'Restoring Tomorrow': Film Review

Heartfelt and historic.
8/24/2018

Aaron Wolf’s documentary chronicles the renovation of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles’ oldest Jewish congregation.

When construction on the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple was completed in 1929, the structure was built near what was then the western border of Los Angeles. To see it still standing today in the heart of Koreatown at the intersection of Wilshire and Hobart speaks to how much the city, and the congregation, have changed over the decades.

In reality, though, the temple and its vibrant community were almost eclipsed by the region’s socioeconomic shifts over the generations and very nearly disappeared from the city’s cultural landscape. Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s hard-won renaissance, as chronicled in Aaron Wolf’s fondly crafted documentary, proves to be a vigorous affirmation of the vitality of Jewish tradition in Los Angeles that will fascinate the faithful and enlighten the curious.

The Wilshire temple was the vision of senior Rabbi Edgar Magnin, who led the institution for nearly 70 years after taking the position of assistant rabbi in the mid-1900s. Relying on the goodwill of key movie studio moguls, including Warner Bros.’ Jack, Henry and Albert Warner, as well as MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, Magnin commissioned the construction of the temple in the Moorish style, crowned by a spectacular dome, said to be 100 feet high and 100 feet across. A distinctive stained-glass rose window dominated one exterior wall, welcoming worshippers through three sets of massive Wilshire-facing doors.

Magnin, who became known as the “rabbi to the stars,” built the temple into one of Los Angeles’ largest Jewish congregations, but by mid-century, families were moving further west to Beverly Hills and beyond, leaving him with fewer and fewer members. The structure also fell into decline and in 2008 current senior Rabbi Steven Leder initiated a fundraising and construction project to renovate the temple, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

When director-producer Wolf, a lapsed Wilshire Boulevard Temple member and grandson of one of its former senior rabbis, learned of the temple’s plans, he agreed to document the process at the request of Leder. The project also became something of a spiritual journey for Wolf, who feels he is like many other young Jews who may have lost touch with their heritage.

His family connections help assure access to a trove of archival material, as well as interview opportunities with worshippers who have attended the temple over several decades, including members of the current Hollywood elite like Relativity Media CEO Ryan Kavanaugh. Wolf’s own family history also provides a unique connection with many of these congregants, some of whom have known him since he was a child. This material, along with home movies and photos, proves a bit unwieldy at times, as the filmmakers attempt to integrate it all into a cohesive storyline, along with Wolf’s sometimes shaky, low-resolution cellphone footage of the reconstruction activities.

Leder emerges as the project’s dominant force, orchestrating architects, engineers and artisans to renovate the structure and restore both the rose window and the “Warner Murals,” a series of paintings depicting Biblical scenes, originally funded by the studio founders. Along with his board, he also raises over $100 million and initiates an expansion of the temple campus, adding a school and a social service center to serve members as well as the surrounding community.

The temple’s grand reopening in 2013, featuring guest musician Burt Bacharach, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and representatives of the city’s religious communities, along with members and area residents, reveals that Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s restoration fulfills Leder’s vision of a Los Angeles “Jewish renaissance” in every sense.

Production company: Howling Wolf Productions
Director-writer: Aaron Wolf
Producer: Tim Nuttall
Executive producers: Howard Bernstein, Janet Dreisen-Rappaport, Bruce Karatz, Brian Shirken, Richard Pachulski, Don Schwarz
Director of photography: Tim Nuttall
Editor: Simon Carmody
Music: Conor Jones

Rated PG, 82 minutes