San Pedro’s largest Jewish synagogue, Temple Beth El, turns 90
This year, Temple Beth El celebrates their 90th anniversary and commemorated the occasion with two special services in March and April, where past presidents and longtime members of the congregation were honored.
“Our theme for this year has been ’90 Years and Beyond’,” explains Rabbi Charles Briskin, who has led the temple since 2005. “We want to honor and celebrate our past, but are also looking forward to our future.” Local representatives Councilman Joe Buscaino, Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, and Congresswoman Janice Hahn were also on hand to celebrate the anniversary.
Currently, there are approximately 270 families from San Pedro and surrounding areas that congregate at the temple, and are, according to temple members, what make the temple such a special place.
“There are other temples that people can join and attend, but many choose ours,” says Marla Shwarts, the temple’s president. “And I think that’s because our temple provides a warmth and comfort that families are looking for. We have a Rabbi and synagogue that meet their personal and spiritual needs.”
It all started in 1922, when the first organized Jewish service was held at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Levin in San Pedro. The following year, the wives of Jewish men belonging to a social club formed the San Pedro Jewish Sisterhood in an effort to support the Jewish community and provide aid to those in need throughout San Pedro.
The group of women gave Temple Beth El its first Torah scroll in 1928, and helped raise funds to build the San Pedro Jewish Community Center, which was dedicated in 1935, and located at the corner of 19th St. and Cabrillo Ave. – now the Italian American Club.
Soon after the Center was dedicated, the Beth El Women’s League was formed in 1936 to develop a religious school. In 1938, the temple was named Congregation Beth El, but was later changed to San Pedro Jewish Community Association in 1944. As the number of Jewish families continued to grow in San Pedro, the need for a more accommodating facility was apparent.
“We welcome people of all stripes, backgrounds, and cultures, and want to take the essence of what makes our temple such a special place and share that with as many people as possible. We always want to be in community with one another while remaining rooted in Jewish traditions.”
In 1955, the San Pedro Jewish Sisterhood sold the building on 19th St. and Cabrillo Ave. and donated the proceeds to the construction of the temple’s current location on Seventh St. A year later, the Torah scrolls were brought to their new home, which also consisted of offices, classrooms, a kitchen, and a social hall/sanctuary. Likewise, the Beth El’s Women’s League changed their name to Temple Beth El Sisterhood and joined the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods of the Reform Movement. Following the lead of the sisterhood, the temple changed its name one last time to Temple Beth El in 1959, as part of its affiliation with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
In 1971, Rabbi David Lieb and his wife Estelle came to lead the congregation at Temple Beth El, and continued to do so for 34 years. The temple’s religious school welcomed its first professional Jewish educator, and an enrollment of 284 students, in 1975, followed by the election of their first woman president in 1976, and the hiring of their first Cantor in 1977.
The 1980s continued to bring growth and the Seventh St. facility was enlarged in 1985. Temple Beth El was then honored with the “Freedom of Light” award from the Religious Coalition on Reproductive Rights in 1994 for a special program put on by the temple about religion and reproductive choice. In 2002, the Temple Beth El Peninsula Family Center was created to reach young Jewish families in Palos Verdes and the western communities of the South Bay.
Because Temple Beth El is one of the largest synagogues in the Los Angeles Area, and has remained within a mile of its origin, it’s no surprise that the temple brings a sense of inclusion within the Jewish community.
“We welcome both Jews and non-Jews,” describes Rabbi Briskin. “We welcome people of all stripes, backgrounds, and cultures, and want to take the essence of what makes our temple such a special place and share that with as many people as possible. We always want to be in community with one another while remaining rooted in Jewish traditions.”
Part of those Jewish traditions includes having more of a questioning theology versus a rigid theology, all while incorporating new, innovative programs that serve not only the temple, but also the community.
“It’s very important to us that our synagogue is the center of Jewish life and learning in the South Bay, and that we connect people to one another,” says Rabbi Briskin, who is also involved with the Rotary Club and South Coast Interfaith Council. “Therefore, it’s even more important that we are engaged with our larger community.”
The temple’s desire to engage in the larger community has lead them to be part of the Toberman Neighborhood Center, where volunteers provide hot meals once a month, and Harbor Interfaith Services, where volunteers help with fundraisers and food drives. The temple will be hosting a weekend-long celebration in January in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On Friday, January 17, the temple will host a Gospel Shabbat Service at 7:30 p.m. with a local Gospel church; on Saturday, January 18, the temple will be conducting social action work throughout the community; and on Sunday, January 19, the temple will join the South Coast Interfaith Council in a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at First Congregational Church of Long Beach, followed by A Radical Friendship, a play about the friendship between Martin Luther King Jr. and Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel at the Norris Pavillion at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for the play are limited and can be purchased at www.norriscenter.com.
“This weekend of celebration is a great way to partner and connect with our community,” says Cantor Ilan Davidson. “We are hoping to ‘pray with our hands and feet’ just as Heschel did with Dr. King.”
“I was once told that our temple was the ‘jeweler of the gem’ – that our temple was a small, but precious gem to the South Bay,” explains Shwarts. “And what that said to me was that as the gem’s shape and color remains the same, it still must be polished and kept current. It is our responsibility as a temple to move forward with our congregation and community in an effort to keep our gem polished.” spt
Temple Beth El is located at 1435 W. 7th St. in San Pedro and hosts Shabbat services every Friday at 7:30 p.m. More information can be found on their website, www.bethelsp.org.