December 12, 2018

A filmmaker with an eye for Wilshire Boulevard Synagogue’s transformation

Los Angeles filmmaker Aaron Wolf never intended to make a documentary about a synagogue. He attended Wilshire Boulevard Temple as a child, became a bar mitzvah there, went to summer camps run by the temple, and his grandfather, Rabbi Alfred Wolf, served on its clergy for more than 50 years. But at the time the temple began its extensive renovation project of its historic Koreatown campus in 2011, the younger Wolf considered himself a lapsed Jew. He had left Los Angeles to study film at New York University, and when he returned several years later, he no longer felt connected to the congregation where he was raised.

Nevertheless, Steven Z. Leder, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s senior rabbi, invited Wolf to bring a camera crew to chronicle the work being done to restore the synagogue building to its past glory. He did so, and along the way, Wolf also began recording on-camera interviews with congregants, temple board members and local historians.

“It started to take on a life of its own,” Wolf, now 34, said of the filming in a recent interview. “In the process, it brought me so much closer to the temple than I’d ever been, and so much closer to what my grandparents accomplished in their lives than I’d ever been.”

The result is the documentary “Restoring Tomorrow,” which premiered Jan. 23 at the Skirball Cultural Center, followed by a Q&A with Wolf and Leder, moderated by film historian Leonard Maltin. The film explores the rich history of the oldest Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, and several of the influential rabbis who served there, including Edgar F. Magnin (1890-1984), known as “Rabbi to the Stars.”

The congregation’s roots go back to when Los Angeles was a small pueblo and only a few dozen Jews lived here. The Hebrew Benevolent Society was created in 1854, and, in 1862, several members went on to found Congregation B’nai B’rith (later to become Wilshire Boulevard Temple). They established the first synagogue in Southern California in 1873 at the corner of Temple Street and Broadway (then called Fort Street). 

The congregation’s second, current campus was dedicated in 1929 at the corner of Wilshire and Hobart boulevards.

The building’s early ties to Hollywood are well known; it was built as a grand statement amid Wilshire Boulevard’s row of churches. But by 2010, the sanctuary was badly in need of repair. A white tarp had been suspended from the sanctuary’s ceiling to catch falling chunks of plaster. Soot had blackened the stately ceiling. The movie set designers who built the synagogue had cut corners in its construction, and those shortcuts were beginning to show. 

A complete overhaul was needed, but it would be expensive: It was budgeted then at $50 million to renovate the sanctuary, and a total of $200 million to upgrade the entire campus. The alternative, however, was to sell the Koreatown campus to investors who would likely turn it into a church.

“Restoring Tomorrow” tells the story of Leder’s audacious plan to rebuild the historic temple, convincing the temple’s board that, as he says in the film, “If we don’t create a Jewish renaissance here and propel the next generation of Jews forward, we will have missed one of the greatest opportunities ever handed to any Jewish community anywhere.”

The project also gave Wolf an unexpected opportunity to reconnect with his faith and with the memory of his grandparents. The film includes several video journal entries shot on his cellphone, in which Wolf describes his renewed ties to Judaism — he’s since become a member of the congregation. He describes the emotional impact of exploring his family history.

Alfred Wolf escaped Nazi Germany in 1935, when he was accepted to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, on a student exchange program. He joined Wilshire Boulevard Temple in 1949, and oversaw the opening of its two summer camps in Malibu — Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp. He became senior rabbi in 1984, succeeding Magnin. Rabbi Wolf also helped appoint Leder to the clergy staff in 1987, the same year Leder was ordained. Leder recalled Wolf as a kind and generous mentor.

Partnerships and dialogue among different faith communities was of the utmost importance to Rabbi Wolf. He co-founded the Interreligious Council of Southern California in 1969, and spoke on behalf of L.A.’s Jewish community at Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit to the city. When a Catholic church across the street burned down, the priests were invited to host communion at the temple.

“He would tell me, not infrequently, that in Germany he saw the dangers of people not knowing each other, of being strangers to each other. And he made it a priority to take a leadership role in interreligious affairs,” Dan Wolf, Alfred’s son (the filmmaker’s father), said in an interview.

Rabbi Wolf’s legacy of building cross-cultural ties continues to this day. Notably, this spring, the congregation will open its Karsh Family Social Service Center on Sixth Street, adjacent to the synagogue’s new parking structure. Operated by temple volunteers, it will offer free food assistance, dental care, eye exams, mental health services and legal aid in Korean, Spanish and English.

“This campus was always designed to be a part of, and not apart from, our neighborhood,” Leder said. “I always refer to it as our oasis, not our fortress.”

Wolf’s film also takes on a wider issue: the disappearance of historic synagogues and other places of worship, as the percentage of Americans without religious affiliation continues to rise, and attendance at religious services drops. It marvels at the fact that a Jewish congregation founded when Abraham Lincoln was president, with a synagogue building that broke ground when Warren G. Harding was president, continues to thrive today.

“Our city is constantly tearing down the landmarks that are our history,” Wolf said. “And this would have been another one.”

This article was made possible with support from Cal Humanities (