Wilshire Boulevard Temple: How do you raise $120 million?

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s newly renovated sanctuary has been cleaned and fully restored. An extended bimah is more accessible for the first time. Photo © Tom Bonner 2013

Ask Rabbi Steven Z. Leder what the mission of Wilshire Boulevard Temple is, and he’ll tell you, “We make Jews.” The temple started making Jews two centuries ago, in 1862, when the country stood divided, engaged in Civil War, with Abraham Lincoln as the president of the United States. Then known as Congregation B’nai B’rith, it was located first at Temple Street and Broadway downtown, and then moved to a larger space at Ninth and Hope streets. Eventually, in 1929, the synagogue — now the oldest in Los Angeles — moved into its third historic home, on Wilshire Boulevard between Harvard and Hobart boulevards, dominating its portion of the city’s spine. 

Since its grand opening, the congregation has played a central role among Los Angeles’ Reform Jewish community, but over the years, the building’s façade and interior eroded, becoming dilapidated and outdated. When a legally blind congregant, Bea Boyd, called Leder to tell him the sanctuary’s bathrooms were disgustingly dirty, and when a 10-pound chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling in the middle of the night, Leder knew he had to take action. The result is a $160 million project, to be done in three phases, to restore the sanctuary to its former glory and, along the way, to add all sorts of new attributes to an expanded campus. 

Before he got started, however, Leder visited three respected and highly successful Los Angeles leaders, asking for advice. First, he went to Steven Sample, president of USC from 1991 to 2010, during which time he raised $3 billion for a school located in an area of Los Angeles that, as Leder put it, “No one believed in.” Second, Leder talked to Richard Riordan, mayor of Los Angeles from 1993 to 2001, because, Leder said, “He truly understands where Los Angles is heading.” And finally, Leder visited Uri Herscher, a rabbi and founder of the Skirball Cultural Center, who, according to Leder, is “one of the best rabbi fundraisers I have ever known.”

Through the encouragement of these three men, Leder gained confidence to move ahead. He brought on the renowned architect and congregant Brenda Levin to repair and enhance the neglected architectural gem, with its Byzantine dome and beautiful history-telling murals by Hugo Ballin that were commissioned by Warner Bros. studio chief Jack Warner. One of the congregation’s concerns, however, was the future of the neighborhood: Were there enough Jews in the Eastside area to sustain such a substantial investment? Leder said the guidance from Sample, Riordan and Herscher reaffirmed his belief that a resurgence was already taking place in the area and, more importantly, that if the passion and relationships established by the temple are real, the temple will succeed. 

Leder admits he never would have raised the more than $118 million that he has so far without his already strong and longstanding relationships with congregants. At the 2005 High Holy Days services, Leder announced the plans for the project in his sermon. His main message was that the sanctuary of Wilshire Boulevard Temple is at “the center of the center of the center.” In other words, the sanctuary is the core of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and it sits in a vital and diverse neighborhood essential to Los Angeles, which has the second-largest Jewish population in the United States. 

“We are the luckiest Jews to have ever lived,” Leder said. Yet he maintains this privilege and freedom comes with responsibility. He asks, “What will we do with this good fortune?” 

His answer: making Jews in various venues throughout the renovated Erika J. Glazer Family Campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The newly refreshed and glowing sanctuary will be unveiled to the congregation at Erev Rosh Hashanah services on Sept. 4 and throughout the Days of Awe. The temple plans to finish the remaining two phases of the project by 2020. Phase two entails a large-scale Tikkun Olam Center, staffed by professionals and congregants, which will provide the surrounding communities with a variety of social services, rooftop gym facilities, new courtyards for celebrations and other gatherings, the renovation of the temple’s two school buildings and a large parking garage. Phase three includes an office building with conference rooms, administrative offices, meeting places, an events center, a mikveh, cafe deli on site and a kosher kitchen. 

The temple’s renovation and transformation of an entire city block wouldn’t have been possible without the temple’s approximately 7,500 congregants; to date, an estimated 520 people among them have donated to the project at various levels.

For this article, the Journal had space to profile only a small selection of those donors, and this selection, all of whom gave generously, also gave graciously of their time to talk about their philanthropy and motives. There is an extensive list of other congregants who contributed significant sums to the temple’s new effort. Perhaps foremost among them is Erika Glazer, daughter of shopping mall developer Guilford Glazer, who will give a total of $36 million, $6 million for the Early Childhood Center and $30 million over 15 years to help cover the debt payments on the tax-free bond financing the next phase of the project. She also gave her name: What was formerly known as the Wilshire Boulevard Temple campus is now officially renamed the Erika J. Glazer Family Campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in honor of her gift. (Glazer was traveling and unavailable to speak with the Journal at this time.) Among the other major donors are Larry and Allison Berg, Janet Crown, Stephen and Peggy Davis, Marshall Geller, Uri Herscher, Bruce and Lilly Karatz, Tom and Barbara Leanse, Yehuda and Liz Naftali, past president of the board Rich Pachulski and wife Dana, Ellen Pansky, Larry Powell and wife Joyce, Rick and Debbie Powell, Reagan Silber and many more. A particularly fervent donor is Sandy Post, who entered kindergarten at Wilshire Boulevard some 83 years ago and remains a temple member today. 

Leder’s fundraising total so far is believed to be the largest amount of money any rabbi has ever raised in the United States. Leder says his success is all due to the community, and he refers to the donors as the “finest, most generous, visionary human beings you will ever meet.”

Bram Goldsmith
Restoration of Sanctuary’s Ark

Bram Goldsmith, who served as chairman of the board and chief executive officer of City National Bank and City National Corp. from 1975 to 1995, was raised in a middle-class Orthodox home in Chicago. His father immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1916 and, soon after, brought over Goldsmith’s mother and two older sisters. Goldsmith himself was born in the United States in 1923, and he remembers from his childhood the family’s staple pushke box, a tin can for alms, in their home. Although not wealthy, the Goldsmiths always put a portion of what they had into the pushke to be picked up by the Jewish National Fund and sent to Israel.

With that box, young Bram was taught early the importance of giving back, and philanthropy became a guiding principle throughout his life. 

“My personal work ethic starts with the issue of integrity and includes taking personal responsibility, being helpful to others, by being charitable with your contributions and your personal involvement,” he said during an interview at his City National Bank office in Beverly Hills. 

In keeping with this mission, Goldsmith has donated $1 million for the restoration of the ark in the Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s sanctuary, which he sees as the heart of the temple. The donation was made through the Goldsmith Family Foundation, which was established in 1960.

For 25 years, Goldsmith served as president and chief executive officer of Buckeye Realty and Management Corp., the largest privately owned commercial real estate development company in Southern California at the time. He then took over City National Bank and guided the company’s growth, increasing assets from $600 million to $3.3 billion. Now, City National Corp. has assets of $27.4 billion and operates in more than 70 locations around the country.

Goldsmith’s first act of philanthropy occurred rather spontaneously, in 1942, when he was a young man in college at the University of Illinois at Chicago. At a dinner for the United Jewish Welfare Fund that he attended with his father-in-law, Goldsmith pledged $100, an amount so large  for him at the time, it took him six months to pay it off. But it was the beginning of a commitment, and, he said, since moving to California in 1953, he has been “involved with the major Jewish philanthropic organizations in the community” here. Among them, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Wallis Annenberg Cultural Center Foundation, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Los Angeles United Jewish Fund Campaign, the United Jewish Appeal and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

As another Wilshire Boulevard Temple donor, Stanley Gold, put it, “Bram is the epitome of giving back to this community. In my opinion, he is the senior mensch in town.”

“I set a standard that all of us must encourage and respect every human being and do the right thing,” Goldsmith said.

A temple member since 1965, Goldsmith has been part of his five grandchildren’s bar and bat mitzvahs at Wilshire Boulevard and heard his granddaughter sing at Yom Kippur services. Goldsmith has seen the temple grow and change over almost 50 years, and has watched its role evolve in the Jewish world and Los Angeles at large. 

“I think that today, the temple has achieved a new level of respect and leadership in the community,” he said.

“The restoration of this facility to service the needs of Reform Judaism in greater L.A. is very critical,” he said. “A spiritual sanctuary, with thousands of members, represents a very strong foundation for the future education of kids, whom I consider to be most valuable.”

From putting a few cents in a pushke box to renovating Wilshire Boulevard’s sanctuary, Goldsmith continues to build upon his family’s tradition of giving.

Alan Berro
Bimah Accessibility Ramps

The lasting impact of a trip to Israel can be hard to measure, but for Alan Berro, Capital World Investors senior vice president and portfolio counselor, the experience went beyond connecting to the Jewish state. On a Wilshire Boulevard Temple trip there in 2007, Berro deepened his ties to his now-18-year-old son, Bailey, as well as to the synagogue’s Rabbi Steven Z. Leder and the 30 other congregants on the trip. In traveling the 7,000 miles to Israel, Berro discovered his community back home. 

The connection inspired Berro to become more involved in the congregation, which led to his underwriting the new ramps leading up to the bimah, enabling, for the first time, accessibility for all — young, old and the disabled. 

A member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple since 2000 and a current board trustee, Berro said, “Being Jewish is just part of who I am, and I’m proud of that. I really like being a member of a Reform congregation that’s more open and more inclusive.”

A Laguna Beach native, Berro moved back to Los Angeles in 1991 after living in Boston for seven years, arriving just in time for the Rodney King verdict riots in the spring of 1992. The chaos and destruction of neighborhoods during that time, which hit especially hard the Koreatown neighborhood surrounding the temple, made a deep impression on Berro. He has felt motivated ever since to play a part in community building.  

In 1998, Wilshire Boulevard Temple solidified the congregation with the addition of a new campus on the Westside, but Berro saw the importance of rehabilitating the historic location on Wilshire Boulevard and reinvesting in that neighborhood, as well. 

Berro said he especially supports the temple’s efforts to create the Tikkun Olam Center, which will serve people from the diverse surrounding neighborhood of all ages and denominations. 

“L.A. has been through some difficult times,” Berro said, adding, “I think the people who can afford to should try to help all parts of the city. We’re all here together; we’re not very far apart. This is just one more step in that direction.”

Berro attended UCLA as an undergraduate and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School. He worked at Fidelity Investments before joining the Capital Group.  

Berro has served on the board of Inner-City Arts since 1998 and as chairman of the board of that skid-row arts education project for three years. He also has donated money to the California Science Center and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and in 2012 he joined the board of directors of the Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation at UCLA. Berro said he tries to extend his giving over a wide variety of areas, focusing on health, arts, education, religion and community.

Berro also said he views his contribution to Wilshire Boulevard Temple from a businessman’s point of view: “I see Wilshire Boulevard Temple as a pillar of the Jewish community in Los Angeles,” he said. “We’re really investing in a good place. … The fact we’re making a community and educational center will give a big return to the community.” 

“I hope my son becomes a member,” Berro said, “and that for each generation, hopefully, the cycle continues. I think we have a rich a beautiful history, and I’d like to keep it going.”

Every part of the temple’s exterior was repaired, including bringing back the original color. Photo © Tom Bonner 2013

Fred Sands
Sanctuary’s Triple Lancet Window

Los Angeles real estate mogul Fred Sands hesitates, on the verge of tears, as he explains his emotional connection to the Jewish people and religion. “I’m not aware I lost any relatives in the Holocaust, but the Holocaust is right here,” he said pointing to his heart. “It doesn’t go away.”

For Sands, the spiritual tie he feels to Judaism often remains inexplicable. To him, the important thing is how he responds to this deep-rooted connection. 

The persecution of his Jewish ancestors and the survival of the Jewish people despite the odds spur him to give back, and inspired his donation of $500,000 to Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s renovation of the sanctuary’s triple lancet window. 

“Rabbi Leder says you have to be a good ancestor. You’re not doing this for yourself; you’re also doing this for your heirs, future generations,” Sands said. 

A temple member for 10 years, Sands often has lunch with Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, seeking his advice. In this instance however, it was the rabbi who came to Sands for guidance. According to Leder, Sands was the fourth person he consulted before starting the restoration project .

Sands has lived in Los Angeles since the age of 7, and in 1969 he created Fred Sands Realtors, now California’s second largest and the United States’ seventh largest independent real estate company. After selling the company to Coldwell Banker in 2000, he formed the investment firm Vintage Capital Group. He now serves as chairman of Vintage Real Estate, LLC, and Vintage Fund Management, LLC. 

Many people encouraged Leder to sell the temple building, citing the large move of the Jewish population to the Westside. Sands, however, advised against that. He cited the increase of Jewish families and young couples living in Hancock Park, Los Feliz, Silver Lake and, more recently, an increasingly gentrified Echo Park — all neighborhoods close to the temple. 

“In urban planning, you discover when you study cities, a city starts at the core and works its way out. Ultimately the core rots, and then it starts all over again,” Sands said.

This is the evolution that is occurring in Los Angeles today, Sands said. Where Wilshire Boulevard Temple was once at the city’s core, and then was not, now that core is being rebuilt again, and the temple can play an integral part in the revitalization. 

“There’s a saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ They’ll be there,” Sands said. “The place is beautiful; people gravitate toward places like that. That’s a very vibrant community. No question, there’s going to be a resurgence.”

Sands even compares the temple’s rebirth to his own work with Vintage Capital Group, which buys rundown or underperforming shopping centers to improve them, and also focuses on turning around distressed companies and bankruptcies.   

For him, the artistic component is important, too. Sands is a founder, vice chairman and trustee of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art and also serves as chair of the museum’s Investment Committee. He also serves on several boards, including those of the Los Angeles Opera, the Los Angeles Police Foundation and Chrysalis, an organization that aims to rehabilitate the homeless.Sands said he believes any type of renovation, whether for a city, temple, commercial mall or company, requires a kind of generosity and kinship. 

“We’re all in this together, rich and poor. It’s the right thing to do,” Sands said. “We’re supposed to be good people, to help other people. It’s part of life, giving back.”

Stanley Gold
Preschool Play Yard for Future Generations

Stanley Gold sits relaxed and content in his Beverly Hills home as he explains his involvement in Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s renovation plan. The Shamrock Holdings president and CEO — and recent chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — leans back, chewing on a cigar after finishing a summer salad for lunch, and describes his personal connection to the temple and his thoughts on its role in the greater Los Angeles community. Jocular and loquacious, Gold doesn’t hold back as he also describes his overall philosophy on philanthropy. 

He says Wilshire Boulevard Temple means so much more to him and his family than simply a historically and architecturally significant monument. For Gold, the 100-foot-by-100-foot sanctuary holds poignant memories of his son’s bar mitzvah and daughter’s bat mitzvah, and is the place where he’s established important friendships with the temple’s members, as well as its clergy. For the Gold family, Wilshire Boulevard is both a place of worship and a compassionate community. Gold and his wife, Ilene, have both served as members of the congregation’s board at various times during their four decades of membership. 

 “For the most part, we have given to places that have improved and bettered our lives. … Wilshire Boulevard fits that role perfectly,” Gold said. “They have helped us grow as a family, helped us raise our children and answered difficult questions.” To that end, the Golds have donated $2 million to help pay for and name a new play yard for the nursery school, which will be built later.

And while he acknowledges a strong personal connection, Gold said his reasons for donating also go far beyond that tie — he wants to support the temple’s role as a strong leader within the Jewish community as well as a gateway to the non-Jewish community. 

“I think we have a responsibility within the community. We need to be supportive of our neighbors and the non-Jewish world. I think the temple does that in a big way,” he said. 

Gold has seen the temple grow with changes in leadership, the building of the Audrey and Sidney Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles, and now the renovation of the new Erika J. Glazer Family Campus.

Gold said that with the expansion, he hopes the temple will continue to attract young, dynamic, growing and important families.

“We should never forget, as great as our buildings are, we are a People of the Book, not of the building, and that means we need to have new, interesting people to interpret that book and how it goes forward. I’m hoping the new facilities will attract such people,” Gold said. 

Gold added that he thinks all Jewish people have a responsibility to serve the rest of society, a viewpoint he himself tries to live by. 

Gold is a graduate of UCLA; he also has a degree from USC and completed postgraduate work at the University of Cambridge. He worked for the Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown law firm before becoming the president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings Inc., which is Roy E. Disney’s private investment company. He served on the Walt Disney Co.’s board of directors for more than 15 years, and donates money and gives his time to numerous Jewish and educational organizations. He served as chairman of the board at USC for six years, as chairman of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of religion for six years and chairman of Federation for two years.

 “I think the Jewish people have an important contribution to make to this society,” Gold said. “I think our values, our outlook on life, our goals are consonant with the American dream. … We improve the quality of society.” 

For Gold, this responsibility to contribute doesn’t only apply to Jews. 

 “I think it’s the job of everybody who’s on the earth to make the world a better place while you’re here,” he added. “Giving to organizations whose main focus is to enrich people and broaden people and show them opportunities is a way to make this place better. I give to those kinds of organizations,” he said. “I think I’m fulfilling what is my real duty for being here.”

The sanctuary’s ornate ceiling culminates in an oculus outlined by the words of the Shema. Photo © Tom Bonner 2013

Jonathan Mitchell
New Central Walkway

Jonathan Mitchell likes to crane his neck backward as he sits in the sanctuary of the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple, taking time to look 100 feet upward at the omnipotent Byzantine dome, with its centerpiece oculus outlined by the words of the Shema. As the rest of the congregation closes their eyes in prayer, he likes to gaze above, in honor of the memory of his now-deceased mother, Beverly Mitchell.

When Mitchell was a boy, his mother would soothe him to sleep by chanting the Shema. That prayer evokes the memory of her comforting voice, especially, during the High Holy Days services in the resplendent sanctuary. Mitchell fixates on the words above, remembering as well how his mother would surreptitiously point at the dome when they went to services together. This clandestine moment between mother and son established a personal tradition amid the sea of fellow temple members whose eyes remained closed, unaware of what had transpired. 

This ritual, as well as the community he has found at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, inspired Mitchell to support the temple’s renovation and expansion project. Indeed, his family’s connection to the congregation reaches back generations: Both sets of his grandparents belonged to the temple, the temple confirmed both of his parents, the longtime stalwart Rabbi Edgar Magnin presided over the marriage of his parents and assisted in officiating Mitchell’s own bar mitzvah. Mitchell’s mother was also the first female member of the board.

Mitchell now heads the Edward D. and Anna Mitchell Family Foundation, named for his grandmother and for his grandfather, founder of the Beneficial Standard Life Insurance Co., and it was through the family foundation that he donated $1 million to build the campus’ new central walkway, which will be completed by summer 2016. The walkway will act as a main artery extending between the parking pavilion and sanctuary. 

“We had a tradition of going there on the High Holy Days,” Mitchell said during a conversation at his home in Beverly Hills “It was kind of a special time for the family to all be together; I always looked forward to it from that standpoint.”

Mitchell was born and raised in Los Angeles, and he now oversees his family’s investment portfolio and serves as president of the family foundation. He has also been a committed and generous supporter of organizations benefiting education and Israel. The Mitchell Family Foundation donated a major gift to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and established the Mitchell Academy of Science and Technology at the Milken Community High School. He has also given time and financial support to the Anti-Defamation League, Cedars-Sinai, the Music Center, Goodwill Industries, Sheba Medical Center and the Technion, to name a few. He also has served as a national officer and board member of AIPAC, ultimately becoming chairman of its Political Education Program, from 1995 to 1997, encouraging the building of relationships among government leaders and members of the Jewish community. 

“The keeper of the Jewish traditions is Israel. It’s the heart and soul of the Jewish people,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell first realized the importance of helping Jews in 1968, on a trip to Israel and Eastern Europe sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal (UJA). At the former Jewish ghetto in Eisenstadt, Austria, he met the only living Jew from among those who stayed there after World War II. When Mitchell asked why he hadn’t left the ghetto, the man explained that if he moved, Jewish life in Eisenstadt would come to an end. 

Mitchell especially remembers that moment, and how Rabbi Herbert Friedman, then the executive director of the UJA, sparked in him a drive to live by and support Jewish traditions: “Rabbi Friedman said it doesn’t matter how many Hitlers come and go. All of them put together cannot destroy the Jewish people. The only thing that can destroy the Jewish people is if we forget our traditions,” Mitchell recalled. 

This notion, Mitchell says, has governed his entire life and was the motivation behind donating to the synagogue. 

“I don’t want the end of the Jewish religion to ever happen in Los Angeles, and having an institution that’s substantial, financially strong, that makes a strong statement in the community, like Wilshire Boulevard Temple — that helps to keep the Jewish tradition alive in Los Angeles,” Mitchell said. “And I would like to see that continue forever.

“I believe that in the end people will look back and say we did the right thing.” 

And this year, with the dome fully restored and newly glowing up above, Mitchell might not be the only one craning his neck back to read the words of the Shema prayer.

Martha Karsh
Tikkun Olam Center

“Sharing just feels like the right thing to do.” Martha Karsh, a philanthropist and attorney, said as she reflected on why she chose to donate to Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s renovation and expansion plan. Karsh said she and her husband, Bruce Karsh, were particularly moved by the temple’s plan to reach out with social services for its surrounding neighborhood, practicing the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam — repairing the world. 

Karsh admits she didn’t need a lot of convincing to show her support. She said that along with the temple’s altruistic efforts, the preservation of the temple building “just spoke to us.”

Before the restoration began, Karsh toured the 1929 building and saw firsthand its neglected state, including portions of the ceiling in the main sanctuary that had fallen to the ground. Karsh described her emotional reaction to seeing the extraordinary structure eroding in front of her eyes.

“I’m really an architecture and preservationist buff,” she said. “I love that temple building.” 

Once the renovation of the sanctuary is completed, Wilshire Boulevard Temple plans to build the Tikkun Olam Center, which will provide a variety of free or low-cost services, including medical, dental, legal and food assistance, as well as mental health counseling and English classes, for anyone in need living in the greater Koreatown area — a multicultural neighborhood that includes many low-income residents. The Karsh family has given $5 million to fund the center in hopes of improving the quality of life for both Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors. 

Karsh said she and her husband felt most passionate about this particular outreach programming because of their ardent belief in helping others. Their three children have worked for the food pantry that the temple has operated for more than 25 years. 

“I feel like my Judaism is very much a part of me,” Karsh said. “Many of the things that guide the work I do are really governed by both democratic and Jewish principles. Tikkun olam, for example — you heal the world, you help others that are less fortunate than you,” Karsh said. “Those are things that are really a part of the fabric of our lives.”

Martha and Bruce Karsh met at University of Virginia School of Law in 1978. The couple moved to Sacramento in the early 1980s for Bruce to work as a clerk for now-Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Bruce later transitioned into money management, ultimately becoming president and co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management, in 1995, which as of December 2012 managed $77.1 billion. Martha practiced law as a business litigator and counseling attorney. She also lectured at UCLA and volunteered at the Office of the County Counsel’s Department of Children and Family Services, earning volunteer-of-the-year in 1987. In 2009, she formed an architecture and design firm, Clark & Karsh, with architect Brad Clark. 

Even as they were working and raising their three children, the Karshes also created the Karsh Family Foundation, which has donated more than $120 million to a variety of philanthropic organizations, mostly ones involving education. 

Their philanthropic focus has been primarily on education, including giving to Duke University, University of Virginia, University of Pennsylvania, Teach For America and the Knowledge Is Power Program, and Martha Karsh said she believes education is key to bringing people together. She sees the Tikkun Olam Center as working to promote that goal, as well. 

“When you reach out to your neighbors, you build bridges — bridges of understanding and bridges of sharing. Those are the kind of bridges we need to have more of in the world,” Karsh said.

 “Part of the Jewish values, and just our personal values, are that you help people who are not as well off,” Karsh said. “What you’re doing is paying it forward. That’s why we’re doing it. That’s why it resonates with us.”

Audrey Irmas
The Irmas Family Courtyard

Well-known as among Los Angeles’ most important art collectors and arts philanthropists, Audrey Irmas discovers beauty wherever she goes — whether it’s a Roy Lichtenstein painting in her apartment or the artwork that adorns the walls of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple sanctuary.

Indeed, the sanctuary, built in 1929, is a work of art unto itself, with its audacious dome, resounding organ, delicate stained glass and more. However, for Irmas, one attribute in particular stands out: the Hugo Ballin murals. 

Irmas said she loves to look at, in particular, a portrait of Ruth Dubin, the wife of past Rabbi Maxwell Dubin. Draped in blue, Ruth poses on her knees, as if offering up something, but it’s a mystery as to what she’s offering. “I always kind of say hello to [Ruth] when I go. I feel very much at home,” Irmas said. “There’s something so beautiful and welcoming about the temple. I love it very much.” 

Irmas and her late husband, Sydney Irmas, are the third generation of the Irmas family to be members of the temple, and Irmas’ grandchildren constitute the fifth generation to belong to the congregation; indeed Audrey’s name, along with that of her husband grace the temple’s Westside campus, which opened in 1998. Now she has donated $5 million to create the Irmas Family Courtyard, which will include benches designed by the American artist Jenny Holzer.

When Irmas — who was born and raised in Los Angeles and attended Fairfax High School — was just a 20-year-old newlywed, she said, she took her first steps into the Wilshire Boulevard synagogue with her in-laws, when Sydney was out of town. She embraced the temple, sending her children to Sunday school there and attending services with her family — always sneaking a glance at the image of Ruth Dubin. 

It was in 1948, while a student at UCLA, that she met Sydney, who went on to become an attorney and investor. By 1983, the couple had formed the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Charitable Foundation, and since her husband’s passing in 1996, Irmas said, she has tried to address local, national and global problems through the foundation, as well as focus on women’s and children’s issues. The foundation also has donated money to USC, created the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Los Angeles Youth Center and the Sydney M. Irmas Therapeutic Living Center. Audrey Irmas also has served as president and chair of the board of the Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art and as chair of the Los Angeles Family Housing Corp. 

“I just feel that I am so fortunate. It’s just part of my background to give back. That’s just part of the family tradition,” she said.

She recalls, as a young girl during the Depression, witnessing her parents give $15 to charity. That donation, from more than 70 years ago, still influences her today, as she remembers how difficult times were for her family financially. 

She said there was no question that she would be a donor to the temple’s rebirth. She reflects back on the times she spent at the temple with her in-laws and said she is comforted by her children’s continuation of the tradition.

“We’re a clan. Jews are a clan, [and] I’m a member of that clan,” Irmas said. “Everybody is so excited about the new temple and the campus. It has reinvigorated the congregation.”

Irmas said she believes the temple’s project will rejuvenate what is already a thriving and tight-knit community. The High Holy Days services, in particular, are a time when she is reminded of the support and kindness she has received from the people who make up the congregation.  

“Usually, once a year, I’m invited to sit on the bimah and participate in the holiday readings. I love looking out to see all my friends from high school and my early marriage. We’re all sitting there together and worshiping. And it’s the temple that brings them together, that brings us together,” she said.

An early model of the campus expansion shows a preliminary vision for a Tikkun Olam Center on Sixth Street, at rear.