Filmmaker chronicles synagogue restoration, ends up rebuilding own Jewish identity

Aaron Wolf reconnects with his roots and family legacy while documenting massive undertaking at LA’s Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple sanctuary before restoration. (Doug Santo)
Wilshire Boulevard Temple sanctuary before restoration. (Doug Santo)

Four and a half years ago, Aaron Wolf thought he was setting out to make a film about the restoration of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a grand and imposing Los Angeles synagogue building in dire need of repair. What he didn’t know was that as he began chronicling the edifice’s return to its former glory, he was also embarking on a journey that would reconstruct his own Jewish identity and sense of communal belonging.

“Restoring Tomorrow,” which premieres January 23 at LA’s Skirball Cultural Center, is ostensibly the story of one of Los Angeles’s architectural treasures and home to the city’s oldest Jewish congregation. The 65,000-square-foot highly ornate building — its sanctuary designed to resemble an opulent movie palace — was in total disrepair. Literally crumbling, an extensive tarp had been placed beneath its once-spectacular dome to prevent huge chunks of plaster from falling on worshippers’ heads.

Built in 1929 with funding from the Warner brothers and other movie moguls, the Reform temple features a Byzantine dome and biblically-themed murals by Hollywood art director and production designer Hugo Ballin. Hollywood set-building crews did much of the construction, which decades later turned out to be a real problem.

“It was an incredible movie set, and not really a sturdy building. There are a lot of forced perspectives and false facades,” Wolf, 34, told The Times of Israel.

He was personally surprised, for instance, to learn that the synagogue’s dome is not solid. The dome seen from outside the building is not the same dome that one sees from inside the sanctuary. In the film, we see hardhat-wearing Wolf exploring the huge space between the two structures. He was also surprised to learn that the beautiful blue dome everyone gazed up at in awe wasn’t actually so blue; a light projected onto it gave it its rich color.

Filmmaker Aaron Wolf (courtesy)
Filmmaker Aaron Wolf (courtesy)

The documentary feature intertwines three threads. The first is the contemporary narrative of a successful effort by current Wilshire Boulevard Temple rabbi Steven Leder to convince the temple’s board and members to take on the massive project of restoring the original building and build out its adjacent campus to the tune of $150 million.

The rabbi made his pitch to the board after conducting a demographic study. It showed that despite the temple’s location in the heart of what is now LA’s Koreatown, and most Jews’ having moved out to neighborhoods to the west, there were, in fact, many young Jewish families moving back into the area.

“So I met with the board and said, ‘Look we have to prioritize and we have to get busy. Or we should sell this place, take the money and build more stucco and glass in West Los Angeles, and you should start looking for a new senior rabbi because I am not going to turn this place into a church,'” Leder says in the film.

We see highlights of the actual restoration work, which took place between 2011 and 2013. The main temple building is reengineered and brought up to code, shoring it up for generations to come. Art restorers clean, repaint and reapply gold leaf to Ballin’s incredible murals. Stained glass specialists painstakingly remove each section of the sanctuary’s massive windows, clean, repair and reassemble them.

Restoration of Wilshire Boulevard Temple's dome. (Dave Bullock)
Restoration of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s dome. (Dave Bullock)

The second thread in “Restoring Tomorrow” is the retelling of Wilshire Boulevard’s storied past, its contribution to the history of Los Angeles in every era. Each of the temple’s rabbis put their unique stamp on the temple, especially Edgar F. Magnin, who served the congregation for 69 years, from 1914 until his death. A man of self-importance, he hobnobbed with Hollywood’s elite and turned Wilshire Boulevard Temple into the center of Los Angeles Jewish life for a large chunk of the 20th century.

The final, and ultimately most important, thread bridges the temple’s history with filmmaker Wolf himself. This is the heart of the film.

As it turns out, the filmmaker’s grandfather, Alfred Wolf, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for decades. He started out in 1949 as an associate rabbi under Magnin, and eventually took over as senior rabbi for one year following Magnin’s death. Under his leadership, the temple opened Camp Hess Kramer in 1952, and Gindling Hilltop Camp in 1969, both in Malibu.

After his retirement in 1985, Wolf stayed on as rabbi emeritus while concurrently becoming deeply involved in interfaith relations as founding director of the Skirball Institute on American Values of the American Jewish Committee. He died in 2004 at the age of 88.

Despite his family’s legacy of leadership at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the filmmaker drifted away not only from it, but also from Judaism after he left to study film at NYU.

“When I was growing up, my parents weren’t as involved in the temple as they are now. I was very close with my grandfather, but I really didn’t connect much with him being the rabbi, other than knowing that he worked at the temple. To me, he was just my grandfather, the person who taught me to swim,” Wolf said.

Exterior of Wilshire Boulevard Temple during restoration. (Dave Bullock)
Exterior of Wilshire Boulevard Temple during restoration. (Dave Bullock)

Wolf had his bar mitzvah at the temple, and he attended its camps and Sunday school, but what he learned didn’t resonate much for him.

“My best memory from Sunday school was actually the 30-minute drive in the car with my dad from our house to the temple. We enjoyed that time together. We used to listen to our favorite NPR programs on the radio,” he recounted.

Even after moving back to LA to begin his film-making career, Wolf remained for the most part aloof from the congregation and affiliated Jewish life.

He actually returned to the temple half a decade ago when he was about to get married, and he and his non-Jewish fiancee sought counsel from Rabbi Leder about her conversion. The engagement was broken off shortly before the wedding, but Wolf stuck around after the rabbi asked him to document the temple’s restoration project on film.

A personal journey

Wolf sees himself as a different person, or at least a different Jew, thanks to his work on “Restoring Tomorrow.” The making of a film is always a journey, but this turned out to be a deeply personal one, he said.

Filmmaker Aaron Wolf's image reflected in picture of his late grandfather Rabbi Alfred Wolf at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. (Howling Wolf Productions)
Filmmaker Aaron Wolf’s image reflected in picture of his late grandfather Rabbi Alfred Wolf at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. (Howling Wolf Productions)

By witnessing the enormous effort put into securing the future of the historically significant temple and its role in the city’s Jewish community, as well as the city as a whole, Wolf became aware of the importance of Jewish continuity. He also understood the critical role that he and other American Jews of his age play in ensuring that continuity.

“My family is small. My sister doesn’t live in LA, so if there is going to be any involvement in Wilshire Boulevard Temple into the long-term future, it’s going to be from me. If I’m not there, then the Wolf gene goes away. I feel responsible,” he shared.

Over the course of making the film, Wolf has reconnected with some aspects of Jewish religious practice and attended temple events with his parents. He even sees himself one day taking a seat on the temple’s board.

“Four years ago, I would never have imagined something like that,” he said.

He also would never have thought that raising a Jewish family would have been so important to him as it is now.

‘I am 100 percent sure that I want — no, need — my kids to be raised Jewish and be part of the temple’

“I am 100 percent sure that I want — no, need — my kids to be raised Jewish and be part of the temple,” asserted Wolf, who is yet to marry or become a father.

Wolf’s sense of disappointment with himself for having become estranged from his Jewish roots for a decade permeates the film. Reassurances that it is not uncommon for young adults to move away from organized Jewish life until they marry and have children do not assuage his guilt.

“I do feel down about this because I look around at my peers and they don’t feel a need to connect. Right now, in this era in the US, we don’t have enough to fight for. We don’t know as much as we should and we don’t have a direct connection to our ancestors’ experience,” he said.

It pains him that he could have drifted away from Judaism, been the statistic that walked away and never came back.

Wolf wants this film to serve as a wake up call for his generation, a plea for it to build (or at least, restore) and be built.

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