Event Unearths the Deep Jewish Roots Of Boyle Heights

May 18, 2009

Author: Hector Becerra

Source: The Los Angeles Times


On a sunny Sunday when men with 10-gallon vaquero hats mingled with men wearing yarmulkes, Sonny Estrada, his wife Susan Miller and their 9-year-old daughter Eliana stepped into the aging synagogue in Boyle Heights as unwitting symbols.

The Mexican-American-Jewish family was celebrating the 61st anniversary of Israel's independence outside the Breed Street Shul -- while also honoring Jewish and Latino bonds in a part of town that once was home to the largest Jewish community outside New York.

As a teenager, Estrada used to accompany his gardener father to tend the yards of West Los Angeles homes that often belonged to Jewish families. When Estrada and Miller married 19 years ago, they exchanged vows in English, Hebrew and Spanish. About eight years ago, Estrada converted to Judaism.

Though they had never stepped foot in the Breed Street synagogue, it seemed only natural that they should come to Sunday's celebration.

Miller, 51, cried when she entered the old shul, whose ornate and colorful stained glass windows were pocked with holes. The altar and cracked wooden floors were dusty.

"To think, people were married here, they were mitzvahed here," Miller said. "It's a treasure that needs to be restored."

Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, said raising awareness about the need for restoration was one of the goals of the celebration known as Fiesta Shalom. The event was organized by the historical group, the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles and other organizations.

Much work has already been done on the synagogue, which last held services in 1996. The goal, Sass and others said, is to reopen the shul as a cultural and social service center for the working-class neighborhood. About $5 million for repairs is still needed.