For as many years as I orbited the synagogue on Main Street in Venice, I find it remarkable that I had never entered its sanctuary. I’ve passed by countless times on foot and by car and, as of the previous week, I celebrated Purim here, which took place in the basement, and participated in the Friday evening Sabbath-welcoming service, held in a small adjacent chamber. Having attended these preliminary events, I feel as if I’ve passed some small test and proven my mettle to gain access to the holy of holies. Today’s Sabbath service will be held in main worship hall.
In the foyer, I greet the rabbi. He says, “Good morning,” with a smile. His eyes offer a less enthusiastic look that suggests: Oh, you again. I pick up a flyer that details the history of the building and step through a second bank of doors. The most surprising aspect is how big and plain it is. In my imagination, it sparkled like an opulent Catholic cathedral, but in reality it looks like an auditorium for a particularly large high school with dozens of rows facing a stage. I find a spot in the middle towards the front and settle in to read my flyer, which explains that this building, the oldest synagogue in West Los Angeles still in operation, was constructed just after World War II. To save money, the design was borrowed from a military base theatre. It’s like these walls claimed this enormous space and then froze it in time.
The flyer explains that over the years Venice—“the Coney Island of the West”—became “a haven” for Jewish families and retirees and, at one point in the 50s and 60s, the boardwalk was lined with Jewish delis, kosher butchers, bakeries and tailors. I take a moment to imagine this version of the boardwalk—the suntanned limbs of bodybuilders replaced by fedoras and suits. Most of these Jews would have come through New York and made their way across the country by train or plane drawn by those age-old magnets: sunshine and Hollywood. Here was an unlikely, if natural, end point to the diaspora.
A man I recognize from Purim and the Friday service spots me and waves. At those events, he was outgoing and friendly and elaborated on certain aspects of what I was witnessing. I deeply appreciated his efforts to make me feel welcome.
Today, he takes the seat next to me and fills me in on a tidbit not included in the flyer. “See how there’s this middle section of seats,” he says, “and then smaller sections on the left and on the right?” I nod, noticing how an aisle on either side of where we’re sitting separates us from a narrower bank of seats. “That was a compromise. Originally, the middle section was for men and women who wanted to sit together and then for those who still wanted to sit with only their gender, the two sides.” Today, all three sections are coed.
He explains that when the synagogue was built, some congregants were starting to embrace the idea that not all the traditional rules were necessary. This more relaxed approach was formalized in the 1950s when the congregation joined the conservative movement. Members who wanted to remain orthodox broke away and started a synagogue located directly on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Since then, the rule-following spectrum has expanded further to include the more lenient reform movement. It’s a history that continues to play out; the seating arrangement in the auditorium offers a snapshot from this evolution.