Jews first came to the Pasadena community about the turn of the twentieth century, soon after the city was founded. In the first decade of the new century, the Jewish women of the city created a women’s aid group to help Jewish needy. This was the first Jewish organization in Pasadena. Soon thereafter the Jewish men formed a congregation. They first met for worship in Jewish homes and conducted High Holy Day services in the union labor temple. The effort to create a permanent home for the small congregation began in 1920. That year, when Fair Oaks Avenue was the center of the town, the Jews found land in what was then the “far” eastern fringe of Pasadena, where real estate prices were affordable. On the southeast corner of Hudson and Walnut streets we incorporated as Temple B’nai Israel and built our first synagogue. The congregation grew soon after incorporation. In 1925, sixty names appeared in the yearbook as member families, and in 1932, two hundred and seven family names appeared. This congregation is probably the only L.A. county congregation to share with the venerable Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the reality of having multi-generation families. We have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs where three and even four generations of PJTC members are present. A small but significant number of our members consist of children raised here who stayed or who returned to raise their families.
By 1940, the congregation was ready to expand; new land was bought at our present location. The original buildings on the grounds were erected in the late 1920s and included a restaurant, furniture factory, a small shopping center, and residential apartments. The sanctuary that is the present Knell Chapel was “L” shaped, and included what is now our library. The oddly shaped room, with the bimah at the joint of the two wings, served the entire congregation. The choir and organ were located in an open loft above the chapel in the room which now houses an air conditioner. Our entire facility was housed in a structure which filled the footprint currently covered by the kindergarten rooms, Wohlmann Hall, the library, Knell Chapel and about one third of the present Louis B. Silver Religious School building.
In the early 1950s, the congregation constructed a new main building, which houses the Galpert Sanctuary, classrooms, kitchen and stage facilities, and a gym / Social Hall which could quadruple the seating for the High Holy Days. In the 1960s and 1970s, as our needs and uses changed the original “L” shaped structure became unsafe. We replaced the northern wing with the Silver classroom building, and reconfigured the B’nai Israel Chapel (which became Knell Chapel), Library and the Kirschner Auditorium (which became Wohlmann Hall). Our commitment to the constant upgrading of congregational facilities has again been realized in the 1990s with the reconstruction of our main building. We, as an active Jewish community, are continuing our long tradition of expanding our facilities to maintain our rich mixture of programs and services.
In 1947, Rabbi Max Vorspan became the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel. He was a disciple of Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism. Rabbi Vorspan persuaded the Pasadena Jewish community to reconstitute itself as the Jewish Community of Pasadena. Its constituent organizations were Temple B’nai Israel, B’nai B’rith Men and Women, Hadassah, and ORT. We changed our name to the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center to more accurately identify the breadth of who and what we were. Dr. Vorspan resigned to become Dean at the University of Judaism in 1952.
In that year Rabbi Maurice T. Galpert became our spiritual leader and served our community for the next thirty-six years. His scholarship, wit, energy, love of Judaism and devotion to the congregation has been memorialized in a volume of his essays, Midrash for Moderns, available in our Judaica Shop. Rabbi Galpert led us through our growth and modernization and inspired a new generation of lay leadership to realize the spirit of the congregation and its traditions. In many ways, he served our membership as the Jewish father many of us had left behind when we migrated to Pasadena.
PJTC grew and changed after World War II. The religious school classes created in the main building became inadequate as PJTC’s membership expanded. The present classroom building was erected in the late 1960s to meet this need. This growth in membership was partially the result of the popularity of southern California after World War II. Some veterans who had passed through the area returned after the war with their families. Others married into southern California Jewish families. With the growth in the size of Cal Tech, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the City of Hope, the California State University system, and several engineering firms (suppliers of materials for both civilian life and the military), the Pasadena area attracted many Jews. These newcomers who helped develop the sophisticated economy of southern California changed the character of the membership of the congregation; PJTC members now included increasing numbers of professional men and women.
In 1968, the congregation replaced the old management style of a few wealthy members and their friends with an elaborate system of committees and procedures. The reorganization committee was led by a group of young members who took great pride in the idea that the governance of the temple is in the hands of elected lay people rather than the rabbi or paid managers. However, PJTC has for the last quarter century invested heavily in its school and has been blessed with skilled and dedicated administrators and teachers who have created a first class religious school, the only one east of Los Angeles accredited by the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education.
Other notable religious-social activities were the development of Sisterhood’s continued contributions of Purim, Chanukah and Pesach programs and original musical plays, the temple pool around which barbecues and Friday evening services were held, adult education classes, and athletic events with other synagogues. PJTC members were also active in the creation of the Jewish Federation Council in the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys.
Since 1983, we have hosted the Weizmann Day School on our campus, reinforcing the premiere place the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center has in the San Gabriel Valley Jewish community.
After Rabbi Galpert’s death in 1988, we invited Rabbi Gilbert Kollin to become our teacher and spiritual leader. Rabbi Kollin was long established as a rabbinic leader in the greater Los Angeles Jewish community, and enhanced us with his stature and reputation. Well experienced in pulpit leadership, Rabbi Kollin continued to shepherd our congregation through its present growth and aided the current generation of members in assuming leadership of our congregation and community.
In recent years, PJTC merged with declining congregations that were established in the area following WWII. In 1997, Pasadena merged with Shomrei Emunah in Sunland-Tujunga. In 2009, it merged with Shaarei Torah in Arcadia, which itself was the result of earlier mergers between congregations in Sierra Madre, El Monte, and Alhambra.
After retiring in 2003 when Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater became the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Kollin became Rabbi Emeritus, continuing to share his knowledge and experience with the congregation. Among his continuing services is teaching Talmud and Introduction to Judaism.
In addition to Rabbi Grater’s pastoral and educational duties, he has raised the visibility of the congregation in the Los Angeles region by writing regular commentaries for the Jewish Journal. In addition, he has also deepened the congregation’s commitment to social justice. Leading the congregation into the 21st century, Rabbi Grater has introduced new elements in traditional religious practice, such as meditation and music accompaniment, and has strengthened the bond between the congregation and the larger Pasadena ecumenical community.
By Gene Fingerhut, PhD, of blessed memory
Updated by Michael Several, 2012