A Remarkable Experiment Taking Place In Los Angeles

Wilshire Boulevard Temple; photo by Downtowngal via Wikimedia.
Wilshire Boulevard Temple; photo by Downtowngal via Wikimedia.

By David A. Lash

In Koreatown, near downtown Los Angeles, a remarkable experiment is taking place. Led by a unique amalgam of community members, the Karsh Family Social Service Center at Wilshire Boulevard Temple is establishing a new standard of care for neighbors living side by side in a diverse world. Engaging in outreach, compassion and effective delivery of services to those most in need as may never have been seen before, the project is led by a historic Jewish synagogue and a community that is as much a rainbow of America as anywhere in any part of the country. And lawyers are at the center of it all.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple is more than 150 years old, its sanctuary, in true moviedom fashion, built by the Hollywood moguls of the 1930s. Eighty years later, with pieces of the once-magnificent domed synagogue falling to the marble floor below, the congregation faced a turning point in its long history — move west with the migrating Jewish population or rebuild its campus in the heart of what had become Los Angeles’s “Koreatown,” a unique mix of Asian, Anglo, Latino and African-American families. It now is the most diverse zip code in the U.S. outside of Brooklyn, a place where 25% of the population lives below the federal poverty line, 33% of adults report going hungry at least some of the time, and a representative part of the L.A. Unified School District where a shocking 80% of students qualify for federally subsidized lunch programs.

The temple community decided to stay in its historic home, but only if a significant portion of the millions of dollars needed to be raised would be devoted to being an integrated part of the “Koreatown” neighborhood. The family of Martha and Bruce Karsh, paragons of business success and philanthropy in Los Angeles, donated the funds to build a storefront social service center as the anchor of the new building campaign. Rabbis Steven Z. Leder and M. Beaumont Shapiro set about engaging the local community, drawing plans to be not just a good neighbor, not just a gathering place, not just a synagogue, but a model for bridge-building and community partnership that they hoped would be successful enough to inspire replication in other locales as well.

The first step in bringing together diverse people with diverse interests was to create a legal aid program that would be resident at the Karsh Center. Few services reach as many people, fill as many needs, and as effectively combat poverty as do legal services. It would be the Karsh Center anchor, drawing low-income residents from around the zip code, and beyond, who would be interviewed and assisted by lawyers in regard to legal needs and then evaluated for a host of additional issues. Seven leading legal aid organizations quickly signed on and are providing a wide array of assistance. Attorneys expert in immigration, housing, bankruptcy, consumer protection, senior care, children’s rights, and more, are leading clinics, counseling clients, and advising Karsh Center participants every day of the week.

This kind of inter-agency cooperation, coordination of programming, and sustained joint commitment results in a level of caring and service that seems bound to grow and expand to as many other communities as can muster this kind of vision. But the added key ingredient in this very special sauce is that pro bono volunteers are marking this very special moment in time. And all of those lawyers, giving their time, working under the expertise of the legal aid attorneys, are members of the congregation. Wilshire Boulevard Temple is the oldest and largest synagogue in Los Angeles with more than 8,000 members, including almost 1,000 attorneys. Wanting to be far more than a landlord providing free rent, pro bono power is driving this social service bus, engaging volunteer lawyers with the local community in a manner that, simply, hasn’t been done before.

And as folks come into the Karsh Center, the staff and the lawyers evaluate not just their legal needs but whatever other services can be provided as well. And the array of possibilities at the Center is quite amazing. There is a food pantry, a fully-equipped dental center, an optometry clinic, citizenship classes, literacy programs, mental health, ESL classes, and more services are being added as needed. The rooftop has a soccer field and basketball courts that will be used by community leagues in a neighborhood where park space is otherwise non-existent.

In short, this faith community in Los Angeles has envisioned and created a center where outreach to neighbors, focused on diversity, compassion, and exceptional and effective service, is happening like it may not be happening anywhere else. Located, perhaps accidentally, in just the right geographic spot, and perhaps happening accidentally at just the right time in our history, when cross-cultural compassion is at a premium, the Karsh Family Service Center is a model to be repeated as often as possible. And in the middle of this revolution of outreach are the lawyers, again demonstrating the unique and powerful way that only the justice system, particularly when fueled by collaborating experts from the most compassionate and expert legal aid organizations, can touch the lives of those most in need as can no one else.

David A. Lash serves as Managing Counsel for Pro Bono and Public Interest Services at O’Melveny & Myers LLP. He can be reached at dlash@omm.com. The opinions expressed are his alone.

Posted with permission from Above The Law.