19th-century synagogue complex restored in Lithuania

After seven years of renovations, a unique complex made up of two 19th-century synagogues opened to the public in the Lithuanian town of Joniskis.

The Joniskis Synagogue Complex made its official debut earlier this month, the Russian Jewish news agency AEN reported Wednesday.

The complex in northern Lithuania comprises the Red Synagogue, which dates to 1865, and the White Synagogue, from 1823, according to the World Monuments Fund, which participated in the restoration.

“The unique complex of Joniskis synagogues is an important cultural, historic, architectural, and social landmark, not only in the district of Joniskis, but within Lithuania and Eastern Europe as a whole,” the fund wrote on its website.

It noted that in1970, the complex was declared a Cultural Heritage Object by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage in Lithuania.

Countless Lithuanian synagogues were destroyed by the Nazis and later by the Soviet government. The Joniskis complex, with the Star of David decorating one of its facades, escaped a similar fate because it is surrounded by residential buildings, meaning that “would-be vandals passed right by them without realizing they were there,“ the fund wrote.

After the war, the buildings were abandoned and reused for various purposes, according to the fund.

The synagogues were in a “serious state of serious disrepair” when restoration efforts began in 2007, it said.

The roof of the White Synagogue was replaced and the false upper-level facades on the sides of the building have been restored to their original configuration, the fund reported. In addition, the Red Synagogue’s foundations were repaired and made waterproof.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple pledged $30 million by Erika Glazer

Wilshire Boulevard Temple has received a pledge of $30 million from Los Angeles philanthropist Erika Glazer to assist with its ongoing restoration and redevelopment.

The funds will be paid over 15 years to put in place tax-free bond financing for the next phase of the historic campus, which has been located at its present site in Koreatown since 1929, said Rabbi Steven Z. Leder.

“This puts us across the finish line for the second phase,” he said.

Currently, the congregation is restoring its sanctuary at a cost of about $50 million. The temple also paid $20 million for land in order to own the full city block. This phase is expected to be finished by Rosh Hashanah.

“The next phase will be renovating the school buildings, building the parking structure, the rooftop playground, and the tikkun olam (“healing the world”) center, which will be the largest tikkun olam center, I believe, of any synagogue in the country,” said Leder, who has been senior rabbi at the temple since 2003.

The tikkun olam center will be a place where, among other things, congregants can volunteer. These renovations are expected to come with a price tag of $36 million, Leder said.

The congregation’s board is scheduled to vote on the project’s second phase on March 12. Its targeted completion date would be June 2016, Leder said.

The rabbi said that Glazer, the daughter of a real estate developer, grew up at the temple.

“I’ve been close with her for many years,” Leder said. “She was an early backer of the entire project.”

A third phase of work at the congregation, which will require an undetermined amount of funding, will be the construction of a banquet and administration building at the corner of Harvard and Wilshire boulevards.

“We currently do not have everything we need to fund that, and that’s what I’m working on next,” Leder said.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple was built to be the fanciest building money could buy for the denizens of the silver screen’s Reform Jewish congregation. Its dramatic, quasi-Byzantine-Moorish design by architect A.M. Edelman (son of the congregation’s first rabbi, Abraham Edelman) was constructed over a span of just 18 months, at a cost of $1.5 million, under the leadership of Senior Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin who presided from 1919 to 1984. It was made to compete with the cathedral-scaled churches and ornate office buildings that were lining up along Los Angeles’ grandest new street.

Israel Museum in Jerusalem Reopens After $100 Million Renovation

After three years of renovation, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem reopened to the public on July 26, firmly reestablishing itself as Israel’s national museum and the most important repository of Jewish culture in the world.

Even during the museum’s closure, 500,000 people came each year to see the few spaces that remained open during the renovation: the Dead Sea Scrolls, displayed inside the white Shrine of the Book; the one-acre scale model of the Second Temple; and the Youth Wing.

The $100 million renovation, which required 400 workers from seven countries, revitalizes a campus that opened in 1965 on a hill opposite the Knesset. Originally designed by Alfred Mansfeld, an immigrant and Bauhaus-trained architect, the museum has, with this renovation, doubled its gallery space to 200,000 square feet, while preserving the external features of Mansfeld’s original modernist design. The interior meanwhile, has been completely redesigned.

“It wasn’t about throwing anything away. It was about realizing the amazing quality of the original bones of the original architectural heritage of the place and building on that legacy,” said James Snyder, the museum’s director since 1997. “Our project is a ‘renewal,’ ” Snyder said.

Many visitors had complained about the entry in the original plan, which required a long uphill walk outside to reach the galleries. The new design, by American architect James Carpenter, features an enclosed passage that connects the museum’s new entrance facilities to a new pavilion at the heart of the campus. Visitors may either walk up the museum’s refurbished Carter Promenade or enter through an enclosed route directly below the existing walkway.

Navigating the old museum could also be confusing, with galleries on several different levels and artifacts sometimes displayed in old-fashioned display cases.

Now, Snyder explained during a preopening tour, “You can stand at the heart of the museum and you will be able to turn around 360 degrees and you will see the entrances to our collections for archaeology; Jewish art and life; the Western fine art traditions; the non-Western fine art traditions; our main auditorium; and our main temporary exhibitions galleries.”

Security guard keeps watch over a menorah in the Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life.  Credit: Judy Lash Balint

Many works are exhibited in the open, without barriers or cases. A royal Herodian bathhouse from the first century B.C.E., for example, has been reconstructed with pillars, frescos, mosaics and tiles excavated from Herod’s palace. Lavishly decorated and technologically advanced for its time, the bathhouse includes a raised mosaic floor and earthenware piping built into the walls to provide heating.

The breadth and beauty of the collections on display is breathtaking, with items including dozens of chanukiyahs from around the world, four synagogue interiors as the centerpiece of the Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life, an intricate menorah insignia carved on an ancient ossuary and an array of contemporary Israeli art in the Edmond and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing. The museum’s holdings include some 500,000 objects, which will be rotated in and out of permanent exhibits.

Perhaps the most anticipated feature of the renovation is the establishment of a permanent exhibition of Israeli art, alongside the impressive collections of European, African, Oceanic and Asian art, architecture and design.

Substantial support for the renovation came from Los Angeles donors. Longtime supporters Paul and Herta Amir of Beverly Hills, together with the New York-based D.S. and R.H. Gottesman Foundation, contributed $3 million in 2007 to underwrite the renovation of the Shrine of the Book, the signature structure at the museum, housing the Dead Sea Scrolls. In appreciation of their continuing contributions to the museum, the Amirs were seated beside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at the reopening gala.

The Amirs are among a group of major international donors that also includes Judy and Michael Steinhardt of New York; the Estate of Dorothea Gould in Zurich, Switzerland; the Nash Family Foundation of New York; the Marc Rich Foundation of Lucerne, Switzerland; the Bella and Harry Wexner Philanthropies of The Legacy Heritage Fund of New York and Jerusalem; and Linda and Harry Macklowe of New York.

Over the years, the Amirs have quietly contributed to numerous projects at the museum, forgoing the opportunity to have their names on any particular gallery or building.

Founders of the Amir Development Co., both Amirs were born in Slovakia, survived the Holocaust and went their separate ways after World War II. They later married when Paul, who had been a kibbutz member for a number of years, decided to immigrate to America, where Herta had arrived earlier. Herta has served on the national board of AIPAC and the couple are active members of the American Friends of the Tel Aviv Art Museum and Haifa University.

The Amirs’ daughter Orna and her husband, Keenan Wolens, are donors to the Israel Museum Endowment Fund.

Other Los Angeles residents who made significant contributions to the renovation project include Alice and Nahum Lainer, honorary fellows of the museum and longtime members of the local branch of American friends of the Israel Museum and the Directors Circle of major donors.

The Lainers support various art acquisitions, concentrating on Israeli art, contemporary art and photography. Like the Amirs, the Lainers have passed on their love of art and the Israel Museum to the next generation — daughter Nancy is a donor as well and heads IMage LA, the West Coast Friends of the Israel Museum’s young professionals group.

The Art of Giving

Call me short-sighted and atavistic, but I believe one of the most encouraging bits of news I heard last week was the decision by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to suspend its renovation.

The bad news is Los Angeles will have to wait indefinitely to have a splashier namesake art museum, a Getty-by-the-Tar Pits. The good news is the major donors, many of whom are Jewish, now might be swayed to move some of that museum money over into other communal needs.

Just over one year ago, the museum unveiled a bold plan to overhaul and expand the Wilshire Boulevard institution, according to an architectural design by Rem Koolhaas of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The renovation, which would have involved a downstairs plaza and redesigned upstairs galleries under a tent-like roof, was expected to cost upwards of $400 million.

This is not to take joy in LACMA’s disappointment. I am all in favor of visionary new buildings — that’s one of the benefits of living in a great city — and I am very much pro-LACMA. I’ve spent many hours there, meandering through the galleries, attending special programs, concerts and screenings.

Not long ago, I wandered off through an upstairs gallery and came face to face with Magritte’s "Le Trahaison des Images," the renowned image of a pipe with, "Ceci n’est pas un pipe," (This is not a pipe) inscribed below. Anywhere else, I would have fought crowds for a glance at the landmark work. At LACMA, there it was, with no hoopla, no line, just great art.

That has always been my experience at the museum, so I was among those who questioned why donors, along with L.A. taxpayers through last November’s ballot Measure A, needed to cough up close to a half-billion dollars to renew buildings that were, at most, 37 years old.

Evidently, I wasn’t alone. As the economy wended its way south, people smarter and far, far wealthier than myself came to the same conclusion. I am speaking of the people in a position to make a lead gift to the museum project of $5 million-$50 million. It wasn’t that their portfolios dipped below the poverty line, just that they came to the assessment that the crowd of donors behind them had shrunk, along with the Dow.

But if LACMA’s big plans have disappeared for now, much of the money that was eager to back it hasn’t. And the fact is, many of LACMA’s potential lead donors are Jewish. That’s hardly surprising. The art world in Los Angeles has been funded by Jewish Angelenos out of all proportion to their numbers in this city.

Jewish artists escaping Nazi persecution invigorated the postwar art scene. Jewish donors, looking to take a place among the non-Jewish elite and committed to creating a cultural center, contributed large sums to everything from the UCLA Hammer Museum to the Norton Simon to MOCA to the Music Center to the new Disney Concert Hall.


But with the Koolhaas expansion on hold, is it right to hope that the millions of Jewish donor dollars ready to fund that project could now flow elsewhere? Are our Jewish leaders scanning the list of LACMA donors and preparing their appeals? I hope so.

I hope so, because I can think of several areas where millions would make a big difference in our part of the L.A. community.

Take health and human services. Facing state and federal budget cuts, agencies that reach out to elderly or indigent Jews and non-Jews will need significant increases in private donations over the coming year. Otherwise, the people who suffer most in a weak economy will suffer even more.

Then there’s Jewish Community Centers. As Marc Ballon reported last week, the system that serves as a gateway for so many into Jewish life is in dire need of fixing. The Westside JCC, which serves a middle-class and immigrant community, could rebuild and flourish with a lot less than $300 million. JCC services in less populated Jewish areas and new campuses in growing areas can ensure a steady flow of new families and new energy into L.A. Jewish life for decades to come.

Jewish camps, religious schools and day schools are other effective ways of promoting meaningful values and traditions for the next generation, but these institutions are becoming unaffordable to an increasing number of families. Other cities have far-reaching scholarship programs for Jewish schools and camps, often started by just one donor. We need it, too.

These are just a few examples of places where the Jewish community could greatly benefit from the kind of largesse slated for LACMA. Smart money goes where it’s most needed. If a half-billion dollar, tent-covered museum were a pressing necessity, it would be under construction this very moment. Now it’s time for advocates to make their pitch that, while a museum’s expansion can be put on indefinite hold, Jewish communal needs can’t be.

All of us, big and small donors alike, speak of the importance of Jewish community. But unless we give — give as much as possible — what we end up with is, like Magritte’s pipe, not real community, but only its unreal image.

The City by

Once-sleepy Haifa is now a tourist mecca, and MayorAmram Mitzna is spreading the word

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

It’s a long road from the West Bank to Beverly Hills, but ifthere’s anyone equipped to navigate it gracefully, it’s Amram Mitzna.

In 1987, near the end of an illustrious 30-year military career,the former major general was appointed commander of Israel’s Centralregion — where he found himself in the eye of the intifada. For thelast four years, he has enjoyed a second, undoubtedly calmer careeras mayor of Haifa. That’s where the Beverly Hills Hotel comes in.

Mitzna, 52, recently gathered with members of the local press atthe hotel for a “media breakfast” co-presented by Israel’s TourismOffice and the Haifa Foundation. The purpose was to get the word outabout the northern Israeli city’s renovation fever and newfoundtourist appeal. The mayor’s remarks were a combination of dry wit andgood, old fashioned civic boosterism.

Judging from the upbeat promotional video and slickly producedpress kit, Haifa does have a lot to crow about these days. Among thenew improvements are a lovely beach promenade for strolling and cafehopping, a la Tel Aviv; a sprawling, hyper-modern convention center;a thriving high-tech business park; eclectic restaurants; and a vastmarina.

Other projects currently under construction should enhance thecity’s appeal even further. The landmark Ba’hai Temple is investing$250 million in interior renovations and lavishly elaborate tieredgardens that will be free and open to the public. Two new, upscalehotels — a Holiday Inn and a Hilton — will also be completed soon.There are plans for a massive regentrification of the German Colony,the historic downtown village settled by German Templars in the early19th century. The Colony’s main boulevard will be widened toaccommodate art galleries, museums, shops and cafes, making it,according to Mitzna, “the Champs d’Elysees of the Middle East.”

Despite the old Israeli adage — “Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem praysand Haifa works” — even before the current boom, this scenic portcity of a quarter million people always had more charm and characterthan its industrious image implied. Along with its universities, itsbay and scenic Mount Carmel, part of Haifa’s uniqueness lies in therelative ease with which the Jewish majority coexists with a sizableand civically active Arab minority. One of Mitzna’s deputy mayors isArab, as are several members of Haifa’s city council. Locals shuttleregularly between Haifa and Amman, just a four-hour bus ride away.

The tolerant, laid-back atmosphere in Mitzna’s forward-lookingcity by the bay is a source of bemused pride. “I’m a big believer inpeople living together, working together,” he said. “Not just Araband Jew manage to get along in Haifa. Even Jews themselves — thesecular and the Orthodox — manage to live without conflict, and weknow how hard that is to accomplish.

“Haifa is the only Israeli city that has public transportation onSaturday, and there is no problem with it. In certain ways, we are avery abnormal city, and that abnormality in a place like Israel is, Ithink, a good thing. People don’t honk their horns at each otherevery minute. They wait for a green light before crossing thestreet…. Let’s put it this way: Compared to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,Haifa is a very normal city. This is why Israelis have a saying: ‘Youcan travel to Europe without flying, just by visiting Haifa.'”

Several cultural events and celebrations are scheduled to takeplace in Haifa to mark Israel’s 50th anniversary and the year 2000.For a list of events, or for general information about travel andinvestment in Haifa, call the Israel Tourism Office at (800) 596-1199or the Haifa Foundation at (213) 935-3254.