Hollywood's Hottest $150 Million Project Is an 83-Year-Old Synagogue
This article first appeared in the June 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
There are a number of synagogues central to Jewish life at the loftiest reaches of the entertainment business -- Temple Israel, Leo Baeck and Stephen S. Wise among them -- but none has been as prominent for as long as Wilshire Boulevard Temple. It opened in 1929 at what was then the western edge of Los Angeles (now known as Koreatown) with key financial support from film titans Irving Thalberg, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer and brothers Jack and Harry Warner. These days, the congregation’s services are still so Hollywood-heavy that they were spoofed in a third-season episode of Entourage, when Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold crashed Yom Kippur to bend a studio head’s ear.
During the High Holidays, you’ll find DreamWorks boss Stacey Snider there, kibbitzing with Warner Bros. head Jeff Robinov, Working Title producer Liza Chasin and her husband, Matthew Velkes, CFO at Village Roadshow. “I loved the fact that I knew a lot of people in the congregation,” says Snider, explaining why she joined 15 years ago. “It was comforting.” Hasbro Studios honcho Stephen Davis can always be seen by an aisle a quarter of the way up from the bimah (“We have my step-grandparents’ seats”), while ICM partner Eddy Yablans religiously sits in the seventh row, right side. “Those are my equivalent of season tickets,” he says.
Now these Hollywood names are helping spearhead a multiyear, $150 million renovation, the first since its founding, of the temple’s domed sanctuary, which began to fail a few years ago after a 10-pound piece of plaster fell from the ceiling in the middle of the night. The work is set for completion in time for High Holiday services in 2013; in the fall, they will take place at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the site of quite a few Academy Awards ceremonies.
An expansion of the rest of the square-block campus is underway as well, backed by sizable gifts from Snider and other stalwart members including Relativity’s Ryan Kavanaugh, co-chair Lionsgate Motion Picture Group Rob Friedman, film producer Lawrence Bender, ICM partner Chris Silbermann and John Fogelman, the former William Morris macher who runs media consulting firm FactoryMade Ventures.
They are talking for the first time about their involvement.
All this for a synagogue that lies a good five miles east of Beverly Hills, not to mention Brentwood. Admits Judith Reichman, wife of the late Oscar producer Gil Cates, “We’d be schlepping from Westwood in traffic, and Gil would kvetch the entire way!” But the temple’s mission, architecture and charismatic rabbi -- Steven Leder, whom Newsweek recently named one of the 10 most influential in America — have made its members passionate supporters of the cause.
“It’s a very bold statement, this temple,” says Fogelman. “You can’t deny it’s projecting strength and fortitude from a group that had a lot of these types of structures in Europe, and a lot of them don’t exist any longer. So when you walk through those doors, there is an extraordinary set of feelings, from courage to pride to, quite frankly, defiance. And there is also a sense of serious responsibility since it’s ours.”
The congregation -- which also boasts CAA partners Richard Lovett and Bob Bookman (whose father and grandfather were presidents of the temple), television producer Bud Yorkin, screenwriter Lowell Ganz and Warner Bros. TV Group president Bruce Rosenblum -- dates to 1862. First called B’nai B’rith, it was founded by a Central Europe-derived group of professionals and businessmen in downtown L.A.
“It reaches back to the pioneer days of not just Jewish Los Angeles but Los Angeles itself,” says Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, whose day job is vp legal affairs, original programming at HBO. “It’s the oldest continually operating synagogue in the city.”
B’nai B’rith’s first two temples were built in Gothic then Victorian style. They were stately structures meant to position the group of mainly native-born Jews as the old-line Semitic wing of the city’s establishment -- in contrast to the straight-out-of-the-shtetl working-class Eastern European immigrants in nearby Boyle Heights.
It was the arrival of magnetic young reformist Rabbi Edgar Magnin in 1915 that marked the beginning of the temple’s union with film moguls. “To the Hollywood Jews, he was the closest thing they had to a spiritual adviser,” wrote historian Neal Gabler a quarter-century ago in his definitive history An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.
Screenwriter and author Budd Schulberg, who grew up in the congregation, once observed: “He was the right rabbi in the right temple in the right city at the right moment in time. If he had not presided over our B’nai B’rith, God and Louis B. Mayer -- whose overpowering presences tended to overlap -- would have had to create him. Or maybe they did.”
A childhood friend of Tarzan producer Sol Lesser, Magnin always felt at ease in Hollywood, enrolling in an acting school for voice lessons to better his sermon oratory skills and eventually purchasing a Spanish-style house in Beverly Hills not far from friend Lew Wasserman’s abode (Wasserman was a Leo Baeck devotee, though wife Edie, according to Wasserman biographer Kathleen Sharp, was a WBT member). His progressive Reform Judaism -- modern in temperament, not to mention relaxed enough for so-called “twice a year” Jews (who only bother to attend services during the High Holidays) -- was attractive to the often secular-minded film heavyweights who had fled stiflingly traditionalist religious homes back East or in Europe.
Magnin, who would reign as chief rabbi for an astonishing 69 years, conceived the domed Wilshire Boulevard Temple as a monumental Byzantine Revival tabernacle that would seat more than 1,500. “It’s very imposing, this Jewish cathedral,” says noted architectural preservationist Brenda Levin, a temple member who’s leading the restoration effort. "It’s one of the great public rooms in Los Angeles, and I’ve worked on them all."
Adds producer Leonard Goldberg, who has attended services for more than four decades: “I grew up in Brooklyn and went to a small synagogue, and this was like the Taj Mahal. I don’t know whether you could ever build as glorious a building these days.”
Agrees Ganz: “It’s not like when you go to some ’60s glass Modernist structure someplace else. There’s this sense of awesomeness.”
The congregation’s circa-1929 Hollywood heavyweights didn’t just help finance Magnin’s building, from its bronze chandeliers to its stained-glass windows. It was their ingrained stage-set inclinations that defined the structure itself. The brothers Warner commissioned famed film production designer and art director Hugo Ballin to create the 320-foot-long biblically themed murals across the interior of the temple that depict Jewish history. (Jews usually avoid “graven images” in their holy places, in accordance with the Second Commandment, but the film-besotted congregation chose otherwise.) “For a movie guy -- especially a movie guy who was at Warner Bros. for so many years -- to see what they did, and to imagine all those movie set decorators and designers who were so immersed in building it, it’s amazing,” says Friedman. And while an aisle down the center typically bisects Jewish sanctuaries, WBT doesn’t have one. “These guys built movie theaters,” says Leder. “They knew where the best seats are!”
Other decisions, such as a shortsighted propensity in certain places toward cost-saving tricks that might have seemed like good ideas at the time but were more befitting of a backlot production, haven’t served the temple quite so well. “When you walk through, you’ll see something that you think is stone,” says Kavanaugh, “and then you look, and it’s like chicken wire. You’d never know until you go behind!”
Persuasive in the promotion of his latest projects and strongly protective of his congregants, Leder, who has been in charge of WBT since 2003, might have been a top agent had he not pursued the ministry. A devotee of stylish black glasses and Shepard Fairey artwork in his office, he’s the haimish, well-connected, decidedly contemporary analog to the late Magnin. Like his predecessor, he’s bridging sanctuary and show business, whether by luring the likes of Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler and Richard Belzer for in-house comedy nights, as he did during the early 1990s while a junior-level rabbi at WBT, or finding himself called upon by Aaron Sorkin, whose wedding he officiated, to write a sermon on capital punishment for a death penalty-focused episode of The West Wing that aired in 2000, titled “Take This Sabbath Day.” And just as Magnin’s defining mission was building the temple, it’s Leder’s to renovate and expand it. “He’s a very convincing guy -- his excitement and enthusiasm are very captivating,” says Friedman. “It’s pretty hard to resist getting involved.”
His $150 million scheme, of which $90 million has been raised, includes renovation of the historic structure (in the interim, regular Sabbath services are taking place in an adjacent WBT auditorium) as well as building a new K-6 school, parking garage with rooftop play area, administration building and separate event space -- the latter to kick into even higher gear the social services, like food-pantry assistance, that WBT provides the surrounding community. In fact, the nonpreservationist aspects of Leder’s pitch have ignited the passion of quite a few industry donors.
“The temple is in a less-Jewish neighborhood, one of the most diverse parts of the city -- a lot of Latinos, Asians,” says Bender. “It’s great to have Jewish institutions in Jewish enclaves, but to have a major Jewish institution here is important because, especially with the social-service center aspect, what better way to promote tikkun olam [a Hebrew expression connoting the healing of the world]?” It’s a message Leder promoted in his second book, More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul, which talked about charitable tithing and social justice.
The temple also has seen an influx of new members who, in a reversal of the original Westside diaspora, have returned to the Eastside. “When you think about the migration that’s begun to happen in the past decade to places like Los Feliz, Silver Lake and downtown, with young people and young families, that’s where the real growth is going to be,” says Fogelman, a strong proponent of enlarging the educational facilities.
Leder, though, is perhaps most shrewd in noting what would be lost by not taking on the project. “Some of this is about the consequences of not doing it,” he says. “We would have had to sell it and move.”
Bookman is one of many who so far has succumbed to this spiel. “Steve shows you a lot of former Jewish synagogues in the neighborhood and says, ‘Do you want this one to be next?’ ” he says. “It’s a nice fear-inducing sales pitch. It’s the perfect pitch for Jews — the ultimate guilt trip!