Angelenos regularly travel thousands of miles abroad to view imposing, inspiring edifices, yet we have such a place right here in our city: Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s newly restored sanctuary. This ornate house of worship, capped by a towering 10-story coffered dome, is fully as gasp-inducing as many European cathedrals. But a very nondescript white wall just outside the sanctuary is equally revealing of the congregation’s soul. This is where the photos of the Temple’s confirmation classes are hung.
The earliest picture is from 1904, when the already 42-year-old congregation (then called Congregation B’nai B’rith) was located in its more humble second home, at 9th and Hope streets. Like all such archival collections, this one is fascinating in that it shows how the fashions worn by a century’s worth of budding 16-year-olds continually change. But what I believe is more noteworthy is what doesn’t change in these photographs—year after year, the faces of certain individuals keep reappearing alongside the confirmands.
From 1922 to 1983, the photographs include Rabbi Edgar Magnin. From 1983 to 2004, they include Rabbi Harvey Fields. From 1988 to the present, they include Rabbi Steve Leder. And, of particular interest to me are the photos from 1950 to 2002, which include Rabbi Alfred Wolf, my father.
These four men held the position of senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple over the past 94 years. Together, they devoted a total of 181 years to this institution.
To a large extent, the senior rabbi establishes the gestalt of any congregation. When there is frequent turnover in this position, the gestalt keeps changing and never really takes root. Thanks to these four men, whose tenures substantially overlapped, Wilshire Boulevard Temple has enjoyed a consistent identity that nevertheless has evolved, shaped by the distinct personas of each of its leaders.
And I was privileged to know them all.
I was born in 1950, less than a year after Dad joined the Temple. The larger-than-life Rabbi Magnin was my godfather.
Edgar Magnin was a legendary speaker whose booming voice could easily reach the last row of the 1,800-seat sanctuary. Even more remarkable, anyone who sat in that distant row invariably felt as if Rabbi Magnin were speaking directly to him or her. His reputation was national and enduring: For years, he had his own weekly radio show and syndicated column, he delivered the invocation at Richard Nixon’s first inaugural, and he remained active at the Temple nearly until his death in 1984 at the age of 94.
But for me, Rabbi Magnin was also something of a time machine. This was someone who evacuated his home at the age of 16 … because of the San Francisco earthquake! He built one of the first homes in Beverly Hills, helped found Hillcrest Country Club, and oversaw the construction of the Temple’s Pantheon-like sanctuary, which opened in 1929. He counted Louis Mayer, William Randolph Hearst, Irving Thalberg, and the Warner brothers among his friends. But he was also happy to have lunch with my family at Hamburger Hamlet following my son’s naming ceremony. The man who befriended moguls also befriended me.
My father joined Rabbi Magnin at Wilshire in 1949. The following year, Dad launched the Temple’s camping program, which led to Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop in Malibu. Dad’s commitment to camping was rooted in his teenage years when, as a Jewish youth leader in Germany, he regularly defied the Nazis by taking kids into neighboring forests where they could savor practicing their religion free of fear.
Dad’s experience living in Germany, from which he escaped in 1935, also led him to be a leader in intercultural affairs, becoming the first chairman of the Southern California Interreligious Council as well as chairman of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. He was determined that the hatred and demagoguery he had witnessed in his homeland never take root in his beloved L.A. Most memorably, during Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Los Angeles in 1987, Dad addressed the pontiff on behalf of the entire Jewish community at an extraordinary interfaith gathering.
In photo after photo on the confirmation wall, we can see these two vital religious leaders as they proudly passed their heritage to new generations. The photo from 1966 depicts the largest class, with 202 students. There’s Dad, there’s Rabbi Magnin, there’s Rabbi Maxwell Dubin, who served the Temple for 50 years. And there, in the middle, hair shiny with Brylcreem, is me. Moving down the wall there is a photo featuring my son, Aaron—who was part of the 1997 class, the smallest in the Temple’s history with 12 students. Since then, the confirmation classes have been growing again. The Temple now has a Jewish elementary school with 280 students at its Westside campus, the construction of which was spearheaded by Rabbi Fields. And, a new day school at the Wilshire campus is growing steadily, populated by children of the Jewish families that are increasingly moving to neighborhoods such as Hancock Park, Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Eagle Rock, and Echo Park.
Indeed, if the Temple restoration project had merely resulted in a beautiful place to house the congregation for annual High Holiday services, then that gleaming dome would be little more than an empty shell. Instead, it is Rabbi Leder’s vision for it to be a bull’s-eye of Jewish life right in the center of our city.
And so, as with that wall filled with confirmation photographs, there is continual change to be seen. But, just as in those pictures, the essence of this old/new congregation remains the same, and it propels us forward.