Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights

The Soto-Michigan JCC: 2317 Michigan Ave.

Despite its popularity among neighborhood residents, by 1930, the Modern Talmud Torah and Social Center in Boyle Heights faced an existential crisis. Its popular Hebrew teacher, Moses Tolchinsky, had left to form his own institution, as had the Center’s director, Jacob M. Alkow. Amidst the leadership crisis came an economic one: the stock market crash and ensuing economic collapse, which by 1932, left nearly a third of Los Angeles’ workforce unemployed, leaving the Center’s finances in disarray. For a time in 1930, it was displaced from its original building and relocated to a smaller, rented house on Michigan Avenue, making it even more difficult to accommodate everyone who wanted to use the space.

After months of discussion and debate, the decision was made to establish an independent board of trustees to reorganize and restore the Center’s finances. Incorporated as the Jewish Centers Association (JCA), the new board worked in tandem with the Federation of Jewish Welfare Organizations to negotiate the purchase of the original building at the corner of Soto and Michigan and refurbish its facilities. The JCA recruited a new director, Rabbi J. M. Cohen, and devised a new membership structure that would ensure the Center’s financial stability. And in September 1934, they celebrated the grand re-opening of the new Jewish Community Center in Boyle Heights, commonly known as the Soto-Michigan JCC.

In the JCA’s 1934 Annual Report, Director Cohen outlined a new vision for the Soto-Michigan JCC and its role in the neighborhood. The JCC would not simply aim to provide safe places for Jewish children to gather, play, and learn, but rather aspire “[to] integrate the Jewish community with the general community and the individual with the Jewish community and society as a whole." As he explained, these ideals reflected a broader shift in American attitudes:

“During the past decade, the theory that America is a vast melting pot has been tossed overboard. No longer is it demanded by our great educators that those who come to America to make their home must erase every memory, every particular characteristic, every cultural interest which activated them in the land of their birth… cultural plurality is a reality, readily attainable. The Jew, then, is not to be encouraged to assimilate completely and then disappear, but rather to strive for a perfect blending of his Jewishness and his American development.”6

By celebrating cultural pluralism, Cohen argued, the JCC would not only strengthen the Jewish identities of American-born children, but also foster integration and expand the JCC’s mission to serve all of the neighborhood’s residents, including children of Mexican, Asian, Russian, and African American descent.

With these goals in mind, the new Soto-Michigan JCC opened its three-story facility to a wider range of youth groups and clubs, including the YMHA and other Jewish organizations, but also the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and athletic clubs. They added a lounge, game room, and clubroom to the first floor and locker rooms for boys and girls in the basement. And they offered memberships for Midgets (ages 8-11), Juniors (ages 12-14), Intermediates (ages 15-17), and Seniors (18 and over) available to all area residents and supplemented their funding by renting out their meeting rooms and 200-seat auditorium to adults. But by far the most popular and fondly remembered feature of the new facility was added in January 1935: the Stebbins Playground, with a jungle gym, volleyball and basketball courts, swing sets, and Ping-Pong tables lit by flood-lights, open daily from 2 to 8pm. By one estimate, as many as 1,000 people regularly visited the Soto-Michigan JCC just to use the playground, in addition to the 2,300 children and adults who used the meeting rooms and auditoriums every week.7

The Soto-Michigan JCC’s educational programs continued as well, made possible by crucial funding from the emergency relief programs of the New Deal. The State Emergency Relief Association paid the salaries of three additional teachers and three playground directors, enabling the JCC to offer classes for children in drama, music, and arts and crafts, and to organize sports leagues with practices and contests held on the playground. During the summers, they hosted a day camp—Camp Manayim—which took neighborhood kids on day trips to swimming pools and parks nearby. And for their parents, the JCC offered adult education courses in English language, philosophy, literature, and American history.8 Even as the JCA embraced a new and expanded mission, its roots in the settlement house movement endured with the financial support provided by the programs of the New Deal.

In 1938, the Soto-Michigan JCC decided to rebuild their facility from the ground up with the help of a generous donation from Ida Latz in honor of the memory of her husband George. To design the new structure, Latz commissioned young architect Raphael Soriano, a Sephardic immigrant from Rhodes and graduate of the USC School of Architecture, after he was recommended by famed architectural photographer Julius Shulman. Shulman, who was raised in Boyle Heights and was active in a Boy Scouts troop that met at the JCC, was introduced to Soriano through a mutual friend, modernist architect Richard Neutra, under whom Soriano had apprenticed. The two became fast friends, Shulman photographing many of Soriano’s most famous works and later hiring him to design his own home and studio in the Hollywood Hills.9

Like Neutra and other modernists of the midcentury, Soriano rebelled against the florid, neo-classical style of the Beaux Arts tradition, preferring structures made of lower-cost industrial materials–steel beams, concrete, aluminum siding, and glass–and stripped of all ornamentation that would conceal their components. His design for the Soto-Michigan JCC involved an elaborate system of prefabricated steel beams and posts atop a concrete foundation, creating a façade of sheet-glass windows facing Michigan Avenue that wrapped along the side of the building. The two-story structure had offices, classrooms, and meeting rooms on the ground floor, and larger meeting rooms and an auditorium above, all with windows looking out onto its beloved playground. Sleek, modern, and with interior views visible from the street, the building embodied the Soto-Michigan JCC’s commitment to community engagement, openness, and integration.

For more on Raphael Soriano's life and work, read Leslie Erganian's essay "Modern Maverick" at the Leve Center's digital exhibit "100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles."

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