From just eight recorded residents in 1850, when California became a state, to well above 500,000 people today, the Jewish population in Los Angeles surely has grown and evolved exponentially since the first settlers arrived here. The Jewish community and the city of Los Angeles undoubtedly have an intertwined story, each shaping the other’s development over the years. And throughout Los Angeles and even stretching from the San Fernando Valley to the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, markers showcasing Jewish influence are abundant.
The landmarks that paint the history of Jewish life in Los Angeles are, of course, far too many to fully portray in one magazine article. But there are themes we can touch on that give us a glimpse of the path the community took to get to where it is today in greater Los Angeles.
Perhaps a cemetery wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about important historical landmarks of Jewish society in Los Angeles.
In fact, the first recorded Jewish site in the city of Los Angeles is a burial ground located near what is now Chavez Ravine next to Dodger Stadium. On a street called Lilac Terrace just south of the stadium, you can find a seemingly out of place bronze California landmark marker that designates the site.
It reads: “The Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles (1854), first charitable organization in the city, acquired this site from the city council by deed of April 9, 1855. This purchase of a sacred burial ground represented the first organized community effort by the pioneer Jewish settlers.”
So why would the first Jewish site in the city be a cemetery?
Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, said the reason can be traced back to Abraham, in the story where he looks for a place to bury his wife Sarah.
Building a cemetery, Sass said, “is saying to a community, ‘We are going to stay here for a while and we expect that we are going to have people that are going to pass away and we want to make sure we treat them with dignity and respect in accordance with Jewish tradition.’”
Sass added, “It really was quite a statement because the Jewish population was probably less than 100 people at that point.”
The site certainly provides an interesting context to the area and to the history of Jewish Los Angeles.
“We sometimes say Sandy Koufax wasn’t the first Jew at Dodger Stadium,” Sass said. “The joke was it was called Chavez Levine.”
Ultimately, the site became too small for a growing population, so the community moved its burial ground to the Home of Peace Memorial Park and Mortuary in East Los Angeles.
Today, a walk around the cemetery is a journey through important Jewish figures from the past several decades.
“It’s a storyline of the early Jews,” said Steven Windmueller, professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “It’s a phenomenal walk back in time.”
Other iconic Jewish cemeteries that come to mind include Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Culver City, where many of Hollywood’s famous Jewish actors rest, and Mount Sinai in Hollywood Hills and Simi Valley.
Probably the first thing you think of when talking about any Jewish community is a synagogue. And there is no shortage of historic houses of worship in the Los Angeles area.
The Hebrew Benevolent Society also comes up here. The group organized the first places for gathering in the early Jewish community in the area.
“Maybe because there were not enough Jews to form a synagogue or they did not agree on the customs of a synagogue, [Hebrew Benevolent Society] would be by far the original institution for the community in Los Angeles,” Windmueller said.
He added, “All the potential problems that come with early, unsettled society, you needed to provide social and human services to families and to their kids. I think that is precisely why you see this emerging so much as a first step.”
The service group still exists today, now known as Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.
In terms of a brick-and-mortar temple, the first that most point to would be the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The Orthodox congregation first started as Temple B’nai B’rith, founded by Rabbi Joseph Newmark in 1862.
According to Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s website, Newmark first came to Los Angeles from New York in 1854 and helped the community hold High Holy Day services in the city’s only courtroom even before establishing his congregation.
The congregation first called the gothic-style Fort Street Temple home, dedicating the building in 1873. Later, it moved to a synagogue at 9th and Hope streets, a grand building that housed the largest chandelier in the city at the time.
Finally, in 1929, the now-reform congregation dedicated the current synagogue on Wilshire Boulevard, with architecture modeled off the Pantheon in Rome.
In addition to being Los Angeles’ first formal congregation, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is also credited with traditions such as standing during the Kaddish prayer and establishing well-known Jewish summer camps Hess Kramer and Grindling Hilltop.
Sass said the synagogue itself not only plays a part in Jewish history but also portrays it on historic murals on its walls. Painted by artist Hugo Ballin, they were commissioned by members of the Warner family and are now known as the Warner Murals.
The name probably rings a bell, since the family is that behind Warner Bro Studios
“That would be a major landmark and one that even the non-Jewish community would recognize as a landmark for the Jewish community,” Sass said. “It is often shown on the news.”
Another iconic synagogue to note is the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, also known as Congregation Talmud Torah.
Boyle Heights, Sass said, was a central part of Jewish history between 1920 and 1950.
“It was the largest Jewish community west of Chicago,” Sass said, adding that it boasted more than 30 synagogues at its peak.
Now, Breed Street is the only one left standing.
Sass himself helped save the synagogue from being demolished and is the founder of the nonprofit Breed Street Shul Project, which has worked since 1999 to conserve and restore the building.
Of course there are countless synagogues and congregations across the region that trace Jewish history in Los Angeles. But with Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Breed Street Shul, we can see the community’s beginnings.
Industry, Science & Education
The Warner Murals at Wilshire Boulevard Temple also shine a light on Jewish history in many of Los Angeles’ prominent industries.
From film to banking to garments, there is a Jewish story to tell.
“As Jews have lived here they have kind of been part and parcel of the development of Southern California,” Sass said. “They’ve built various synagogues and schools and businesses and been involved in the building of and the development of government and its institutions and whole industries like the garment industry and Hollywood, which they really just invented.”
Legacy Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios all join with Warner Bros. as “Jewish landmarks, in a way,” Sass said.
On top of Los Angeles’ prominent garment industry, Sass also points to produce and flower markets.
These well-established Los Angeles industries “had a particular Sephardic influence and many Sephardic immigrants went into those businesses and established them from there,” he said.
The area of health also has strong Jewish influence, including City of Hope in Duarte. The hospital, which is now a major research and treatment center in the region, was originally established in 1913 by a group of volunteers as the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association to address the tuberculosis epidemic that was plaguing the Jewish community at the time.
Cedars-Sinai, originally founded as Kaspare Cohn Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital in the early 1900s, also developed out of that need. Eastern European Jews diagnosed with the then deadly disease came in droves to Los Angeles, seeking a dry climate and clean air.
And even after the tuberculosis crisis faded, the hospitals maintained prominence.
“Both of those also served a function because it was difficult for Jewish doctors to find positions on some hospital staff and so the hospitals both performed a function in terms of both training and employment for Jewish doctors and nurses who might have otherwise had trouble getting jobs,” Sass said.
In a similar vein, many of Los Angeles’ educational institutions can be credited with playing a big part in Jewish history.
Windmueller points to California Institute of Technology, University of Southern California, University of California, Los Angeles and even the Claremont Colleges as evidence.
Southern California’s universities were both shaped by Jewish scholars and also drew them to the area.
“As the growth of these institutions occurred out here in the west, it attracted significant amounts of Jewish professionals and professors,” Windmueller said. “This has become and will continue to be an important center for research and intellectual inquiry and as jobs are opening and available you will continue to see some Jewish academics attracted to the West Coast.”
Why? Windmueller guesses it could stem from core of Jewish philosophy and beliefs.
“Maybe out of the inquiring principals within Judaism, where the question is more important at times than the answer, and the urging or the requirement that you should challenge or ask or push back against answers,” he said.
We’ve merely scratched the surface of the rich history of the Jewish community in Los Angeles, and there is certainly an endless collection of stories to be uncovered.
Windmueller encourages all to get to know their community’s history.
“I think most Los Angeles and Southland Jews are really unfamiliar with the historical background of what has been a rather rich and interesting history in this area,” Windmueller said. “These are all very interesting pieces to the larger question of how did we get here and what did we look like.”
Our history should “both bring pride to Jews, but they also need to be made aware of some of these stories,” Windmueller said.
A good place to start?
Windmueller recommends “History of the Jews in Los Angeles” by Max Vorspan and Lloyd Gartner.
Sass and The Jewish Historical Society of Los Angeles also have many resources and the group leads regular guided tours of important sites.
LAUREN GOLD IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.