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Temple Beth Israel Thrives Again, Welcomes All

As the High Holidays approach, President Emeritus Henry Leventon and others discuss Temple Beth Israel's often-lean past and thriving present.

For Henry Leventon, Wednesday evening marks the 35th anniversary of a love affair.

In 1976, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Leventon first walked up the steps from Monte Vista Street to the doors of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, accompanied by his non-Jewish wife Josephine and their three daughters. The congregation ushered them through those doors with open arms.

“It was the beginning of a love affair—for us and for them,” remembers Leventon. “It was like a marriage. We just clicked. We were happy to be there and they were happy to have us.”

A Timely Arrival

The charmingly exuberant Leventon, now an octogenarian whose Irish brogue still hints at his Belfast birthplace, is the kind of man who is welcome wherever he goes. But while an accepting attitude has always been a hallmark of Temple Beth Israel, the Leventons arrived at a difficult time in the small synagogue’s history. The Highland Park temple on the hill—the second oldest synagogue in Los Angeles to operate continuously in one location—was in one of the lean periods that, over the years, have left it financially depressed but never daunted.

A family of five was a significant addition to the congregation.

Monte Vista’s Religious Row

Temple Beth Israel is one of six houses of worship on what could be called Monte Vista’s “Religious Row,” between Avenue 55 and Avenue 61. The temple was incorporated in 1923 as the Highland Park Hebrew School Association and originally met “above a drug store on Figueroa," according to Leventon. The temple broke ground at the Monte Vista location in 1930—“the year I was born,” says Leventon.

Knocking on Doors

Highland Park’s Jewish community was never large. Esther Weinstein, one of the temple’s founding members, located potential fellow congregants by asking the local postman for a list of Jewish-sounding names in the neighborhood and then knocking on their doors. The temple thrived in the 1930s but according to an excerpt from the temple’s 1948 fundraising yearbook, the congregation had been “small and weak” just the year before.

Eastside Exodus

Joel Wilk, the temple’s vice president, was one of the last members to have his Bar Mitzvah in the synagogue, where the warm woods and mid-century makeover—the latter supervised by interior designer Jeremy Share—are burnished by the light streaming through the long, vertical, blue and gold stained glass windows.

Wilk says that Temple Beth Israel’s congregation was affluent in the late 1940s and early 1950s—“with a Sisterhood and a youth group”—and that many of the members had “businesses in the neighborhood.”

But by the ’60s and ’70s, there was a westward exodus of Eastside Jews, not only from Highland Park but also from the thriving Breed Street Shul community in Boyle Heights, where Wilk remembers his mother buying “pike and whitefish.”

Leventon was president for much of this second membership drought. Sometimes, the congregation barely had enough members attending to form a minyan—the quorum of 10 adults needed, according to Jewish law, to fulfill certain religious obligations.

Then, in the early ’90s, young families priced out of properties to the west rediscovered Northeast Los Angeles and Temple Beth Israel.

Back to the Neighborhood

Henry Leventon gave the newcomers the same warm welcome that he was given. 

He told them all about the temple, which is conservative but egalitarian. Today, interfaith couples are welcome just as they have been since Henry and Josephine joined the temple 35 years ago.

Gay families are welcome as well. 

Women participate fully. In fact, Susan Goldberg, the acting rabbi who will preside over the Sept. 28-Sept. 30 High Holiday services, is considered a “rock star,” says Les Kaye, who handles communications for the temple.

'A Lot of Love'

Cantor Ken Rothstein, who leads Saturday morning services, confirms that there is “a lot of love” at Temple Beth Israel—“a special, warm feeling here as soon as you walk into the sanctuary.”

Santa Monica College music major David Czinner, 19, described by Rothstein as one of the temple’s “rising young stars," calls Temple Beth Israel his “home away from home.”

Fifth-grader Alexa Schlitt likes Temple Beth Israel because “everyone knows each other.” Alexa’s father Michael, who hadn’t been to temple since he was a kid in New York, finds Temple Beth Israel “unique and inclusive—not like any temple I’ve ever seen before.”

Educational Program Thrives, Membership Grows

The temple’s now-thriving educational program is a significant draw for families that have kids, according to Kaye and Temple President Bill Fishman, who credits Mark Strunin with “pulling the program up by its bootstraps.”  Ellen Kennedy is starting a Jewish Arts Workshop designed to help kids at the temple learn about Judaism and Hebrew culture through the arts.

And everyone is excited about Saturday, October 15, when Sheldon Donnenberg will celebrate his Bar Mitzvah—the temple’s first in 35 years. Kaye, whose son Jeremy will also go through the rite-of-passage this fall, praises Strunin as a “compassionate and understanding teacher."

Most importantly, membership has been steadily growing. Fishman says the temple is getting “close to capacity” but that new members are always welcome and that they’d “never turn anyone away during the High Holidays."

‘Aren’t You Glad we found our Little Temple?’

As the eve of Henry Leventon’s 35-year anniversary with Temple Beth Israel approaches, he remembers a Friday night when he came home from work tired and discouraged and reluctant to go to the Temple. “Jo” urged her husband to attend services, however, and afterward, Henry told her how much better he felt—as if “a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.” Jo smiled at her husband and said, “Aren’t you glad we found our little temple?”

It’s a sentiment that has stayed with Henry and applies to anyone who climbs the hillside steps to Temple Beth Israel. It’s the one place where’s there’s always a welcome waiting.

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