Home: Tips from a pro on hiring a contractor

We’ve all heard the nightmarish stories about contractors — how they bungle jobs, delay completion by months or, worse, take off with your money without finishing or, sometimes, not even starting the work. Those are the bad apples. Obviously, there are also excellent, reputable contractors out there. So how do you go about picking the best for your needs? 

When we’re in the market for, say, a new television, we often read reviews, ask friends and family members what they recommend and visit stores to compare how the pictures look. We become experts. Yet when it’s time to hire a contractor, many people just write a check and hope for the best. 

For advice on how to go about hiring a contractor, I decided to go to the source — an actual contractor. Ed Wrona, a Los Angeles-based licensed contractor with more than 20 years of experience under his tool belt, urges homeowners to do some research before hiring. Here are his suggestions for questions to ask, and what we should be looking out for in our contractor search.

Ask people you know

While it’s fine to look at Yelp reviews, it’s better to get referrals from people you know. Neighbors who have done home improvements similar to what you need can be excellent resources. If any friends or family members are working right now with a contractor, ask how they like the work and get their contractor’s contact information, even if you don’t need a job done now. One day you may and you’ll have the recommendation handy.

Visit the contractor’s previous work

It seems obvious that you would want to see other work the contractor has done. But Wrona says that most homeowners don’t even ask. “In the 20 years I’ve been in business, I’ve only had one client want to look at a previous job that I did,” he said. Ask your prospective contractor for former clients whom you can contact. Besides looking at the actual work, ask those clients what their working relationship with the contractor was like and how the home improvements have held up. 

Make sure they’re licensed

For any work that costs more than $500, the contractor must be licensed with the Contractors State License Board. Otherwise, you have no recourse if anything is wrong with the work. Look for the license number they give you on the board’s website (” target=”_blank”>cslb.ca.gov

The Contractors State License Board website is a great resource for consumers who are about to hire a contractor, so take advantage of the articles and videos that are available. Being informed makes you a smarter — and better — customer for the contractor.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Heritage site renovations approved

An Israeli government committee approved the $25 million renovation of 16 national heritage projects and sites.

The Ministerial Committee on the National Heritage, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Tuesday approved the renovation of the sites—among the 150 sites and initiatives included in the “Plan for Renovating and Strengthening National Heritage Sites and Assets” approved in February—at a cost of $25 million. The plan caused some controversy when two West Bank biblical sites, Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs, were added to the list.

Included on the list of the approved renovations is Independence Hall in Tel Aviv.

The committee meeting Tuesday was held at the Ben Tzvi Institute in Jerusalem, home to the wooden cabin used by the second president of the State of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, another site on the list.

“The heritage project is one that we owe ourselves, our children and future generations,” Netanyahu said.

Briefs: Journalist: West Is losing ‘War of Ideas;’ Daniel Pipes comes to Pepperdine

Journalist: West Is Losing War of Ideas

The conflict between the West and terrorist Islam is not about terrorism, land or economic grievances but about fundamental ideas — and the West is losing.

So posits Melanie Phillips, a feisty British journalist, who backed up her thesis in an hour of rapid-fire arguments and examples at UCLA on Monday.

Phillips is the author of “Londonistan,” a book that has triggered heated discussions in her native country by indicting the alleged blindness and fecklessness of British society in the face of an increasingly hostile Islam at home and abroad.

Under the banner of “multiculturalism,” academe, the church and the media have transformed the meaning of the term from a decent respect for all cultures to the politically correct rule that the minority is always right and the majority always wrong, Phillips said.

In Britain, Europe and the United States, conventional thinking now has it that no religious or social demand by an aggrieved Muslim population can be refused because they are the victims of oppression.

“This is the dialogue of the demented,” she declared.

While most Muslims are not terrorists or direct supporters of terrorism, even those mislabeled as “moderates” believe that the Jews dominate the West, that the West wants to destroy Islam, and therefore Jews, as “a metaphysical evil,” are to blame for the Islamic world’s problems, she said.The West, including Israel, has not recognized that Islam wants ultimately to establish a medieval caliphate, and is “ceding the battleground of ideas,” Phillips warned. “We’re on a cliff and going over the edge.”

During an extended question-and-answer period, only one person, Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, suggested a more conciliatory approach toward Islam.

The rest of the audience of some 70 students and faculty seemed supportive of Phillips’ arguments. There were no hostile questioners, as those who might have been were likely occupied with the simultaneous opening of Islamic Awareness Week on campus — whose main lectures carried such titles as “Qur’an (Koran): The True Message of Jesus” and “Muhammad: The Inheritor of the Judeo-Christian Tradition.”

Sponsoring Phillips’ appearance were Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a national pro-Israel organization that has just formed a UCLA chapter, the UCLA Political Science department and the activist group StandWithUs.

Phillips also spoke in the evening at the Wilshire Theater, at a public event sponsored by the American Freedom Alliance and the Temple of the Air, part of her national tour with stops in New York, Detroit and Atlanta.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Islamists’ Critic Comes to Pepperdine

Middle East expert Daniel Pipes, who is among most prominent scholars to have warned of the growing threat of radical Islam to the West before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a lightening rod for criticism among some Muslim groups, is spending the spring semester at Pepperdine University in Malibu as a visiting professor. Pipes, who received his doctorate from Harvard, is teaching a graduate seminar on Islam and politics.

The founder and director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank that publishes Middle East Quarterly, Pipes has won supporters for his warnings of possible dangers emanating from the Muslim world. Some Muslim groups have characterized him as intolerant.

“Over the years, Pipes has exhibited a troubling bigotry toward Muslims and Islam,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group. “He perceives Islam, and not just extremism, as a threat.”

Pipes said CAIR is a radical organization that “lies.” He rejects the notion that he is anti-Islam.

Through his writings and speeches, Pipes has waged a multi-pronged campaign against “Islamists,” whom he argues want to subvert democracy and impose Islamic law on their respective societies.

“My effort is to try and isolate them,” Pipes said, “and convince politicians, the media, the academy and other institutions that this is an outlook that should be spurned, shunned.”

— Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Wiesenthal Center Adds Persian-Language Information

Following an Iranian government-sponsored conference late last year questioning the existence of the Holocaust, local Iranian Jewish activists have provided a Persian-language translation of 36 questions and answers regarding the Holocaust for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Web site (www.wiesenthal.com/36questionsinfarsi). Iranian Jewish activist George Haroonian provided the translation, directed at Iranians surfing the site for facts about the Shoah.

“This is important because we not only need to counter the propaganda and lies being spread by the Iranian government about the Holocaust, the Jewish people and Israel, but we also need to present younger Iranians with the truth,” Haroonian said, adding that he hopes the translations will encourage other Web sites to repost the information for those who do not understand English.

Haroonian’s Council of Iranian Jews collaborated with the Wiesenthal Center last year by inviting Persian-language media outlets based in Los Angeles to visit the Museum of Tolerance to learn about the Holocaust.

In the last two years, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied the Nazi genocide and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Web Archive Brings Voices of Past to Present

Want to listen in on conversations with the late Bella Abzug, George Burns and Abba Eban? Want to watch a video of the historic Freedom Sunday Rally for Soviet Jewry in 1987, when 250,000 Jews from around the country gathered in support of their Russian brethren? Want to listen to a broadcast of a Jewish religious service conducted by American GIs on liberated German soil?

Thanks to the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) new archival Web site (www.ajcarchives.org), you now can with only a few clicks of a computer mouse.

Studio Secured to Create Spiritual Art

On the small, darkened stage, a lone streetlight illuminates the façade of a front porch that, hours later, will serve as the set of Billy Crystal’s Long Island home in his one-man show “700 Sundays.”

But for now, the streetlamp throws a pale light out onto the empty Wilshire Theatre — an old-time art deco 1,900-seat venue in Beverly Hills with worn-down plush red seats, a fading red patterned carpet and walls painted a dark mahogany that obfuscates the intricate woodcut of the early 20th century, when the theater was built.

Soon, though, if all goes according to plan, the woodwork will be repainted, the stained glass cleaned and the seats refurbished to accommodate The Temple of the Arts, which recently acquired the venue in hopes of turning it into a full-service Jewish community performing arts center.

Reimagining the 24,000-square-foot property, which also includes a six-story office building and restaurant, is the vision of Rabbi David Baron, who views arts as means to a spiritual end.

“I am driven by an objective, a goal: to get more Jewish people who were disconnected to connect,” he said. “Kiruv, or return — whatever you [choose to] call it.”

His temple, he added, is an “exploration of Jewish mission through the arts.”

The $20 million project — which includes the purchase price as well as the renovations — also encompasses a state-of-the-art cinema and an after-school arts and religious program, with funds left over, Baron hopes, for an endowment. Think the 92nd Street Y in New York City, the half-block Jewish community center on the Upper West Side that hosts lectures, concerts, performances, a school and serves as a center for Jewish cultural life. Except that the Wilshire Theatre seats three times as many patrons and also will be the home for regular services for a 1,400-member congregation.

The Temple of the Arts, unaffiliated with an organized Jewish movement, is one of three congregations locally that bill themselves as arts and religious communities. The first Synagogue for the Performing Arts, started some 30 years ago, has 700 members, and holds a monthly service at the University of Judaism; its High Holiday services are led by scholar and author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Rabbi Jerry Cutler served at Performing Arts Temple for six years, and then started the Creative Arts Temple, which holds a monthly service at Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard. Baron headed the Performing Arts synagogue from 1985-1992 until he founded the Temple of the Arts (formerly Temple Shalom for the Arts). Baron’s temple, funded by donations and loans, is the only one of the three with its own permanent structure.

Baron incorporates drama, music, readings, paintings and speakers into different parts of the monthly and High Holiday services. The congregation’s own prayer book is illustrated with paintings by Chagall and Matisse and includes both traditional and nontraditional inspirational readings. Congregants stage skits, and singers and composers perform original or relevant pieces. During the last High Holiday Yizkor memorial service, there was a medley of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “I Will Remember You.” Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) also spoke on the topic of forgiveness.

“These things touch people in ways that traditional services don’t,” Baron said.

If you were going to casting central for a rabbi to lead a Los Angeles arts temple, you’d probably choose the tanned Baron, who is in his 50s and has soft blue eyes and receding brown hair. He’s got the debonair looks of an aging Pierce Brosnan combined with a subtle missionary zeal that pays scant attention to naysayers.

Baron was raised in an Orthodox family on Long Island and had always planned to be a lawyer — even though he got smicha, or rabbinical ordination, from his grandfather in Jerusalem. But a friend asked him to take over a Conservative congregation in New Jersey, and he later accepted a posting in Miami.

When he first came to Los Angeles in 1980, he noticed that Jews were not connecting to services.

“A lot of Jewish people have minimal Jewish education. They suffered through their bar mitzvah and ran away,” he said. “I could just see how synagogues — except the Orthodox — are empty. Unless you do something special.”

Baron left the original Synagogue for the Performing Arts to, as he put it, “take it to the next level.”

The Temple of the Arts attracts a few thousand worshipers on the High Holidays, less at other times. Besides, the monthly service, Baron intends to offer a second, smaller monthly service on alternate weeks, led by a new assistant rabbi, Lynn Brody.

As a cultural center, planned projects include more shows like Crystal’s as well as community events, such as Sinai Temple’s 100-year anniversary party.

On March 17, the temple will host a pre-Passover gospel service, joined by Bishop Charles E. Blake, The Tova Marcos Singers and The Tabernacle Gospel Choir of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ. It will bring together Jews and African Americans to “rejoice in the shared heritage of freedom from slavery with songs of freedom and faith,” according to the program.

Baron said that a Beverly Hills/mid-Wilshire center focusing on the performing arts “complements” a Jewish cultural mix of venues that already includes the Skirball Cultural Center, the University of Judaism and others.

As Baron walks around the high-ceilinged lobby atrium, pointing out architectural beauties from the 1930s-era theater, it’s as if he can actually see the old glory days of star-studded Beverly Hills premieres — even as he envisions the future of a Jewish gathering place.

Baron hopes to close the synagogue for the summer and be ready for his own premiere by the High Holidays.

“People say I’m a dreamer, but that’s really why we’re here.”

Temple of the Arts will be holding its Gospel Service Friday, March 17 at 8 p.m. 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For more information, call (323) 655-4900.


Wilshire Boulevard Gambles on Future

On any given day, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles is a hub of activity. Built seven years ago for $30 million, the campus attracted new members like a magnet. They came flocking to enroll their children in day school or religious school or attend the many other activities the campus offered.

Now it wants to repeat its success in a part of town that is far less congruous with Jewish life than the Westside: Koreatown. The temple is planning on spending $30 million to revamp its Wilshire Boulevard property and to turn it into a major Mid-City Jewish destination.

Although 70 percent of Los Angeles Jews currently live on the Westside and in the Valley, the Wilshire Boulevard board is banking on the fact that high housing costs and a lower tolerance for long commutes will cause a west-to-east demographic shift.

“Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Hollywood Hills, Glendale, Pasadena — not only are they more affordable places to live, but they are fabulously interesting places to live,” said Rabbi Steven Leder, Wilshire Boulevard’s senior rabbi, who is spearheading the renovations. He said the Koreatown temple is located in the “newly revitalized Soho of Los Angeles,” referring to the trendy New York City neighborhood.

The proposed renovations come at a crucial point for the temple. The Edgar Magnin Sanctuary, which turns 75 this month (see sidebar), needs serious repair. While the sanctuary hosts two bar mitzvahs a week during its Saturday morning services, which draw about 500 people, the Friday night turnout is generally small and the majority of those attendees live east of La Cienega Boulevard. Most Wilshire Boulevard programs, such as day school, most religious school classes, adult classes and psychological support groups, are at the Irmas Campus.

It is the Irmas Campus that increased Wilshire Boulevard’s membership by 700 families, and two-thirds of the temple’s 2,500 families are affliated with the Irmas Campus. While the Magnin facility has 40 classrooms, during the week they are rented out to a charter school and not used for Jewish studies.

“We either needed to restore [the Edgar Magnin Sanctuary] and contemporize its space for usage or let it go,” Leder said. “And I would be ashamed of myself if it was let go on my watch.”

In 2001, the temple received a Preserve Los Angeles grant from the Getty Foundation to draw up a plan to rehabilitate and maintain the Wilshire Boulevard property, which is a landmark building. The study found that there was significant deterioration of the stone and concrete decorative elements on the building’s exterior and there was efflorescence (a discoloration) of the plaster on the dome inside the sanctuary. The study also found that the building’s electrical, lighting, plumbing, heating and ventilation systems were old and worn out.

In addition, the board had some complaints of its own. While the sanctuary was built to accommodate 2,000 people, the social hall only holds 200, which means that congregants needed to go elsewhere for their parties. There is also no air conditioning, which can make packed High Holiday services, with 6,000 people attending, very uncomfortable.

The plan estimated that it would cost Wilshire Boulevard close to $5 million to restore the sanctuary to its former glory, but the board has grander visions. It is planning to building a large social hall with an industrial kitchen, parenting center, nursery school, rooftop garden and youth lounge.

The board also wants to renovate the current auditorium so that it can become a center for cultural programming in Los Angeles, akin to the 92nd Street Y in New York, and to landscape the gardens and create a perimeter wall to give the facility a campus feel.

The estimated cost of all the renovations is $30 million, and Wilshire Boulevard is currently soliciting funds and negotiating naming rights with some members.

But who will come to the Wilshire synagogue? Leder and Steven Breuer, the temple’s executive director, are reluctant to admit that the motive behind the renovations is to attract new members, saying that they are spending $30 million to serve the existing 1,000 families that affiliate with the Magnin facility.

Los Angeles demographers think that Wilshire Boulevard is ahead of the curve.

“I think that [Wilshire Boulevard] is very astute, and what is going to happen is that they are going to anchor a Jewish community there,” said Pini Herman, principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research.

He said that the Westside can’t handle the density of the population, noting “When the alternatives are a $1.5 million tear-down on the Westside or a $300,000 [house] in that area, which is only a 10-minute drive from Wilshire and Fairfax, and you have reasonable Jewish services, it’s going to become a lot more attractive.”

Herman doesn’t think the new Wilshire Boulevard, which could take two years to renovate, is going to detract from the Westside, “but it will give some alternatives to Jews who like to be urban pioneers but who also want to live among Jews.”

Young people and empty nesters may be returning to inner-city properties, said Steven Windmueller, director of the School for Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, “because they reject the commute, and they want the convenience of what downtown L.A. and mid-Wilshire and Los Feliz offers.”

With the closing of the Jewish Community Center in Los Feliz and the downgrading of services at the Westside Jewish Community Center, Windmueller said that Wilshire Boulevard can “fill an important community niche.”

Still, the question remains that when the renovations are completed, will people come or will they continue to attend synagogues on the Westside?

“It is a gamble, but Los Angeles cannot sprawl forever,” Breuer said. “The city is having an internal renaissance, and this [renovation] is a commitment to the future. We trust that there will be people to come. If you build it, they will come. That is the vision at least.”

Wilshire Boulevard Temple will “Celebrate the Life of a Building and the Building of a Life,” with a Mandy Patinkin concert on Nov. 21 at the Magnin Sanctuary, 3663 Wilshire Blvd. The event will commemorate the sanctuary’s 75th birthday and Steven Breuer’s five decades of service to the temple. For more information call (213) 388-2401 ext. 521, or visit www.wilshireboulevardtemple.org.