Synagogue Looks Back on 125 Years
The 125-year-old Wilshire Boulevard Temple would be unusual if it were only the oldest synagogue in Los Angeles.
The imposing Byzantine structure with a 100-foot dome would be uncommon if its only claim to fame were that its 2,500 families constitute one of the most influential Reform congregations in the nation.
But the temple--started by pioneer settlers, built with gifts from early motion-picture industry giants, and celebrating its 125th anniversary at a ceremony Sunday afternoon--is rare for even more reasons: For the better part of its first 100 years, it was the major voice of the Jewish community in Los Angeles, and a potent force for ecumenism.
‘A Common Statement’
“From the beginning the temple was the spokesperson for the Jewish community to non-Jews,” said Stephen E. Breuer, executive director of the temple. “In fact, that was the one reason it was founded. To try to find a common statement to non-Jews during the pre-Civil War period of anti-Semitism.”
Other scholars and associates of the temple echo that view, and almost all mention in the same breath the temple’s highly visible leader for 69 years, Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin.
The well-educated grandson of the San Francisco family which started I. Magnin department stores, Magnin joined the temple in 1915 and served until his death in 1984 at 94. Along the way, the tall, broad-shouldered rabbi with the deep voice employed his oft-cited rhetorical skills to earn the title “Poet of the Pulpit.”
Those skills helped him orchestrate the move of the temple from downtown Los Angeles to the mid-Wilshire area in 1929, and the construction of the current edifice.
“As far as the non-Jew was concerned,” said Gerry Burg, former executive director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple who holds a similar position at Temple Sinai, “when they heard the word Jew , they thought of Rabbi Magnin and that made the path of the Jew a whole lot easier.
“He was the confidant of the movers and shakers of the city of Los Angeles: industrialists, bankers and media people. They sought his advice on interreligious and interracial matters, and they chose him to be the spokesman (for local Jewry), and he did so with great dignity and with great expertise.”
Later, Burg said, “as the Jewish community grew and strengthened, they elected their own representatives.”
Founded by well-to-do downtown merchants of German and Polish ancestry, the congregation met in members’ homes for 11 years. It erected its first building on what is now Broadway between Second and Third streets in 1873 and laid the cornerstone for a larger building at Ninth and Hope streets in 1986, said rabbi and historian William M. Kramer of Burbank congregation Beth Emet.
That was where the congregation worshiped when Magnin joined it. As membership grew after World War I, the young rabbi foresaw the city’s westward movement. He persuaded the congregation to buy land on Wilshire Boulevard between Harvard and Hobart boulevards. He also decided that the new building should be an architectural monument among synagogues.
Congregants such as the Warner brothers, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg and wife Norma Shearer, and Universal Studio owner Carl Laemmle liked his thinking and contributed major gifts to make Magnin’s vision reality.
Studio moguls and such Hollywood stars as Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson continued to join the temple during the early years. In 1931, during a brief stay in Southern California, a celebrity of another kind, Albert Einstein, took long, discussion-filled bicycle rides with the rabbi.
As years passed the Hollywood community’s membership in the temple declined, and observers say the visible congregants today tend more toward corporate executives, politicians, doctors or attorneys.
The sanctuary has changed little since Magnin envisioned it. At a recent Saturday morning bar mitzvah service, worshipers sat in long, curved rows of pews under the high dome.
Muted lighting flowed from fixtures designed to resemble spice boxes which symbolize the joy of the Sabbath; brightly colored murals surrounding the sanctuary depict key moments in Jewish history.
A booming organ accompanied a choir. Then the current rabbi, Harvey J. Fields, took the Torah from an ark surrounded by carved, inlaid mahogany and walnut, all in a frame of marble and mosaic.
Associates say Magnin flourished in the house he created, getting along well with all members of the congregation and enjoying the friendship of the high and the mighty in and out of the temple.
At the time of his death, he had counted at least four Presidents, four California governors and four Los Angeles mayors his friends.
While Magnin remained available to his chums in high places, associates say he rarely approached them about political matters because he believed political involvement was the surest way to divide his temple.
Alfred Wolf, current rabbi emeritus who joined the temple in 1949 as an assistant rabbi and worked with Magnin until his death, said the temple’s size and the professional stature of its membership created prestige, but that Magnin maintained that prestige by not taking advantage of it.
”. . . I would say Rabbi Magnin was able to get on the phone to politicians when he wanted to but that he was smart enough never to abuse or overuse that capability,” Wolf said.
Working With Other Faiths
Instead of button-holing politicians, Magnin joined boards of directors and initiated relationships with Catholic and Protestant clergy to make Los Angeles a better place to live. At the time of his death Magnin and Wolf had worked closely with hundreds of Protestant clergymen and three Los Angeles archbishops as far back as John J. Cantwell, who was named to the position in 1917.
The ongoing contacts with Cantwell and later with Cardinals James Francis McIntyre and Timothy Manning bore interesting ecumenical fruit.
Dr. George Piness, president for 12 years of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, worked tirelessly for St. Anne’s Maternity Home for unwed mothers and Holy Family Services for adoptions, both Roman Catholic programs.
Today, 1,000 Catholic high school students attend a Passover Seder at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple each spring, and Protestant, Catholic and Jewish seminarians take part in a two-day winter retreat at a temple campsite in Malibu. The multifaith Interreligious Council of Southern California is also in place.
Rabbi Kramer, who has studied Magnin’s career extensively, said the same communication skills which served him so well in the pulpit enabled him to build bridges between faiths.
“He was an interface person before the term was invented,” Kramer said. “He could relate the businessman to the professional, the layman to the religious leader, the Jew to the Gentile.
”. . . He was the most amazing combination of prince and poet. He spoke poetry better than most men wrote it. He was at home with the lofty parable and could handle a joke that could embarrass a traveling salesman. He was a 360-degree man.”