Wilshire temple celebrates a revival
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder implored his Wilshire Boulevard Temple congregants to “look up, just look up” at the now-gleaming, 100-foot-high dome of their historic sanctuary, and they did, mindless of the white kippot slipping off their heads.
He urged them to look down at the new cooling vents under the pews. On such a warm September evening in years past, the hundreds gathered for Rosh Hashana would have been schvitzing. “Air conditioning at last. Air conditioning at last. Thank God almighty, air conditioning at last,” he said.
For Los Angeles’ oldest Jewish congregation, this week’s High Holy Days marked the official unveiling of the $47.5-million renovation and the beginning of a new mission in the storied temple’s increasingly diverse neighborhood.
In its heyday, Wilshire Boulevard Temple was the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles. Rabbi Edgar Magnin, the “rabbi to the stars” who had a nearly seven-decade tenure with the Reform congregation, prevailed on Hollywood’s elite to help him build a synagogue for the ages in 1929.
Movie tycoon Irving Thalberg paid for the soaring gold and green dome, Louis B. Mayer donated stained-glass windows, and Carl Laemmle provided the eight bronze chandeliers. The Warner brothers -- Harry, Jack and Abe -- enlisted artist Hugo Ballin to paint murals to surround the interior, depicting Jewish history from creation to the discovery of America as Jews were being exiled from Spain.
But Los Angeles’ Jewish community long ago migrated west, and Wilshire Boulevard Temple struggled as Koreatown changed around it. By the time the temple closed its sanctuary two years ago for the restoration, the building had slipped into severe disrepair inside and out. Windows were bowed, carpets were ripped and dingy, and dirt and grime covered the murals, leaded glass and walls. Korean groups had offered significant sums to buy the building. The temple’s Rabbi Beau Shapiro recalled that Leder told the board: “I am not going to be the rabbi on whose watch this becomes a Korean church.”
Leder and other temple leaders say that the synagogue should be a center not just for Jews but also for the surrounding community, which is predominantly Latino and Korean. Leder said he wants the landmark campus to draw a new generation of Jews moving into the city’s downtown, Hancock Park, Echo Park and Silver Lake as well as provide more social services to the area’s non-Jewish residents.
Between 2014 and 2020, plans call for renovating the existing nursery school and building a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade day school and a parking structure with a rooftop sports complex and extensive social services. The project’s total cost is expected to be $150 million.
For many years, the temple has run a pantry, providing food for scores of families each Sunday. As temple leaders contemplated a redevelopment of their square-block site between Harvard and Hobart boulevards, they decided to dedicate more space in a future building to the pantry so that they could offer food several days a week. “Then we thought in addition to feeding people, there are other things we could be doing,” Shapiro said.
Now, the temple plans partnerships with other agencies to offer legal aid, basic dental and medical services and perhaps mental health services. Given the synagogue’s location near subway stops and bus lines, Shapiro said, “the potential exists for us to draw clients from a much broader base.”
The vision represents the temple board’s determination to adapt to roiling change in Judaism and in Los Angeles demographics. The temple now sits at the crossroads of a city largely populated by immigrants, many of them with low incomes.
“We are two minutes from Pico-Normandie, the hub of residents from Central America,” he said. “We are 10 minutes from Crenshaw, about that from the Islamic Center [of Southern California] on Vermont, and we’re in the heart of the Asian community. It is Los Angeles. It really is Los Angeles.”
Johng Ho Song, executive director of the Koreatown Youth and Community Center, has been talking with temple officials about the community outreach. He said the temple was aware of the challenges it faces to set up the right programs and make sure they smoothly mesh with those of other service providers. But he said he thinks the plan is “a wonderful thing.”
“They’re taking this very seriously. They know it’s going to be very difficult, but I’m positive and optimistic,” he added. “We need to find creative solutions together with religious organizations, nonprofits, schools and small-business owners.”
Leder has generated most of the donations needed for the project. Gifts have come in all sizes, he said, “from $18 to $36 million.” Donors included philanthropist Tony Pritzker, real estate magnate Fred Sands, investment guru Stanley Gold, entrepreneurs Stewart and Lynda Resnick, and Erika J. Glazer, the daughter of shopping mall developer Guilford Glazer. She pledged $30 million over the next 15 years, and the Wilshire campus has been named in her honor.
Martha Karsh, a temple member, said she and her husband, Bruce, supported preserving the sanctuary but also “believe deeply in the Jewish value of tikkun olam -- healing the world by helping those less fortunate -- and we wanted to support our temple’s community outreach as well.” The Karshes donated $5 million to build the Karsh Family Tikkun Olam Center, which will house the social services. (Bruce Karsh is chairman of Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times, and co-founder of L.A. investment firm Oaktree Capital Management, the largest single holder of Tribune stock.)
Leder, who had surgery for a herniated disc 10 days before preaching at Rosh Hashana services Wednesday, said he had high hopes for the expanded nursery school and the new elementary school, which will serve families raising Jewish children. “It’s the young who bring the elders into a tribe,” he said. “The children are ... bringing the parents back into Jewish life.”
In the last couple of years, he said, the temple has added perhaps 80 families, most of which were previously unaffiliated with another religious institution. (Last year, with construction going on, the temple held its High Holy Days at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion).
The temple recently hired Rabbi Susan Goldberg, who was at Temple Beth Israel in Highland Park and runs Eastside Jews in Silver Lake, a group putting a new spin on Jewish traditions. Part of her charge is to revamp worship at the Wilshire campus.
“There is a waking up on the east side of town,” Goldberg said. “People are looking for new models. My coming to Wilshire Boulevard Temple was about the temple’s saying: ‘We are here in this community, and we want to be connected to all these neighborhoods.’”