LOS ANGELES - When you enter the Pico-Union Project in the heart of downtown L.A., you don’t know exactly what you are walking into.
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Is it a synagogue? With intricate woodwork and stained glass windows, it looks like one, and that’s what it was when it was built in 1909: the original Temple Sinai.
Is it a church? With signs for services in Korean and Spanish, and its location in a heavily Mexican neighborhood, it looks like a classic case of an abandoned inner-city synagogue repurposed as a church.
If you walked in on the evening of January 16, you would have thought it was an arts center and performance space, hosting concerts by Israeli musicians David Broza and Mira Awad, and turning the altar into a stage for ethnic and rock melodies.
It is, in fact, all three: a new kind of unconventional interfaith space, the brainchild of Craig Taubman, who, after chafing at the restrictions of working in the mainstream Jewish community, decided to establish a place of his own.
Craig Taubman is a tanned and silver-haired Jewish musician who composes and directs music for television series on Fox and HBO, and in feature films, has worked with Disney, and has had his songs recorded by stars like Chita Rivera and Jennifer Holliday. In the Los Angeles Jewish community, he is best known for his work in music at Temple Sinai, particularly its famed, “Friday Night Live,” a special musical Shabbat service held once a month led by Taubman and Rabbi David Wolpe.
Taubman became frustrated in his efforts to pursue interfaith projects in the framework of synagogues and Jewish community centers.
“You have to respect the wishes of the members of these places,” he explains. “And a lot of the members of places where I worked had absolutely no desire to bring others in. They wouldn’t like the fact that we had a pastor at an event. Or, while it’s OK to say 'Adonai' you can't say ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘Allah Akbar.’ I say: 'That’s not interfaith, that’s not tolerance - that’s being close-minded and insensitive.'"
So began his quest for neutral territory in which to work on interfaith connections and collaboration between Jews, Christians, Muslims and others without any limitations or ground rules. Traditional interfaith work, he said, was “incredibly rewarding but also frustrating in that I couldn’t build relationships. It was always a one-off concert, a one-off festival. I knew that I wanted to create a permanent space that celebrated community. I felt it was part of the Jewish notion of loving your neighbor as yourself.”
The concept came together when he found the space. The original Sinai Temple of Los Angeles was built in 1909, back when the eastern part of L.A., the downtown, was the place where the Jews lived. It didn’t take long for the community to migrate to the more affluent western side of town. After a new Sinai Temple was built in 1925, the building was sold to a Welsh Presbyterian Church. As the century wore on, the neighborhood became poorer and more dangerous, morphing into gang turfs, until even the Presbyterian community left it. They retained ownership, but began leasing the building, first to a Hispanic church, and then to two Korean Christian congregations, while using it only occasionally for its own events.
In 2012, the Presbyterians decided to sell the property and approached the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California to find a way to return the building to the Jewish community. That’s when Taubman stepped in. “When I walked into the building, I was blown away. I knew immediately it was something I had to have. It was everything I have been looking for and it had a tradition of multi-faith use,” said Taubman, who proceeded to purchase the property (for an undisclosed price) and renamed it the Pico Union Project, after the neighborhood in which it is located.
While continuing to lease to the Korean and Mexican churches, he has also held High Holy Day services there in 2013, and has begun organizing cultural events. His stated goal is to create “a place where people of all faiths and walks of life come together to celebrate Holy Days, holidays and the holy in every day … a courageous place that opens its doors to people of all faiths and backgrounds, honors each other’s humanity and works to spread a message of inclusion through music, dance, prayer and communal celebration.”
In November, the Project hosted a “Thanksgivukkah” Festival. In addition to worship, performances and cultural events, a central element of Taubman’s vision is to create a teaching kitchen and restaurant called the Holy Ground cafe, in which disadvantaged youth will be trained in restaurant skills in order to run a café and provide food and catering for in-house events.
Taubman was especially thrilled to host Broza, whom he has known for many years, in a concert promoting Broza's new album "East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem." A gathering of Israeli, Palestinian, Palestinian-Israeli and American musicians recorded it in a studio in the disputed East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah (where dozens of Palestinians have been evicted from homes they had lived in for decades after Jewish settlers claimed ownership of the buildings). The concert contained a particularly emotional moment when Broza sang a song from the new album, “The Lion’s Den,” an adaptation of a poem written by Judea Pearl in memory of his slain son, reporter Daniel Pearl, with Judea and his wife, Ruth in attendance.
“To have David here at the Pico Union personally is a pretty cool thing,” said Taubman. “But philosophically is where the real coolness comes in. I am creating a space that says ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and that means you have to know your neighbor before you can love your neighbor. David said a similar thing: ‘East Jerusalem is right next to West Jerusalem and we don't know our neighbor.' So what does he do? He made music with his neighbor and now he’s taken his music to our space which is about getting to know your neighbor. It all makes sense - it’s all coming together.”
This article is part of a special Haaretz series called "The new Jews of L.A.," about Jewish life in and around Los Angeles.