Restoring Tomorrow: Rebirth of an LA Synagogue

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the oldest synagogue in Los Angeles, was in danger of abandonment in the first decade of the 21st century. Membership was declining and the building was falling apart.

Its fate hung in the balance.

Thanks to the vision and persistence of its senior rabbi, Steve Leder, the shul, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was saved.

Aaron Wolf’s heart-felt documentary, Restoring Tomorrow, which opens in Toronto’s Cineplex-Canada Square and Empress Walk theater on October 12, explores its history, reconstruction and rejuvenation. The film goes to New York City after Toronto and the rest of North American in November.

A third generation member of the temple and the grandson of Alfred Wolf, one of its former rabbis, Wolf did not feel much of a connection to it when he was much younger. Like some American Jews, he had drifted away from the rituals of religion and found Judaism irrelevant in his own life.

But with the future of the temple looking precarious, Wolf was drawn into the debate about its future. As a result, he rededicated himself to the temple and returned to what had been his spiritual home.

Originally known as Congregation B’nai B’rith, it was founded in the 1860s, when the Jewish population of Los Angeles was about 350. The Moorish-style Wilshire Boulevard Temple itself was built in 1929, just before the great Depression set in. Among its members and supporters were Hollywood moguls Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer.

For years, the temple was under the leadership of Rabbi Edgar Magnin, a physically imposing man with a forceful personality and invaluable connections. “He was an out-there guy,” says its current executive director with a touch of awe.

By the 1990s, the temple was in a parlous state, even though its second campus elsewhere in the city seems to have had a respectable membership and its summer camp was popular. Members like Wolf had fallen away and, as Rabbi Leder says, the physical plant was “an embarrassment.”

Some congregants wanted to sell the building and leave the multicultural neighborhood. Rabbi Leder and his admirers, being attached to the building and the area, campaigned for a renewal through a massive renovation. They prevailed.

Members raised $150 million for a grand makeover, which took place between 2008-2013. The reopening was attended by Los Angeles’ mayor, Eric Garcetti, who had been a camper at the temple’s summer camp.

As far as Wolf is concerned, the spirit of the temple has been restored since the renovation. And now  he is proud to be a small piece of something much bigger than himself.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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