Transforming a Historic Synagogue Into a Community of the Future
Breathing Life Into the Global Ethic
by Ruth Broyde Sharone
What would the manifestation of a global ethic look like in everyday life?
Is it possible to translate the lofty ideals for humanity imagined by theologians and professors into a flesh and blood reality that people of all beliefs can accept and commit to? Can technology be the glue that makes that possible or is some kind of “human glue” necessary?
German professor Hans Küng, who presented his revelatory idea for Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions conference in Chicago in 1993, insists the world is definitely not going to be held together by the Internet.
Küng has pondered deeply the fundamental questions of ethics and religion. He believes achieving a new global order — encompassing a global economy, global technology and a global media — is impossible unless we develop a global ethic to which all nations and diverse peoples of the world will commit themselves to. It is only when the peoples of the world live peacefully together and share responsibility in caring for the Earth that this is possible, he emphasized in his document.
A Building for PUP
One man who has breathed life into this powerful vision is Craig Taubman, a California musician, producer, and impresario. Taubman bought an old historic synagogue in one of the most diverse neighborhoods of Los Angeles and transformed it into a creative and dynamic multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious community called the Pico Union Project (PUP).
Taubman first visited the building in 2012. It was an elegant but very neglected synagogue that had been occupied for the past 88 years by the Welsh Presbyterian Church. Built in 1909, it still retained the original stained-glass windows with a Star of David motif that had been boarded over on the outside. He immediately fell in love with the building and wondered what he might create there. “I didn’t know how much it was going to cost or even what I would use it for, but I knew instinctively I was going to buy it,” Taubman recalled. He purchased the building in 2013. Taubman had never heard about the Global Ethic when he purchased the structure, but he said his inspiration for the place ultimately came from his own religious tradition and his two main advisors: Sevyrn Ashkenazi, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, and his daughter Abby, a graduate of Pitzer School, where she completed a special course for community organizing called the Ontario Program.
A man known for his love of historic structures, Ashkenazi told Taubman, “Remember, you own the golf course, but you can’t build a town hall, and a city around it alone. You need the community for that so before you fix up anything in the building, you have to communicate to the people who live around the golf course and let them know that you’re here for their benefit, not for yours.”
Craig Taubman mulled over his friend’s advice repeatedly as he considered the neighborhood around him. How do you show respect for the community, especially if you yourself have not lived there before, he wondered? The answers came tumbling out: “You build on the outside. You plant trees. You take graffiti off of the walls. You take gum off of the sidewalk. You also restore it to show respect for what the original structure looked like.”
Taubman began to see the synagogue as an opportunity to embody the love-your neighbor-as-yourself ethic, bringing it to life as a “big tent” through song, story, art, food and prayer. “We found a tremendous amount of graffiti and tagging on the building,” he recalled. “A local company agreed to remove graffiti for a cost of three to four thousand dollars, but when they started to take the graffiti off, they discovered new layers beneath.” The company warned Taubman it would take weeks and be very costly., but inspired by his mission, they did the work for free, charging only for the materials.
Taubman views downtown LA as a chance to rewrite the protocol of what is happening in the city. “I observed a ton of volunteer organizations in depressed areas, but they were so unorganized they didn’t talk to one another. The Pico Union Project became a unifying space for people to gather and collaborate on shared ideas and a common mission.”
“Some people say there was graffiti before because they didn’t know it was a church/synagogue. Then we received invaluable advice. If you put up an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, they told us, no one will deface it. And they were right! We have not had even one incident of tagging in five years, even though other buildings in the area have been tagged. But we did other things as well. We started commissioning murals using artists from the neighborhood and we watched as they developed pride of ownership.”
When it came to community efforts, Taubman sought his daughter’s advice. “I asked her what she felt we should do in the community. ‘Why are you asking me? You should ask the community what THEY need,’ she said. “My daughter coached me and set me straight,” Taubman proudly reflected. “We convened with then councilman, Ed Reyes. He hooked me up with his field deputies who then organized a series of listening sessions. So just imagine this. Here I am, the middle-aged, wealthy Jewish white guy. They’re convinced I want to take advantage of them and of their community. It wasn’t easy and there were times when I got fed up and thought: I don’t need to meet up with you. Then I remembered that the NAACP was formed by Jews and Blacks together and the first president of that organization was Jewish. Individuals — not organizations — joined together to fight for Civil Rights.”
Today the Pico Union Project is a hub of activity that changes its profile daily. It serves as a multi-faith house of worship for four distinct faith groups: a Korean Baptist church, an AME Church led by a woman pastor, a Latino ministry and a post-denominational Jewish community, and until recently it was also the home for the first women’s mosque in America.
Evenings and weekends PUP morphs into a cultural center, playing host to an eclectic range of international performers, visual artists, podcasts and panels. In addition, special dinners for the under-40s population are offered regularly, bringing together artists, activists and others for what the brochure describes as “a provocative evening that builds community and stretches the imagination.”
In an effort to serve the needy in their community, several times a week the synagogue is transformed into an indoor farmers’ market where overflow produce from local farmers is available free of charge.
“At the Pico Union Project, we identify as multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious,” Taubman emphasized. “I think we can serve as a model for the new world, not a cookie-cutter model, but an inspiration for communities around the world who will each figure out what is best for them.
“With all of the synagogues and churches that are closing, this is an amazing sacred space and holy ground. We don’t have exclusive ownership of our own narrative — Hindu, Christian, Baha’i, Jewish, etc. — but we have the freedom now in America, more than most places in the world, to use religion as a path to unify people, not divide people. PUP is just one example. Jewish people convene here on Friday night, four different Christian churches pray there on Sunday. We’re not here to create dialogue together, but to underscore that we share the same desire to fix the world and we recognize that we don’t have to do it the same way.”
“How many times can you talk about it? The problem with interfaith dialogue is that most of the time people have to drive for an hour to talk about it. Blacks don’t live near whites. Latinos don’t live near Asians. Here you can live, practice, sing, eat, and celebrate in an open community.”
The center’s mission statement is ‘Love your neighbor as you wish to be loved.’ “You cannot love your neighbor if you don’t know you neighbor,” Taubman said. “The Pico Union Project gives people an opportunity to know their neighbor, to consider their neighbor, and to honor their neighbor.”
Echoing the words that Professor Küng laid out in his Global Ethic, Taubman summed up the essence of the Pico Union Project with the lyrics from one of his own songs: “Alone we are strong. Together we are stronger.”
Header Photo: Craig Taubman