Temple Beth El: 100 years and counting

The year was 1922.

Los Angeles’ first radio stations hit the air.[1]

Angelinos celebrated the opening of The Hollywood Bowl.

Children enjoyed the recently published book, “The Velveteen Rabbit”

President Taft dedicated The Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

Women enjoyed their newfound freedom to vote,

 and Judith Kaplan became the first Bat Mitzvah.

Just coming out of a pandemic and WWI, the roaring 20s were well underway.

And twenty-five families gathered for the first Jewish worship service in San Pedro.

When Daniel and Belle Levin put an advertisement in the paper the day before Yom Kippur,

inviting Jews to a service in their home, they had no idea that 100 years later, we would gather here to celebrate Temple Beth El’s Centennial. They didn’t know what to expect.

Jews were a very small minority in San Pedro in the 1920s. During and in the aftermath of WW1, antisemitism had been on the rise, and bias was most certainly felt. There was a risk in advertising a home service to the greater community, but that didn’t stop these early proponents of audacious hospitality. They didn’t know how many people would attend, or who those people would be. They just knew they wanted to be surrounded by community during the High Holy Days.

They weren’t alone. The next day, twenty-five families from San Pedro and Fort MacArthur

showed up at their door. They didn’t all know one another when they arrived, but when they entered into prayer, they did so as one Jewish community.

What was it that called these families together on that fall day in 1922?

I imagine they showed up for many of the same reasons that brought us here today—because we yearn for connection with one another, with the depth of Jewish tradition, and with all that is holy.

Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem[2]

Throughout the High Holy Day season, we repeat these words again and again. Taken from the book of Lamentations, Chadesh Yameinu K’kedem  is loosely translated as “Renew our days as of old.”

Our early founders wished to do two things- to create firm roots based on our shared history, values and traditions, and to do so in a way that was modern and relevant to their own lives.

Often when we discuss Judaism, we envision the shalshelet kabbalah, the chain of tradition which began in antiquity, and connects us to our forefathers, Abraham, and Moses, to the prophets, the Rabbis, and all those who have gone before us. This is what Rabbi Ed Feinstein called the “story of continuity.”  As a link in the chain, we do our part to pass on the tradition to future generations so that they may feel the same deep connection. And yet, Feinstein explains there is a “parallel story” that works alongside the story of continuity. It is “the story of Jewish discontinuity.” [3] These are moments that necessitate creativity, adaptation, and energy.

The Jews of San Pedro didn’t have a community on which to rely, so they leaned on their ingenuity to create one. A few months after the Yom Kippur service,[4] thirty-five Jewish women gathered to form the Ladies Auxiliary of the San Pedro Jewish Community, determined to figure out how to best serve their community.

These powerhouses landed on two distinct missions. One was to build a community center for learning, prayer, relationship building, and communal support. Thirsty for Jewish wisdom, they sponsored Hebrew School beginning in 1925 and donated the Temple’s first Torah scroll. They raised funds through card parties, silver teas, food sales, and dances, and by 1934 they had secured a deed and built the Jewish community center of San Pedro. Pretty remarkable for a small group of women in the 1920s and 30s!

Their second goal was to help people through acts of G’milut Chasidim, love, and kindness. They worked alongside the men’s B’nai Brith chapter to create opportunities for philanthropy, and prayer during the great depression.[5] As antisemitism rose in Europe, they sounded the alarm at the rise of fascism. Allowing Jewish values to suffuse their spirits, they worked to raise funds and awareness of the plight of refugees fleeing Europe. They held blanket drives for Polish refugees, created sewing kits for service members, and hosted USO events. At a time of heartbreak and devastation, the Jewish men and women of San Pedro served as a beacon of light, generosity, and commitment in the South Bay. At a time filled with antisemitism, they created a safe haven for Jews filled with prayer, community, and learning. The temple was building deep roots, and the fruits of their efforts were beginning to blossom.

Since those early days in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, so much has changed, but the heart of Temple Beth El remains the same.

The Talmud tells a story about Moses reading the Torah that he had been given on Mount Sinai.  He noticed that the letters had adorned calligraphy and inquired about its meaning. God responded by taking Moses thousands of years into the future, into Rabbi Akiva’s academy.

Rabbi Akiva was in the middle of a passionate lecture, and his students actively participated in debate and conversation. Moses sat there bewildered because he couldn’t even follow the discussion; there was so much he didn’t understand.

Just then, one of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples asked a question about a particular point of the law. “How do you know this,” he asked.

“This is the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai,” came the reply. Moses was content.[6]

Moses understood that Judaism is not a static tradition. Of course, he didn’t understand everything they were discussing 13,000 years into the future. And yet, Moses knew that his contributions were essential, for they were the very foundation of Jewish life. Moses had been a successful leader and teacher because he responded to the needs of the day. It was only fitting that future generations would thrive in the same way. Even the deepest roots of a tree yearn for new branches of growth and inspiration.

Throughout the years, Temple Beth El has changed in notable ways. When the temple began to outgrow its first home, temple leaders build this building we are blessed to pray in today. When the needs of the community began to lean towards reform Judaism, Temple Beth El chose to become an official member of the movement in 1959. When it was clear that many temple members live on the hill, the temple experimented with an auxiliary site.  When the pandemic made it impossible to gather in person, we found ways to gather virtually and to support one another.  There are so many more examples, many of which I’m still unaware, but I do know that our willingness to adapt and grow has enabled us to be among the few Jewish communities to reach its centennial. 

Chadesh Yameinu K’kedem.

We would not be here without the incredible volunteers and visionaries who chaired committees, who served on the board, who gave birth to the chavurah program, and the caring committee, who took part in committees from sisterhood to ritual to social action, to the board of education, security, reopening task force, to the mensch club, to DEIA. We wouldn’t be here without donors who so generously gave to the temple community throughout the years. We wouldn’t be here without our teachers, artists, musicians, photographers, communications specialists, greeters, and office volunteers.

We are stronger because of all those who created opportunities from the Taus lecture series to temple retreats, who baked latkes and hamantaschen, who showed up on Friday nights with jello molds and cookies and fruit, without the kind souls who helped us feel at home the first time we entered these doors. There are simply more people and more ways of service than can be counted—but know this, every single one of you helps sustain our temple community, and we are truly grateful for you.  

It isn’t just your willingness to help, but the fullness with which you have. Our temple community today shares the warmth, commitment to Jewish learning, and service that our early founders held dear so many years ago.

And yet, it has changed and adapted over the years. Do you think the Levins would have imagined me on the bima, back 100 years ago? Probably not, but I’m grateful that I am. They wouldn’t have imagined a community as wonderfully diverse as ours, or of technology being integrated into services. They wouldn’t have been familiar with some of the melodies we use, or the creative traditions we’ve established, but like Moses, I believe they would be more than content, grateful that we continue to adapt and thrive.

We often learn that Moses received the entire Torah on Mt. Sinai, but Rambam disputes this claim. He looks to the Torah portion that we will read this coming Friday night, which says

Vayichtov Moshe et HaTorah Hazot

And Moses wrote down [God]’s teaching.

Why, Rambam asks, would Moses need to write down anything in the final moments of his life, when the Torah had already been written in its entirety?

He goes on to explain that Moses didn’t receive the entire Torah at Mt. Sinai. If God had told him everything that would happen, would he have allowed it to transpire? If he knew Korach would rebel, would he have let him? If Moses God wouldn’t let him into the Holy Land, would he have continued to work so hard to deliver the people there?

The Torah given on Mt Sinai included everything up to the laws of the Tabernacle, but the rest had not yet been written. Only at the end of his life could he transcribe the rest of his journey,

because before then it hadn’t been decided. We—each of us—are the writers of our journey. We are actively shaping our present and our future.[7]

Our temple’s story has begun but it is far from over, and it is far from written. I am optimistic about its future.

I believe in our temple. When I talk to colleagues, many complain that “no one shows up,” “they don’t have any volunteers,” or that “people are resistant to anything new.” And I’m grateful to be here at Temple Beth El, where 2 dozen people joined me on Facebook every morning for weeks during the pandemic to count the omer, pray and enjoy our romper room, where dozens of students signed up to be in this year’s youth choir.

I am grateful to be in a community in which over a dozen students went to a Jewish summer camp this past summer, where 25 people took part in the introduction to Judaism class last month, and two dozen people come together for Torah study each week.

We don’t all observe Judaism the same way. Some of us deeply engage through prayer and study, others through spirituality and hikes in nature, or through social justice. But we are all here today, because we, like our temple’s founders, because we yearn for connection with one another, with the depth of Jewish tradition, and with all that is holy. We sense that there is wisdom and inspiration worthy of tapping into.

Our Temple’s centennial is something to celebrate because it honors all those who helped create our Temple Beth El community.

But if we really want to honor them, we can’t do so by celebrating the past alone. We must also look to the present and future.

Let us, like them engage deeply in our community. Let us try something new, get engaged in ways we never tried before. Want to find ways to bring deeper meaning to your Jewish practices and life? My door is always open. Want to volunteer, take a class, sing in the choir, or join a chavurah? The opportunity is yours for the taking.

100 years ago, twenty-five families took a risk and joined together for the very first service in San Pedro. They had no idea that years later we would be the beneficiaries of their sincere engagement in Jewish life.

But we do. We here today set the foundation for the next 100 years. Our thoughtfulness and engagement, our appreciation for the differences and similarities among us, our creativity and care create a stronger foundation for all of those who follow us.

Chadesh Yameinu k’kedem. Renew our days as of old.

Today let’s not only celebrate the past 100 years. Let’s celebrate the next 100 as well. It is our story to write.

Shana tova!

[1] While there were some experimental stations in 1921, 1922 is when they took off. KHJ and KFI became two of the most popular stations, both starting out in April of 1922.

[2] Lamentations 5:21

[3] The Chutzpah Imperative, p.60-61

[4] Their first meeting took place on March 23, 1923

[5] In 1932

[6] Menachot 29b:1-4

[7] David Wolpe talks about this in his Vayeilech sermon,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LtplFmsRR0

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