Hollywood Braces for Early Jewish High Holidays

5:00 AM PST 09/02/2013 by Alex Ben Block
Roger Davies
The newly-renovated Wilshire Boulevard Temple

UPDATED: Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah, starting Sept. 4, are both in the same week, which will see the re-opening of the famed Wilshire Boulevard Temple, fresh off a $150 million renovation funded by ICM Partners' Chris Silbermann, and Lionsgate’s Rob Friedman and others.

The High Holy Days are about to hit Hollywood.

Yes, already. 

It's an unusually early start for the celebration of the Jewish New Year, which typically falls in late September or October. This year, Rosh Hashanah, which marks lunar calendar year 5774, starts after sunset on Sept. 4 and runs through the evening of Sept. 6, followed by Yom Kippur on the evening of Sept. 13 and day of Sept. 14.

The holidays always impact the town, where many executives, producers, writers, actors and others attend evening and daytime services, especially during the first day of both holidays. This year, Labor Day falls the same week as Rosh Hashanah, meaning that many in Hollywood will be taking off Monday and then again on Thursday. Fall's so-called back-to-school week may not feel like it kicks in until the next Monday, Sept. 9. A few businesses plan to close that next Friday on Yom Kippur, including the Paradigm agency, but all allow Jews the time to attend services.

Clergy, on the other hand, are a bit worried that early holidays will lower attendance. “Usually when the holidays are early attendance is lower on Rosh Hashanah,” says Nathan Lam, cantor at Stephen S. Wise Temple (15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive) in Bel Air. “When it’s early you lose people. It creeps up very fast. And this year the mindset among clergy, cantors and rabbis is, ‘Boy this is really early!”

“They’re still making plans for the end of September. They’re preparing for Labor Day," says sixth generation Rabbi Jerry Cutler of the Creative Arts Temple, who is also a stand-up comedian (and former personal manager).

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There may be no more special place to pray this year than the oldest synagogue in Los Angeles -- the Wilshire Boulevard Temple (3663 Wilshire Blvd.), founded in 1862 and active in its current location on Rosh Hashanah eve 85 years ago. And this Rosh Hashanah, congregants can get their first look at its two-year, $150 million renovation   spearheaded by showbiz vets like Lionsgate’s Rob Friedman, producer Lawrence Bender, and ICM Partners' Chris Silbermann

“I imagine the feeling when people enter the room is going to be as moving as it was when Jack Warner, Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer entered when it first opened in 1929,” says the Temple’s Rabbi Steven Z. Leder. “The original power of that room is being revealed again for the first time in 85 years. I think it’s going to be an amazing experience for people.”

As much as it is historic, the rabbi says the presentation will be improved by modern lighting and sound, as will the artistic designs. It helps set the mood in a room purposely designed like a theater (no center aisle, for instance -- those are the best seats).

“One example is the Hugo Ballin murals,” says Leder. “This ribbon of amazing figurative art that circles the entire room. No other Jewish sanctuary has figurative art paintings in it. The murals have been perfectly restored and now are properly lit. That’s going to be an enormously powerful experience.”

The cost of renovating the sanctuary, according to a temple official, is about $50 million. The $150 million includes other renovations and development of the block around the temple. 

Another synagogue that holds services in a renovated theatrical setting is the Temple of the Arts (8440 Wilshire Blvd.), founded 21 years ago by Rabbi David Baron. In 2009, the temple acquired what had for years been called the Wilshire Theater, an art deco palace in Beverly Hills designed by Charles Lee, used for half a century mostly for Broadway show performances.

The theater received a $5 million donation from the family of Haim Saban, the producer known for the Power Rangers and other entertainment properties, and it is now called the Saban Theater. Millions more was raised in a capital campaign from congregants to restore the 1920s luster of the interior of the theater and balcony area.

Temple Of The Arts members include directors Brett Ratner and Jon Avnet, and actors including Sela Ward and Noah Wyle, who often do spiritual readings during the services along with Theodore Bikel, Larry King and Leonard Maltin. Services for the 1,400 members are held in the restored theater, now called the Winnick Auditorium. It incorporates a reproduction of a tapestry by the artist Marc Chagall entitled The Journey of the Jewish People, for which Baron got special permission. Six backlit panels incorporate 18 key chai words taken from the Torah.

The Stephen S. Wise Temple, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, also makes an effort to provide a high quality theatrical experience to its 2,400 members.

“The musical level of our service is geared on a very high level because our people, the people who come to us, some industry people, some non-industry people,” says 38-year temple veteran Cantor Nathan Lam.

“They come to us and they expect a very high level, a very professional level,” adds Lam. “Here you are in a city that has the L.A. Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl. They can see the best entertainment in the world here. Therefore they expect when they come to the synagogue that the musical levels are going to be high and that the music is inspiring and fresh and speaks to them. So at Stephen S. Wise, we’ve commissioned the largest number of new musical compositions for the synagogue of any synagogue in the country over the last years.”

And Lam should know. In addition to his role as the founding dean of the Academy for Jewish religion in California, where he trains would-be rabbis, cantors, military and medical chaplains, he's also a vocal teacher, music producer and coach who has worked with such stars as Lionel Ritchie, Ringo Starr, Kenny Rogers and Motley Crue.

Even the prayer book at Wise, as it's often called, is designed with an eye on showmanship, explains Lam: “We creatively put together a high holy day prayer book geared toward telling the story of the high holy days, and getting more of the gist and more of the message of the High Holy Days across than translating prayers literally. The readings in our book are much more dramatically oriented.”

A number of actors attend and many have done readings for the congregation during the service, including the late Howard Caine (Judgment at Nuremberg) and Ed Asner.

On a high-tech note, the renovations at both at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple and at Temple Of The Arts now allow the synagogues to stream services online live, something the Stephen S. Wise temple also does regularly. Those synagogues and others are going to be online for Yom Kippur.

That capability could come in handy for the next early holiday, since, in an extremely rare occurrence, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah occur on the same weekend in November --  an event that won’t recur for another 7,000 years.

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