November 21, 2018

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s transformation

My old office, on the 15th floor at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Kingsley Drive, looked directly at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. It would have been an ideal location to set up a time-lapse camera to document the slow but historic changes that have taken place there over the past few years.

In 2009, the enormous Byzantine Revival-style building sat in dilapidated silence most of the time. Its exterior was the color of a pair of old, soiled khakis. There was some activity, of course, but most of the temple’s large membership used the Westside campus, at Olympic Boulevard and Barrington Avenue. 

When I had non-Jewish visitors who wanted to see what a synagogue was like, I’d walk them across the street and enter the deserted sanctuary. I have a thing for old halls of prayer, and Wilshire Boulevard Temple always gave me shivers: seats worn by generations, the famous Hugo Ballin murals barely decipherable in the dark light. It had become more a monument, or museum, than a place of worship.

Fast forward to today. The old building has been transformed over the past few years. From my window, I watched scaffolding go up and down. Fleets of workers came and went. Holes were dug, concrete poured, landscaping redone. By the time the Jewish Journal moved down the street to new digs last week, and I closed my office door for the last time, Wilshire Boulevard Temple had been transformed, a testament to the idea that the old and nearly abandoned can be made new and vital.

A few weeks ago, Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who conceived and pushed forward the transformation, invited me to see what had been done, accompanied by Brenda Levin, the architect who oversaw every detail of the restoration.

Inside, I sucked in my breath. “Wow,” I said — and the word echoed in the vast, splendid new space.

I write “new” space because it looks as fresh as it must have during its dedication in June 1929. Levin and her team polished a Los Angeles treasure. They meticulously restored the Ballin murals, donated by Warner Bros., which now seem to shine. The massive roseate stained-glass window, taken out for repairs, now looks like a ruby in its setting. The pews have been redone, the carpet is new, the bimah has been lowered and extended, and a new air conditioning system literally breathes new life into the place.

When the late Rabbi Edgar Magnin beheld the sanctuary for the first time in 1929, he said, “The room reveals the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty.”

Now we can see what he meant.

Leder faced a choice when he took over as the congregation’s senior rabbi. The congregation could sell its historic synagogue, perhaps to a Korean church, or it could invest heavily in its repair. The first option might have made the most sense: Many shuls and Jewish institutions have moved on from where they began, including Wilshire Boulevard Temple, whose first grand edifice was built in 1873 at the downtown corner of Temple Street and Broadway.

History marches on, and Jewish history especially pivots on what happens when temples are lost.

But Leder and the leadership of Wilshire Boulevard chose the second, less obvious option and decided to stay, to invest.

“We will use it to bet on the future of this city,” Rabbi Leder said.

Young Jews were moving back into Eastside neighborhoods. The temple could serve them, but also reach beyond the Jewish community to provide services to the densely packed area’s polyglot, mainly lower-income residents.

“The core of every great city rots,” Rabbi Leder quoted a congregant, “and the core of every great city regenerates.”

The project has taken years, and along the way generated naysaying and tongue clucking in direct proportion to its $120 million price tag. If I personally had $1,000 for every person who told me it could never succeed, I could have donated the cupola. It was folly to spend so much on a synagogue, people sniped, when there are so many homeless people, when Israel faces danger, when people are starving in the Congo — name your cause. Raise enough money and people will gladly advise you on better ways to spend it.

The project officially kicked off on Sept. 1, 2008. Lehman Brothers collapsed on Sept. 15 — the official start of the Great Recession. If it is hard under any circumstances to raise money for the largest synagogue expansion in modern history, in those years it must have seemed impossible.

Yet Leder plunged forward. As historian Karen Wilson pointed out, every building boom in Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s history coincided with a market crash. The Eastside sanctuary was completed in 1929 at a cost of $1.5 million — the Great Depression raised concerns as to whether temple could survive.

A few years ago, I ran into Rabbi Leder at a Starbucks. He had been up late the night before attending an opera performance with a donor, and he had a full day of donor meetings ahead of him. “Unrelenting” was the word I remember him using.

But it paid off. The sanctuary is stunning. In 2003, no children attended kindergarten at Wilshire Boulevard Temple East. Now, 120 kids are enrolled. The next phases — to add community space and outreach services — are on track. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, the congregation will file in for the great reveal.

The lessons in all of this? Where vision and leadership fuse with need, there is more than enough money. And the smart money always bets on the future of the Jewish community, and of Los Angeles.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.