Rebuilding a past glory

Times Staff Writer

The landmark Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the oldest Jewish congregation in Los Angeles and one associated with the men who invented the motion picture industry, has begun a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion that symbolizes the reversal of the Jewish exodus from the eastern part of the city.

Senior Rabbi Steven Leder said he didn’t know how much the project will cost because the details are evolving. But the Reform temple already has spent $20 million buying the five pieces of land it didn’t own on the block that runs from 6th Street to Wilshire Boulevard and Hobart to Harvard boulevards in Koreatown. It expects to spend an additional $30 million renovating its sanctuary -- and that is just a piece of the project.

“It’s a massive job,” the rabbi said. “It’s not hard to run up a bill.”


“The synagogue world has never seen a campaign of this magnitude,” said David Mersky, a senior lecturer on Jewish philanthropy at Brandeis University whom temple leaders consulted. “If this campaign were to succeed, it will dwarf every other campaign by a minimum factor of two.”

Leder hopes the project will turn Wilshire Boulevard Temple, still one of the largest congregations in Los Angeles, into the center of Jewish life in the region, and especially for the eastern part of the city, an area mostly abandoned by other congregations as Jews have moved west and dispersed throughout Southern California.

“We will build the most vibrant center of Jewish life the city has ever known because we can and we must,” Leder told the congregation in his Yom Kippur sermon last year.

Leder, 48, said in an interview that the temple is following the return of younger Jews to places like Silver Lake, the Wilshire corridor, downtown and Los Feliz.

The expansion was not undertaken without serious study. A survey commissioned by the temple found that from 1995 to 2005, in the area roughly from La Cienega Boulevard to Glendale and from the Hollywood Hills to the Santa Monica Freeway, the number of Jews increased by 28%, about 4,000 more people.

“I think Wilshire Boulevard is very singularly positioned through the major project to really act as a magnet for Jews who live east of Beverly Hills, younger adults, younger families, so I think it’s a very visionary initiative,” said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

An estimated 500,000 to 600,000 Jews live in Southern California, making it the second-largest Jewish community in the country, after New York.

Leder looks at the changes taking place in Los Angeles as an opportunity for the temple to grow well beyond its current 2,500 families.

The project, still in the planning stages, includes renovation of the historic building, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places; construction of a six-story parking structure; a K-6 day school; a parenting center; and a cafe. A new nursery school that has enrolled 60 children is set to begin Sept. 15.

“Every surface here will be touched,” Leder said as he walked through the temple halls, pointing out misused space, clashing decorating styles and faded glory.

Brenda Levin, the architect overseeing the project, is a longtime temple member who has headed the restoration of the Griffith Observatory, the Autry National Center and the Bradbury Building.

What became Wilshire Boulevard Temple was founded in 1862. It built its first synagogue 10 years later on what is now a Los Angeles Times parking lot on Broadway, between 2nd and 3rd streets. It moved to its current location in 1929.

“The structure built in the 1920s remains one of the most magnificent synagogues in the United States,” said David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Clearly the building of this structure was a symbol that the Jews had a central place in the city.”

For the 69 years he worked there, Wilshire Boulevard Temple was synonymous with Rabbi Edgar Magnin.

At a time when anti-Semitism was much more commonplace, he served as an ambassador to the Gentile community through his radio programs, newspaper columns and friendships with other religious leaders.

Magnin, who died in 1984, took part in the inaugurations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and had so many friends in the entertainment industry that in his book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” Neal Gabler devotes an entire chapter to Magnin titled “Rabbi to the Stars.”

Since then, the temple has built a $30-million campus in West Los Angeles and two summer camps and a conference center on 200 acres in Malibu.

The Hollywood connections remain, but not with such exclusivity. A rabbi on the TV show “West Wing” delivered a Leder sermon on capital punishment in one episode, which was filmed in the sanctuary. In a town where nearly everyone, it seems, is trying to break into show business, Leder declined producer Aaron Sorkin’s offer of a writing credit.

These days, a 10-foot-high portrait of Magnin hangs outside the temple’s Factor Chapel, named for the cosmetics pioneer Max Factor and his wife, Jenny, and Leder sits behind the old rabbi’s desk. Leder’s collection of about 100 tzedakah, or philanthropy boxes, once used for donations for different charities, takes up several shelves in one of the carved oak bookcases.

Leder walks into the stunning 1,800-seat temple sanctuary, whose beauty made him fall in love with the synagogue when he arrived for a job interview 21 years ago.

The murals on the walls that tell the history of the Jews were donated by the Warner brothers and painted by Hugo Ballin, head of their studio’s art department.

The stained glass windows, each made of 6,000 pieces of glass, include studio head Louis B. Mayer among its donors. Part of the 135-foot dome was a gift from producer Irving Thalberg.

But it is someone in love who best understands his lover’s faults. The murals are pulling off the wall and need cleaning, Leder says. He pointed to the brown molding nearby. “It’s supposed to be gold. That’s 80 years of dirt.”

Stones around the stained glass windows are cracked, and the windows themselves are bowed. Water has leaked onto the dome. So much efflorescence, a flaky substance that has formed from leaching salts, falls down that if the floor weren’t vacuumed daily, the sanctuary would look as if it had snowed.

There is no air conditioning, so on days when Wilshire Boulevard Temple is filled, Leder says, it is more like a schvitz, a steam bath, than a synagogue.

The sanctuary is tentatively scheduled to close after the High Holy Days in 2010 and reopen 18 months to two years later.

The temple could have just refurbished the sanctuary, but that wouldn’t have worked, Leder said. “It would be like a guitar without strings. Redoing the sanctuary will be no more than redoing a dead place, and that’s not what this congregation is or what the Jewish people are.”