community who shared his concerns about “anti-Jewish” influences affecting Jewish youth. With their support, the Jewish Educational Association launched a fundraising drive to expand their facility. Committed to keeping his institution self-supporting and independent, Tolchinsky did not accept funding from the Jewish Community Chest or the Federation of Jewish Welfare Organizations, although he did receive support from some of their leaders including then president of the Federation, Marco R. Newmark, raising enough money to purchase a large empty lot at the corner of Wabash and Alma and erect a new building.

In March 1931, Mr. Newmark presided over the official dedication of the newly named Menorah Center. Set atop a hill at the eastern end of Wabash, the two-story brick building had a crowned cupola on the roof and westward-facing windows with views of the neighborhood and the downtown skyline, as well as classrooms, offices, and a large auditorium on the street-level and a large banquet hall on the ground floor below. The auditorium provided space for a variety of social clubs (both for adults and children) and doubled as a gymnasium, with wrestling mats, boxing equipment, and a volleyball net. But in keeping with Tolchinsky’s educational mission, his classes always came first; the Menorah Center upheld a strict prohibition on “noisy activity” during the day.12

Like the Soto-Michigan JCC, the Menorah Center received crucial financial assistance in its early years, from both private and public sources. As with the JCC, the programs of the New Deal, both the State Emergency Relief Association and the federal Works Progress Administration, enabled the Center to hire nine additional teachers for its adult education program, who offered settlement-house style classes in history and civics as well as cooking and nutrition, serving about 850 adults per week. Public funds from the L.A. Department of Public Health also supported a baby clinic for expectant mothers in the neighborhood at the Menorah Center, staffed by a female doctor and nurse.13 And, as the Menorah Center struggled to cover the cost of its mortgage amidst the financial crisis, the family of Clement Kauffman donated the funds needed to pay it off in full. Accordingly, the Center was officially renamed the Clement Kauffman Menorah Center in his honor in 1934.

By the late 1930s, both the Soto-Michigan JCC and the Clement Kauffman Menorah Center had become two of the largest and most beloved Jewish institutions in Boyle Heights. Each provided invaluable support and services for area residents, but there were important, albeit slight, differences between the institutions and their goals. Most significant was the Menorah Center’s primary emphasis on education: not only did it offer more adult education courses than the Soto-Michigan JCC, it also operated a more traditional Talmud Torah, with the Hebrew school classes taught by Moses Tolchinsky—or “Mr. T” as he was known to his students–still a very popular draw. That foundational emphasis on Jewish education also shaped the community that Menorah Center aimed to serve; whereas the Soto-Michigan JCC devoted itself to serving residents of the neighborhood, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, the Menorah Center served the Jewish community, both in the neighborhood and beyond. When surveyed in 1935, Tolchinsky estimated that the Menorah Center served 12,000 Jews from all over the city, including those of both Eastern European Ashkenazi and Sephardic origin, with some 3,600 Jewish residents attending classes there every week.14 By that estimate, the Menorah Center was the largest Jewish educational institution in Los Angeles, and perhaps the entire West Coast, at the time. In contrast, nearly one third of regular visitors to the Soto-Michigan JCC were not Jewish, owed in part to the success of its scouting groups, sports teams, and athletic clubs, dozens of which practiced and played on the playground.15

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