In 1914, a group of Ocean Park Jews got together for the first time to hold High Holy Days service, but Mishkon Tephilo’s Articles of Incorporation are dated 1917. In 1918, the congregation’s first recorded board meeting was held.
Mishkon’s first facility was built in 1922 a couple of blocks from the old Fraser Pier. At early High Holy Days services, when all the chairs were filled up, young men in the congregation would carry in benches from the beach to seat all the worshipers.
In 1940, the growing congregation raised funds and began excavating to build a bigger facility. But as World War II intensified, construction materials were diverted to the war effort and the project halted. The hole in the ground yawned open for years. When the war ended, congregants were keen to resume building, but hiring an architect would be costly. So the synagogue’s then‐president asked his stepson, a returning Navy veteran, to take over the job. The young engineer had been a Seabee in the South Pacific, part of a construction battalion charged with building military bases to house the U.S. invasion forces. Could building a synagogue be so different? Turns out not — the Seabee dug through his old blueprints from the war and, with a few modifications, drew up a Spartan but functional plan.
Mishkon’s downstairs social hall is easily recognizable as a standard mess hall and the sanctuary above it as a military base theater.
The congregation dedicated its new quarters in 1948. Founded as an Orthodox community, Mishkon joined the Conservative movement in 1952. It became the first Conservative synagogue in the Western United States to be led by a female rabbi when the congregation hired Rabbi Naomi Levy in 1989. She served until 1996.
Walking through the sanctuary and narrow halls now, history seems to hover in every corner.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the synagogue served as many as 1,000 local families. Venice was then a haven for Jewish retirees and families, who flocked to the beachside district colloquially known as “the Coney Island of the West.” Jewish delis, kosher butchers, bakeries and a Jewish Taylor lined the Venice boardwalk. Now, most of the families drive in from neighboring Mar Vista, Santa Monica and Marina del Rey.
Mishkon is the oldest operating synagogue on the Westside. Its winding stairwells and airy, domed sanctuary exude a timeworn quality congregants tenderly dub “shabby chic.” The neighborhood has changed; the paint and carpets have faded, but Mishkon members’ desire to preserve the spirit of the nearly century‐old temple has not.
A plaque on the lobby’s West‐facing wall implores visitors to recite a Hebrew blessing that reads: “Blessed be the holy one who gave us the great sea.”
One nugget of history that Mishkon revisits weekly can be found in the synagogue’s ark: a Sefer Torah that survived the Holocaust. The scroll once served the synagogue in Mezokovacshaza, Hungary, where Louis Sneh grew up and had his bar mitzvah before the war. In 1944, Nazis destroyed the town and sent its 900 residents to death camps. Sneh was one of the 17 who survived. When Sneh, now a Mishkon congregant, learned that the Torah had been salvaged from the war, he traveled to Hungary with his family in 2003 to claim it. The scroll, thought to be more than 300 years old, was restored at Mishkon and is now used regularly at services.