Thursday, February 28, 2013

Photo Essay: Breed Street Shul, Unsafe for Entry

The Congregation Talmud Torah is a landmark in East LA's Boyle Heights neighborhood, which once housed a thriving and growing Jewish population along Brooklyn Avenue in the early 1900s.



It was known as the largest synagogue west of Chicago, and was always packed for gender-segregated services.



But in the years after World War II, in the mid-20th century, the Jewish population began to disperse to other areas of LA...



...moving their Jewish delis, bakeries, and even hospital to neighborhoods like the Fairfax District and Beverlywood.



Attendance to the synagogue declined over the decades that followed, and as new freeways sliced Boyle Heights up and cut it off from the rest of LA, the Hispanic population grew in the late 20th century (with Brooklyn Avenue being renamed Cesar Chavez Avenue in 1995), and eventually the synagogue on Breed Street - known to locals as the "Breed Street Shul" - closed because of expensive seismic retrofitting requirements to make the unreinforced masonry earthquake-proof.



Exposed to the elements, the main brick building - both inside and out - deteriorated greatly...



...but the smaller building in the back became occupied by a gang in the 1980s, its every wall tagged with graffiti...



...which has been remarkably cleaned up...



...with the walls returned to their original paint color, the original wood doors and cabinets retained, and the structure restored enough to be reopened as a community center.



The main building, however, escaped spray paint-wielding taggers but received a different sort of tag: a red one, deeming it unsafe for entry.



The windows in the shul have been replaced, and it's clear that some cleanup has happened...



...but there are still traces of the gangs of pigeons that once took over the synagogue...



...and the destruction they left behind.



Still, heavenly light pours through the stained glass windows...



...giving a feeling of exultation for visitors of any faith, gentile or Jew.



The seats are all stacked to one side...



...the benches on the other...



...revealing bits of the original floor peeking out.



Still, the pigeons left quite a residue behind...



...which must be scrubbed...



...before anyone can take a seat in there again.



Like many restoration efforts, the Breed Street Shul Project - a non-profit organization - faces budget challenges and seeks donations to help them finally complete the seismic retrofitting necessary to reopen the shul.



The main building is not going to fall down if you visit...



...unless there's an earthquake.



Then, maybe.



There aren't many Jews left in Boyle Heights, so the Breed Street Shul Project plans to rehabilitate the historic shul to reopen it for purposes that meet the diverse needs of the various populations of the neighborhood.

Although it is technically unsafe to visit, monthly tours are held for curious visitors, would-be worshippers and LA-loving historians. Just be sure to sign the waiver.

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