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The Wide World of Rabbi Steve Leder Is Expanding

He hopes the renovated Sunset Boulevard structure, just west of the 405 Freeway, will be ready for the High Holidays that start September 15.
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January 18, 2023
Rabbi Steve Leder / Photo by Ari L. Noonan

On a recent bright, chilly winter morning, Rabbi Steve Leder was giving a tour of the  site that will become the Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Lynda and Stewart Resnick Campus. The former site of University Synagogue will become the third campus for Wilshire Boulevard, the oldest congregation in Los Angeles, joining the Irmas Campus on the West Side and the Glazer Campus on Wilshire by Koreatown.  

 The Minneapolis-born Leder,, who came to Wilshire Boulevard 36 years ago, exudes a mix of pride and excitement at what he sees. “This campus will have a world-class, state-of-the-art early childhood center, world-class, a state-of-the-art religious school, and a perfectly restored mid-century modern sanctuary and social gathering places,” he said. “We also will have the Karsh Tikkun Olam Center West, Karsh West, to go along with Karsh Tikkun Olam Center East (in Koreatown). Together, they will create “thousands of volunteer opportunity hours for Jews to engage and help alleviate some of the suffering in West Los Angeles,” adding that “anyone who doesn’t think there aren’t poor people in West Los Angeles, has not driven under a freeway. They are everywhere. Now we will have a staging area where we will be able to reach out and help people.”

“We should seize the opportunities in these disruptive episodes to grow. That is what we have tried to do.”

First, though, he related how inventive, imaginative millennials at Wilshire Boulevard Temple helped drive his community through the worst of the pandemic. “A long time ago, around 2009, during the financial crisis, I read about how challenging times are a healthy opportunity for organizations to acquire talent, to acquire assets, to leapfrog over their competition,” he said. “I always felt that should apply to Jewish organizational life, too. We should seize the opportunities in these disruptive episodes to grow. That is what we have tried to do.”

Having set the stage, Leder turned the spotlight to the new campus. “You are sitting in front of one of the examples of those opportunities: a completely gutted and about to be beautifully renovated Wilshire Boulevard Temple campus in Brentwood.”

As hard-hatted construction workers scurried around him, Leder mapped out the coming days and months.  

He hopes the renovated Sunset Boulevard structure, just west of the 405 Freeway, will be ready for the High Holidays that start September 15. “Definitely the early childhood center and the religious school will be open,” he said. “We are fast-tracking this.”

In the future, there will be Shabbat services there on a regular basis. “Our primary worship space on the Westside will be here,” said Leder, “because it is a better facility for it. Better parking. It’s a more beautiful space, larger and a far more inspiring space.”

His longterm plan, he said, “is the same as the short-term plan, to make Jews,” he said.” That is our mission. That is how I answer when people ask, ‘What is your mission?’ I say, ‘We make Jews.’”

Asked who will preside over the properties, Leder said, “ultimately, it all trickles upward to the senior rabbi.” 

As for the nuts and bolts, a consulting firm has been hired. “We are starting to think about how best to organize a synagogue that has three campuses,” he said. The three crucial questions are, is it best to rotate clergy through, or should each campus be treated as separate entities? Is it better to assign clergy primarily to one location? “We are constantly working on that because there is no model anywhere.”

The rabbi will have an office at the Brentwood campus and at the Glazer Campus in Koreatown. 

“I will move back and forth,” he said.

On Olympic Boulevard, the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus will be devoted “ever more to our early childhood center and our elementary school west,” Leder said. “Primarily it will be a school campus, although there will be other events there.”

Since Leder took over the leadership in 2003, there has not been a doubt about who is in charge. The 62-year-old, soft-spoken Leder knew he wanted to be a rabbi while studying writing as an undergraduate at Northwestern University, but he also knew that “writing effectively would be a very important tool. By preaching, which is a dying art,” Leder says. 

“Preaching has become almost universally conversational. Bullet points. I am of the belief that every word matters. Rhythm, nuance, cadence and precision all matter. Being able to share what you said, verbatim, matters. It is clearly important in terms of preaching, but it also is important in general communications – emails, announcements to the congregation, press releases. These require craftsmanship if you want them to be taken seriously, to rise above junk mail.”

But being responsible for what happens at three religious campuses miles apart is a challenging stretch — and unique for Los Angeles. In the last year, in addition to closely monitoring Wilshire Boulevard’s expansion andattending to his rabbinal duties at Wilshire Boulevard and the Irmas campus, he published his fifth book, “For You When I Am Gone,” following “More Beautiful Than Before,” “More Money Than God,” “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” and “The Beauty of What Remains.”

How does he keep up this hectic schedule?  Leder credits growing up in a working-class family in the Midwest. “My parents married as teenagers, and they had five kids before they were 30 years old,” Leder said. “Neither went to college or even considered it.  So for me, writing a book is a noble and powerful opportunity.” 

Leder can reflect on his dual career. Twice he has been named one of the 10 most influential rabbis in America while producing best-selling books. And after more than three decades in Los Angeles, he said his books “give me the opportunity to share my teaching, my truth, with a much, much wider community.”

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