The tall, imposing building with a large Magen David and the words Congregation Talmud Torah inscribed above its massive doors, looks out of place on this quiet block in the predominantly working class Hispanic Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles. The building is currently fenced off and undergoing repairs, but less than a century ago, when Boyle Heights was the center of Los Angeles Jewish life, it was called, The Queen of Shuls.
Congregation Talmud Torah, also known as the Breed Street Shul, began in a private home in Downtown Los Angeles in 1905, when the local Jewish residents sought to provide their children with a Jewish education in an after school program. The Talmud Torah expanded to provide synagogue services and moved to Boyle Heights in 1914 when the Jewish community shifted towards that neighborhood. Originally, the congregation constructed a one-story wood-framed building in the current location.
In 1920, Rabbi Dr. Solomon Michael Neches moved to Los Angeles from Ohio and became the rabbi of Breed Street Shul. Rabbi Neches is described by his friend Lewis Browne as, “learned and merry-souled.” He wrote a number of books, some scholarly, such as commentaries on Chumash, Pirkei Avos, Megillas Esther, and Tehillim, and some light-hearted, such as Humorous Tales of Latter Day Rabbis, available for free download at hebrewbooks.org. As he writes in the introduction, “These little human-interest stories which I have re-told are a by-product of a busy city pastorate, the incidents of which would rather make one weep than laugh.”
Rabbi Neches also led the Ein Yaakov Society, where the male members of the congregation met to study and socialize. The shul membership expanded under Rabbi Neches’ leadership, and soon outgrew its quarters. In 1922, the original building was moved to the back of the lot and the construction of a new building began. The shul hired architects Abram M. Edelman and A. C. Zimmerman.
Edelman was the son of Rabbi Abraham Wolf Edelman, a pioneer and the first full-time Los Angeles rabbi who had headed originally Orthodox, but later Reform Congregation B’nai B’rith, decades prior. As an architect, Edelman is best known for co-designing the Shrine Auditorium and Expo Center near USC. He had also designed the new building of Congregation B’nai B’rith. Breed Street Shul, designed in a similar Byzantine Revival Style, with an imposing height of 55 to 61 feet, featured a brick and concrete structure, stained glass windows, hand-painted illustrations of Jewish symbols, and large glass chandeliers. The main floor seated 1, 100 people. The large women’s section was located on the second floor balcony. The total cost of the project was $75,000, and it was fully paid for at its completion. The money was raised “in subscriptions of pennies, dimes, quarters, half-dollars and dollars for we are not a rich community,” explained Dr. H. L. Radlin, presumably a board member, as quoted by The Los Angeles Times.
The new building was dedicated on June 4th, 1923 with a festive ceremony. The LA Times reports that it was the largest Jewish Orthodox institution on the west coast containing, “a spacious dining room and a dance hall and several well-equipped classrooms.” The article also describes the Talmud Torah, “The school will be open from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day and the children will be instructed in the fundamentals of religion, history and the Hebrew language. The school is open to all Jewish children and no tuition fee will be charged. The instruction given will not interfere with the attendance of the children at the public schools.” The newspaper also reports that at least 250 children will be fed lunch at the shul’s dining hall daily, free of charge, arranged by the ladies’ auxiliary.
The new building was soon full of life, with several minyanim held at different times daily. When Rabbi Neches moved on to found the Western Jewish Institute in 1935, Rabbi Osher Zilberstein was brought over from Winnipeg, Canada to become the rabbi of Breed Street Shul. He remained in that position until his passing in 1973. Rabbi Zilberstein, originally from Mezritch, Ukraine, was a tenth generation rabbi, descended from prominent Chassidic families. His reputation as a Torah scholar reached far beyond Los Angeles, and when he visited Eretz Yisrael he was warmly received by Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog, in the presence of both the Aguda and Mizrachi leaders. Rabbi Zilberstein used to say, “If oranges can grow here, Torah can too.” He established the first Jewish day school in the area, Los Angeles Jewish Academy. Rabbi Zilberstein was a passionate Zionist and supporter of the newly founded State of Israel, conducting a special ceremony at the shul in 1948 with shofar blowing and the unfurling of the new Israeli flag.
In the 1950s, Jewish families began to migrate from Boyle Heights to other parts of Los Angeles, mostly to Fairfax, Pico-Roberson, and the Valley. Once filled to capacity, the magnificent building slowly emptied out. By the 1980s only a handful of elderly congregants remained in the neighborhood, and in 1985 even the widowed Rebbetzin moved to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood and joined Beth Jacob Congregation. Thus it was that the shul was completely deserted.
For close to twenty years, the building was abandoned. It suffered neglect and vandalism. The walls that once held beautiful works of art were covered with graffiti. An earthquake shook its foundation and bent the front steps and the light poles out of shape. The building posed a hazard to the surrounding buildings and was in danger of demolition.
A group of dedicated volunteers, headed by Stephen Sass of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, determined to save the historic building by transforming it into a cultural center. In 1999, they established the nonprofit Breed Street Shul Project (BSSP), Inc. Utilizing both public and private funds, BSSP has completed most of the restoration work on the main building and has completely refurbished the old wooden building at the back of the lot, which is currently being used for meetings and communal events, bringing together the Jewish and Hispanic communities.
The main shul building is currently inaccessible due to construction, but BSSP plans to reopen it to the public. “Being inside is a profound experience,” said Orly Olivier, BSSP Interim Director. “You feel real power of the space. Light beams are different colors of stained glass. It’s majestic and incredible.” BSSP conducts tours of the old building and of other Jewish landmarks in Boyle Heights.
For more information on the current activities and plans for the shul, visit http://breedstreetshul.org