Hollywood Temple Beth El was once among the most prominent synagogues in Los Angeles, with congregants ranging from Hollywood’s elite to some of the city’s wealthiest families. Yet, over the decades, the once-flourishing temple has seen its membership fall off.
“The population of the congregation was once over 1,000 families,” said Cantor Harris Shore, who has been with the synagogue for more than a year. Now, the mailing list is down to just 250 members.
The temple was established in the early 1920s and originally was located on North Wilton Place in Hollywood. It later moved to its current home, a sprawling building on the corner of Fountain Avenue and North Crescent Heights Boulevard. As membership dwindled, the massive structure became more difficult to maintain.
In 1998, the building was purchased by the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) for $2.8 million. The developers struck a deal with temple leaders, allowing the synagogue to continue holding services as Hollywood Temple Beth El in one of the building’s small chapels.
Since then, the building, with its winding corridors and soaring, arched ceilings, has mostly served as a venue for lifecycle events. The temple has held services during the week and on Saturday mornings, and the organizations have coexisted peacefully.
Now, the synagogue is at a crossroads. With three years left on its lease, some members have floated the idea of simply letting it run its course and slowly fade away.
“Some say, ‘Let it go,’ ” Shore said.
But, along with a handful of temple members, he’d rather see new life breathed into the synagogue; he envisions young people and families once again brightening the corridors. “It’s one of the oldest synagogues in town,” Shore said. “Let’s enjoy these years, try to get it back.”
If Shore has his way, the small congregation may soon find their temple in a renaissance.
In April, the temple brought on Rabbi Ira Rosenfeld, a former stand-up comedian who lightheartedly compliments Shore, who calls himself an “actor by trade.”
Together, the two are reminiscent of an old-school Hollywood variety act.
“The rabbi is knowledgeable, funny, warm and has a way of engaging the people,” Shore said, Rosenfeld seated next to him. The rabbi waved a hand, cajoling the cantor.
“Go on, go on,” Rosenfeld joked.
The duo’s plan is to reinstate Friday night services and, by doing so, to invigorate the congregation.
“Part of the reason they brought in me and [Shore] is to get more families because they aren’t going to get them on Saturday morning,” said Rosenfeld. “The goal is to create a service for Friday night that will attract younger people.”
Rosenfeld also hopes that the temple will attract people from the many Jewish cultures in the neighborhood, including the many Russian immigrant families.
“If we can bring everyone together, it has great potential,” he said. “Bridging communities would represent a nice future of Judaism.”
Their hope was put to the test June 11, when they opened Beth El’s doors for the first Friday night service that most temple members can recall.
As congregants slowly made their way inside, Rosenfeld descended from the bimah to shake hands with each worshiper. Many he knew by name, but some new faces appeared in the crowd.
Once attendees were seated, Shore led prayers backed by a four-part choir and a pianist, and while he stuck mostly to the Friday night script, the former Broadway performer sneaked in a duet of “May the Lord Protect and Defend You,” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I feel these elements beautify and elevate our worship experience,” Shore wrote in an e-mail after the service. “And I want to make being Jewish fun and entertaining, without compromising the sincerity of our worship experience.”
By the end of the two-hour service, more than 60 people filled the seats, with more milling about in the hall. Temple members expressed their excitement at the possibility of a rejuvenated congregation.
“It was very nice, very unusual,” said congregant Elena Goldenberg, 49, of the service. “This will bring more people here, which is important.”
Following the service, Rosenfeld expressed his satisfaction in an e-mail. “We had a nice turnout, and everyone participated and responded well.”
While there’s always room for improvement, he said, it was a promising start to what may be a new beginning for the old temple. “I’m confident that our next Friday evening service will be even better, and more joyous and inspirational.”