Wilshire Boulevard Temple: How do you raise $120 million?
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Reform Jewish community, but over the years, the building’s façade and interior eroded, becoming dilapidated and outdated.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.”