The Old Houston Street Synagogue and Burial Site

Remembering the Jews who have lived and now rest in peace in the LA Eastside

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The Young Israel Jewish Cemetery in Norwalk, founded in the 1938 by Congregation Bnei Israel of Los Angeles, the Houston Street Shul of old Boyle Heights.

Today I invite you to take a personal journey with me through Jewish life in the Los Angeles Eastside. I would also like to continue in the theme of recognizing smaller and lesser known Jewish sites of the area.

On this day we are doing something different, we are starting out our journey in reverse. Believe it or not, to date none of my historical videos have been planned out. I’m not a tourist, I’m a local. Usually a video comes about because I’m in the neighborhood and someone asks me to explains something as we are passing, and then we snap a video to capture my responses.

Today I am presenting my photos and a re-cut video with a bit of newly added audio commentary, documenting a recent visit to two special Jewish sites on the Eastside of Los Angeles County. One in Norwalk and the other in Boyle Heights.

Along the way we are also going to tell the untold story of the migration of Jewish people, deeper into the suburban eastside. Into the southeast cities of Los Angeles County and the San Gabriel Valley.

The Jewish Cemetery in Norwalk

This day I was actually in the dentist chair when I got a wonderful question from a friend from the southeast-side. His inquiry gave me a welcomed distraction and mission for the day!

He wanted to find out what I knew about a small burial site out in Norwalk. Knowing that I would be passing right next to there on my way home, I decided to make a quick detour into the neighborhood next the Metro Green Line Station in Norwalk to explore this topic a bit.

Crossing under the 605-freeway on Foster Road, I make my way through a broken-up and oddly shaped neighborhood. Over to the southernmost fragment and point of Curtis and King Road. And right there in between Briar and Tolly, there sits a small Jewish cemetery.

This cemetery is the Young Israel Cemetery in Norwalk, founded in 1938. This site holds approximately 500 Jewish burials. It is a well maintained site, run by the Chevra Kadisha Mortuary – the Orthodox Jewish sacred burial society.

The Chevra Kadisha also runs other well-known cemetery sites in the area. One of them being the Beth Israel Cemetery in East Los Angeles on Downey Road, near Olympic Blvd. And another being the Mount Carmel Cemetery, near the City of Commerce.

Though, it is important to note that this site here was not founded by the burial society which operates it today. In-fact, we are told by oral history that this site was founded by the Houston Street Shul in Boyle Heights. (Mort Silverman) And that it was later bought by the Chevra Kadisha.

[For a complete list of internments and photos for each grave, see the index at: “Find A Grave”]

So here we are, standing in front of an often forgotten cemetery, which was founded by a forgotten synagogue. We are also going to take a look at the shul along the way as well, as we make our way back to Boyle Heights.

But first we need to take this all in. One might wonder, why is it that a Jewish congregation in old Boyle Heights would have chosen a burial site all the way out here in Norwalk? And as most of the burials are more recent, so why would this remain an active site even after the closure of the congregation which founded it?

The answer to the first question of why here, this is only obvious to those who know about the complicated history of displacing cemeteries in the Los Angeles area. At the start of the 20th century nearly all the original cemeteries inside the city were displaced. They were forced to relocated their sites and bodies elsewhere: as most notably in the case of the original Jewish cemetery around Chavez Ravine.

The fear of this possibly happening once again compelled Jewish leaders to pick burial sites which were outside of the official city limits, into LA County territory. They located their burial sites in places this far out not just because there was open land here, but more so because they believed picking a site out here would be safe from future development. They began to put great attention into picking cemetery sites which would not have to be quickly uprooted and relocated. So that their dearly departed would not be disturbed.

[To get a quick and unofficial history of the displacement of Los Angeles cemeteries, please see my following video. Hopefully I can produce a cleaned-up version of this soon: “Cemetery walk to the Los Angeles Eastside (outtakes and first treatments)”]

As for the reason that this Jewish burial site would remain significant, it is clearly because Jewish people and their families had migrated into this area. Necessitating the continued operation and maintenance of this sacred burial site here.

As for the reason that this Jewish burial site would remain significant, it is clearly because Jewish people and their families had migrated into this area. Necessitating the continued operation and maintenance of this sacred burial site here.

“As for the reason this Jewish burial site would remain significant, it is clearly because Jewish people and their families had migrated into this area. Necessitating the continued operation and maintenance of this sacred burial site here.”

My friend who posed the question about this site is an Ashkenazi Jew, whose grandparents had left Boyle Heights to the southeast cities. My own Mexican-American grandparents from Boyle Heights and Compton, they would also eventually relocate to this southeastern corner of Los Angeles as it became developed with tract housing. This was the place for the up and coming, with a mixture of working-class and some professional families.

In the early years after World War II and the Korean War, this part of Los Angeles would attract many suburban aspiring people following government contract jobs. The area would also swell with prominence as this area became an important development and production area for the aerospace industry. Not far from here Rockwell Aerospace would later produce the NASA space orbiters.

However, as the cold war and the space program slowed down this also meant a great economic lull in the area. And then the neighborhood around here was further depressed by highway development in the area.

A view of part of the 105 Century Freeway corridor, rows of condemned houses and lots.

A view of a section of the 105 Century Freeway corridor in the 1980s, rows of condemned houses and lots. Photo by Jeff Gates, “In Our Path.”

When I was a kid much of this area was just rows of condemned houses. Houses which had been purchased by the county, left boarded-up and rotting for decades, then eventually razed in order to make a corridor for the 105 Century Freeway in the late-1980s. A demolition corridor which stretched through the struggling parts of the neighborhoods of Norwalk, Downey, Lakewood, Lynwood, Compton, Watts and on to LAX Airport.

When I was little my grandparents owned several business just across the street from the corridor. And I went to private school right up against the corridor for a while.

This corridor was the area featured in the most notorious punk-rock movie of all time,Suburbia (1983)” by Penelope Spheeris. Which is a story of gutter punks occupying a distressed and crumbling suburbia. Though a fictional movie which takes great liberties with the story in their nod to the historical narrative, it does actually capture much of the complaints of locals throughout the corridor and the media hype surrounding all of that at the time.

In order to grasp and visualize the impact of this on the area, I also highly recommend the exhibition titled, “In Our Path” by Jeff Gates.

The Young Israel Cemetery is near the San Gabriel River and high tension power-lines which segment this area as much as the freeways do. It's the proximity of this site to the river which catches my attention. This burial site was founded in 1938. The same year Los Angeles suffered one of the most destructive deluges in history, which devastated much of the river basin areas in the months of February and March, all the way down to Long Beach. Which leaves us with a mystery to explore. Does this site here exists in-spite of that dramatic flood or as a result of the literally sweeping changes which came to this area at that time?]

The Young Israel Cemetery is near the San Gabriel River and high tension power-lines which segment this area as much as the freeways do. It’s the proximity of this site to the river which catches my attention. This burial site was founded in 1938. The same year Los Angeles suffered one of the most destructive deluges in history, which devastated much of the river basin areas in the months of February and March of 1938, all the way down to Long Beach. It was this severe flooding which later that year caused the City of Los Angeles to adopt the policy of concrete paving the rivers. Which leaves us with a mystery to explore. Does this site here exists in-spite of that dramatic flood or as a result of the literally sweeping changes which came to this area at that time?

So here we are just near the widened 605-freeway, you can hear it. Near the interchange to the more recent 105-freeway, you can see it.

Quite honestly, we are very fortunate that this site still continues to exist after such sweeping changes around here. Had engineers planned a little bit differently, this site could have easily have been taken by one of our infamously controversial roadworks. Highway expansions which have repeatedly displaced so many people and places in less affluent neighborhoods; as had also been the case in the classic era of Boyle Heights.

But before I head back towards Boyle Heights, I pause to say a few prayers and pay my respects. And for a while I take comfort in seeing carefully placed stones on many of these graves, signs that there are local loved ones who have recently come to visit these graves. Paying respect to the dear souls who have come to rest here.

זיכרונם לברכה… May their memories be for a blessing.

The Houston Street Shul of Boyle Heights

So now we make our way back to the historic core of the eastside – to Boyle Heights. We make a journey in reverse, a journey that many of our parents and grandparents have made.

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The only noticable sign that this Spanish-speaoing church was once a synagogue are these Lions of Judah, guarding the two tablets of Torah. The raised Hebrew words of the Ten Commandments appear to have been sanded down entirely.

Many, if not most, local minority families have their roots in Boyle Heights. The area which was once the officially designated minority enclave and has remained a working-class community to this day. For many immigrant families, this was both their Ellis Island and first homestead.

The way the eastside generally works is this way: Everyone starts out around Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. But as a family becomes more financially secure and more integrated, they tend to migrate to the more suburban southeast neighborhoods.

Conversely for lifelong eastsiders, families falling on hard times sometimes moving back to these more affordable old neighborhoods when times become tough again. Migrating patterns up and down the eastside often closely related to one’s economic security. Unlike most of my family, I’ve lived in the rougher neighborhoods more often than not. Getting older, I have naturally wandered back to this my comfort zone.

But the path that we take these days is different from the ride I used to take in my childhood and teenage years. The 460 Express Bus no longer takes the scenic route through the greater eastside, with stops up and down the 5-freeway, then coming into town up Soto before crossing the Los Angeles River viaducts into downtown. The 460 now takes the 105-freeway corridor and 110-freeway through South Central LA on its way to Downtown, so now I go the long way around on my way up to the neighborhood.

One of the things which makes the neighborhood of Boyle Heights so special and worth the ride, is that it has all kinds of hidden treasures. All these interesting remnants of a diverse cultural and religious past in this old neighborhood. Still after all these years, I notice something new every time.

La Iglesia de Dios de la Profecía. The face of the building before the beautification.

“La Iglesia de Dios de la Profecía.” The face of the converted synagogue, before the most recent beautification.

And so it is on this day as we find ourselves in front of the old Houston Street Shul – formally known as Congregation B’nei Israel of Los Angeles, founded in 1932. This lovely little vernacular neoclassical style building was originally built to house an Orthodox Jewish congregation. It was one of over 30 synagogues in and around the area of Boyle Heights, which were most active in the first half of the 20th century.

This building sits amid a bustling neighborhood. Right below Wabash and just shy of the rumbling of the freeways which today curve painfully close to this area, here sits this charming little building.

Distinct in its style and sturdy in form, it catches your attention. Even more so on this day. The building has been recently repainted a classic golden color. No longer appearing dingy and musty as before, the building looks quite alive and cheerful again!

Also recently being brightened up with a new illuminated sign over the doorway, announcing the church which has for many years owned and operated this site: La Iglesia de Dios de la Profecía, a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church.

As I begin to admire the building, my attention is immediately drawn to the only noticeable Jewish symbolism which is left on the building: Two Lions of Judah, guarding the two tablets of the Torah. This is all there is to explicatively tell us what this site once was. Yet even these signs are not well-preserved, as the church seems to have sanded down the Hebrew words of the Ten Commandments on these decorative Torah tablets.

As I move in closer with the camera to admire them, I notice the people in the neighborhood and the lingering Mormon missionaries all becoming curious as to what I’m seeing here. What looks so interesting up there, are they missing something?

As I get closer my attention is then drawn to the door-frames of the main entrance. On each side of the door are square indentations. Painted in and looking like exaggerative block molding. However, looking closely I could see the faint shape of the English and the Hebrew script of Yiddish in these spaces. Beneath thick brown paint are the memorial cornerstones honoring the founders of this site.

As much as I’m excited to seeing the building still exist and having better days. I’m also crushed over how little there is left to testify of its unique and celebrated past. This building is like most of the former Jewish religious sites, few of which have any remaining signs or homages to their honorable past.

Though the building in impressive in its own right, even aside from the religious symbolism. And while this building is not as imposing and dramatic as the other former synagogues of the area, sites such as this are significant precisely on account of their humble nature. This build has an honored past as being the realization of the aspirations of poor immigrant Jews. Bearing witness to the struggle and the sacrifice it took for new immigrants to establish this splendid site, all this during the lean years of the Great Depression!

It is strikingly clear that this site has been overwhelmingly changed since then. For this reason some feel that the historical significance of sites such as this has been irreversibly effected and in most cases lost entirely.

However, I am of the optimistic belief that as in the case of the 2nd Street Shul, there can be found a way to restore the hidden heritage of sites such as this. To honor their past glory, as well as testify of the historical diversity of this culturally rich neighborhood for generations to come.

I wonder, would this church ever embrace that heritage and restore the site if they knew the cultural significance and historical impact of it all? And might this church consider restoring the Hebrew to these tablets out of respect to the Ten Commandments and the “Old Testament?” As we have seen these type of inspired restorations in other places in this neighborhood already. Time can only tell.

As I go between gawking and speaking into my phone to document the site for quite a while, the people hanging out on the block get even more curious. Surely I’m not just interested in the new paint job!

So I strike up a conversation and share some pleasantries with a family next door, who is seemingly having tardeada on this warm day. They give me the lowdown on when the latest upgrades have happened on the building. And I also share with them a bit of the history I know about this site. History in this side of town is always a most engaging topic, as people love to reminisce about the golden era of this area to no end. And even more today people are genuinely curious as to how and why things have come to be in this old neighborhood.

But the questions which always remains are this, why did all the Jewish families of Boyle Heights leave? And the almost inevitable, “Why did they all move to the Fairfax?”

What the housing displacement caused by the freeways looked like. This raw example being more recent, from the southeast cities in the 1980s; the I-105 corridor. Photo by Jeff Gates, “In Our Path.”

Though that is a very complicated question to answer, I ask people to really consider at least one thing which has repeatedly displaced people and heaped hardship on this community. I point towards the freeways which are rumbling all around us. And ask people to remember how our neighorhood and our own families were fragmented, as well over 10,000 people were displaced here between the 1940-1950s to create the web of freeway interchanges which carved this community apart. Which came with sweeping displacement for Jews, Latinos and all other residents.

Many people eventually moved away because their grandma’s house was taken by eminent domain for yet another freeway project, and then their own. Some of our families even being uprooted more than once by the freeways here. Not just families, but many business holdings being ripped asunder by development. This made many people finally choose to move on to other more assured areas, including the surrounding communities.

I ask people to consider how our city and our own families were fragmented, as 10,000 people were displaced here between the 1940-1950s to create the web freeway interchanges which carved this community apart. Which came with sweeping displacement for Jews, Latinos and all other residents.

Consider the Freeways:  This marks the location of the old shul. I ask people to consider how our city and our own families were fragmented, as well over 10,000 people were displaced here between the 1940-1950s to create the web of freeway interchanges which carved this community apart. Which came with sweeping displacement for Jews, Latinos and all other residents. This image shows the impact of two of the half-dozen major freeways-highways which have encroached upon and even slice through this community.

For this reason I reject the one-direction narrative. And the assumptive ideas which lend to an over-simplified narrative which is crudely summarized as “white flight.” And it takes a native and lifelong eastsider to challenge that old suspicion – and often character judgments which comes with that – as it is most often posed by the younger eastsiders of today.

I ask our local people to also reconsider this: The favored narrative always follows the mass migration of Jews out of Boyle Heights to the Fairfax, westside and San Fernando Valley. However, there have been significant numbers of Jewish people who have continued to migrate further into the eastside.

Indeed as early as the 1920 Jews started migrating out of Boyle Heights and City Terrace, to places such as Highland Park and Montebello. There was no place else for most people to go in those days, but deeper into the eastside.

Then in the 1950’s after the end of housing discrimination, many more Jews migrated even further into the newly expanding suburban areas of the eastside. Founding several wonderful Jewish congregations and cultural centers on this side of town.

The southeast side of Los Angeles still has active Jewish communities here; my own shul, Beth Shalom of Whittier – formerly the “Jewish Community Center of Whitier” – services this area; as well as Temple Beth Ohr of La Mirada, and Temple Ner Tamid of Downey. And last but not least, Temple Bnei Emet of Montebello – formerly the “Jewish Educational Center of East Los Angeles.”

Each of these congregations growing out of far less than homogeneous communities, which has fostered a unique multicultural and progressive character for shuls on this side of town. Congregations which also notably attract many local bilingual Spanish-speaking families!

The Jews of the Los Angeles Eastside aren’t entirely gone, it’s just that the Jewish people of today’s eastside are much more spread out. And in recent years, many families are migrating even further yet into the San Gabriel Valley and also venturing into Orange County. Once again, migrating to newly expanding areas.

As time passes the Jewish history of the greater eastside area becomes more obscured. However, its important for us to note that significant amounts of Jewish people have come further into the eastside to live out their lives and also to rest in peace.

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