Edifice Rex

The official dedication of the Jewish Federation headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. this weekend marks a new era in the history of Jewish Los Angeles.

The structure near Wilshire’s intersection with San Vicente Boulevard is stunning. From a distance it appears as a gleaming tower of cool, aqua-colored glass. Up close, it greets drivers and pedestrians with a grove of mature olive trees and a facade of Jerusalem stone. The trees in their heavy planters are, of course, an ideal security barrier, but they are also inviting, symbolic, perfect.

There is every reason to be proud of this place, created on the frame of the old 6505, which was damaged by the Northridge earthquake. Of course 6505 will stand as the new headquarters of the Jewish Federation, but is this, then, the headquarters of Jewish L.A.?

The answer is, positively, unequivocally, maybe. Perhaps. It depends.

Inside the Federation’s Goldsmith Center, as 6505 has been renamed, you get a feeling the architects struggled to combine 21st century design with traditional notions of communal space, and they succeeded. Walk in, and you feel welcome, secure and impressed.

To your left is the Slavin Children’s Library, a nice message there. To your right is the Zimmer Children’s Discovery Place, a 10,000-square-foot state-of-the-art children’s museum that will serve as an ideal introduction for all children to the values of Jewish life and community. The Zimmer will open officially in February, but a walk-through in the company of museum founder and director Esther Netter brings it to life. The tens of thousands of children expected to visit the Zimmer will begin to understand not just what a community is, but how it is built and maintained.

The floors above the Zimmer will house the work spaces of the Jewish Federation staff and those of many of its affiliated agencies. (Full disclosure: the Federation is this paper’s largest client. The Journal is independently incorporated and managed, and our offices are, as they have always been, deep in the vibrant heart of Koreatown.) These areas are nice, but hardly exciting. It’s here that much of the heavy lifting of community building gets done. The Federation is the central planning, coordinating and fundraising body for 18 local and international agencies that provide humanitarian programs to Jews and non-Jews: food, clothes and legal services for the poor; job training and immigrant resettlement, relief services, child care, literacy and other programs. This is important labor, and it costs money. The Federation and its fundraising arm, the United Jewish Fund, are the second largest fundraising endeavor in Los Angeles, after the United Way. Raising money at that level is a corporate undertaking, and its headquarters need to reflect that.

A relative handful of men and women contributed the more than $20 million dollars necessary to renovate 6505. Some people have complained that the funds would be better spent elsewhere. The answer to these critics is simple: Don’t worry, there’s plenty more money out there. This is a very wealthy community whose capacity to fund worthy causes has yet to be really tapped. The Skirball Cultural Center, the Wiesenthal Center, the University of Judaism, Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple, the Irmas Campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple are just a few examples of entire campuses — and in some cases whole institutions — that came into being when people with a vision encountered people with deep concern — and the kind of checkbook that turns dreams into reality.

The 1994 earthquake that damaged 6505 also served as a reminder that a building, no matter how grand, can offer only the illusion of shelter and stability. Whether the Goldsmith Building will be the headquarters of the Jewish L.A. of the future depends on what vision emanates from within its striking exterior. The headquarters of L.A. Jewry will in the end be known by the good it does for others and the message its leaders articulate for the next generation.