Documentary-maker rediscovers Judaism, family, self
When Aaron Wolf began interviewing synagogue members and shooting footage for a documentary about the restoration of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, he considered himself a fallen-away Jew.
He knew that his late grandfather, Rabbi Alfred Wolf, had served the temple for 36 years. Aaron Wolf was bar mitzvahed in the historic sanctuary, and he spent summers at the camps for Jewish youth that his grandfather had created in Malibu.
But by the time he went to New York University to study film, he viewed religion as unimportant.
After four years of working on the documentary, “Restoring Tomorrow,” and learning more about the temple’s history and his grandfather’s role in it, that has all changed.
“I’m now a member of the temple,” said Wolf, 34. “I definitely identify as a Jew and am prouder than ever before of being Jewish and being part of this community and this temple and being my grandparents’ grandson and carrying on this tradition. I feel excited because I know so much now.”
For many years, Jewish life in Los Angeles revolved around Wilshire Boulevard, the city’s oldest Jewish Reform temple. Rabbi Edgar Magnin, who had a 69-year tenure with the congregation, pleaded with Hollywood’s elite to help him build a synagogue for the ages in 1929. They obliged.
When Los Angeles’ Jewish community decades ago migrated west, Wilshire Boulevard Temple struggled as Koreatown grew more diverse around it. The building — with its once dazzling gold dome, stained-glass windows and Hugo Ballin murals — fell into severe disrepair.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who became senior rabbi in 2003, began pushing not just for an inside-and-out renovation, but also for an expansion of the temple’s role in providing social services to the predominantly Latino and Korean neighborhood. He also wanted to draw a new generation of Jews who were moving into downtown Los Angeles, Hancock Park, Echo Park and Silver Lake.
In 2011, the temple closed for an epic restoration. It reopened for the High Holy Days in September 2013.
Construction workers have also renovated both the 1929 and 1963 classroom buildings, which now house an early-childhood center, an elementary school and Sunday school. They have also built a 500-space parking structure, with a social services center on the first floor and a rooftop sports complex. Still planned is a pavilion, designed by Rem Koolhaas, that will house multiple event spaces. Completion is expected by 2020.
During the temple restoration, Wolf, producer Tim Nuttall and their team from Howling Wolf Productions captured footage of art conservators cleaning the Ballin murals and retouching them with gold leaf, workers repairing the 100-foot-high dome and stained-glass restorers painstakingly washing each small grimy section of the spectacular rose window.
As part of his research, Wolf sorted through boxes of family photos and videos. Footage of Wolf family gatherings brought back fond memories of Shabbat dinners where his grandmother Miriam would serve spaghetti.
Alfred Wolf served the temple from 1949 until 1985, mostly as Magnin’s associate. After Magnin died in 1984, Wolf spent one year as senior rabbi. He delighted in showing temple visitors the life-size oil portrait of Magnin, known as the “rabbi to the stars,” and, beside it, his own photo, one-tenth the size. Wolf died in 2004.
The documentary includes footage of Wolf family gatherings with Alfred and Miriam and scenes of Jewish children splashing in the pool at Camp Hess-Kramer in Malibu. Alfred Wolf, an avid swimmer and hiker who cherished boyhood memories of camping in his native Germany, opened the camp in 1952 and added nearby Gindling Hilltop Camp in 1968.
Together, the camps served as many as 1,200 young people each summer and became the prototype for the American Jewish youth camping movement.
As a youth, Aaron Wolf always found Wilshire Boulevard Temple to be one of a kind. When he attended bar mitzvahs at other synagogues, “they never equaled it,” he said. But the place was falling apart, and the decay showed. A few years ago, he attended High Holy Day services and noticed a white tarp suspended from the ceiling. It had been installed as a safety measure to catch falling pieces.
Had the building been allowed to collapse — or had temple leaders sold it to one of the many Korean groups who wanted to turn it into a church — “it really would have been the end of an era for Los Angeles and Judaism,” Wolf said.
Nuttall said the documentary team conducted about 50 interviews in Los Angeles and beyond for the feature-length documentary, which runs an hour and 25 minutes. The project cost about $100,000, Nuttall said.
Janet Dreisen Rappaport, a lifetime member, contributed some of that money and advised Wolf on how to raise more. She appears in the documentary discussing her family’s multigenerational connection to the temple. Although temple leaders suggested she move her regular seats closer to the bimah (the raised area at the front of the sanctuary), she has remained in Row T, where, she said, she feels the presence of her late grandparents.
Dreisen Rappaport’s granddaughter Clara recently attended a bat mitzvah at Wilshire Boulevard. Whereas many of her friends sat close to the bimah, she told her grandmother, “a few friends sat with me in Row T.”
Dan Wolf, Aaron’s father, said he noticed the change that came over his son as the project proceeded. “He kept digging deeper,” said Dan Wolf, 65. “The resulting film, instead of just being about the history of the temple, had a whole new dimension, about family.”
Leder, the senior rabbi, said he has seen other young Jews come back into the fold after marrying and having children. Aaron Wolf, he said, “experienced a pretty normal falling off the radar screen of Jewish life in his 20s.”
“Documenting the renovation and the campus expansion drew him back into the tribe,” Leder said. “I think he felt the wonder of seeing something being re-created, reconnecting with his grandparents and reconnecting with a part of the city that most people had written off.”
Wolf is planning a premiere screening of “Restoring Tomorrow” in January at the Skirball Cultural Center. It will be shown in Magnin Auditorium. That’s Magnin, as in Edgar.
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