November 11, 2004
Wilshire Boulevard Gambles on Future
On any given day, Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles is a hub of activity. Built seven years ago for $30 million, the campus attracted new members like a magnet. They came flocking to enroll their children in day school or religious school or attend the many other activities the campus offered.
Now it wants to repeat its success in a part of town that is far less congruous with Jewish life than the Westside: Koreatown. The temple is planning on spending $30 million to revamp its Wilshire Boulevard property and to turn it into a major Mid-City Jewish destination.
Although 70 percent of Los Angeles Jews currently live on the Westside and in the Valley, the Wilshire Boulevard board is banking on the fact that high housing costs and a lower tolerance for long commutes will cause a west-to-east demographic shift.
"Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Hollywood Hills, Glendale, Pasadena -- not only are they more affordable places to live, but they are fabulously interesting places to live," said Rabbi Steven Leder, Wilshire Boulevard's senior rabbi, who is spearheading the renovations. He said the Koreatown temple is located in the "newly revitalized Soho of Los Angeles," referring to the trendy New York City neighborhood.
The proposed renovations come at a crucial point for the temple. The Edgar Magnin Sanctuary, which turns 75 this month (see sidebar), needs serious repair. While the sanctuary hosts two bar mitzvahs a week during its Saturday morning services, which draw about 500 people, the Friday night turnout is generally small and the majority of those attendees live east of La Cienega Boulevard. Most Wilshire Boulevard programs, such as day school, most religious school classes, adult classes and psychological support groups, are at the Irmas Campus.
It is the Irmas Campus that increased Wilshire Boulevard's membership by 700 families, and two-thirds of the temple's 2,500 families are affliated with the Irmas Campus. While the Magnin facility has 40 classrooms, during the week they are rented out to a charter school and not used for Jewish studies.
"We either needed to restore [the Edgar Magnin Sanctuary] and contemporize its space for usage or let it go," Leder said. "And I would be ashamed of myself if it was let go on my watch."
In 2001, the temple received a Preserve Los Angeles grant from the Getty Foundation to draw up a plan to rehabilitate and maintain the Wilshire Boulevard property, which is a landmark building. The study found that there was significant deterioration of the stone and concrete decorative elements on the building's exterior and there was efflorescence (a discoloration) of the plaster on the dome inside the sanctuary. The study also found that the building's electrical, lighting, plumbing, heating and ventilation systems were old and worn out.
In addition, the board had some complaints of its own. While the sanctuary was built to accommodate 2,000 people, the social hall only holds 200, which means that congregants needed to go elsewhere for their parties. There is also no air conditioning, which can make packed High Holiday services, with 6,000 people attending, very uncomfortable.
The plan estimated that it would cost Wilshire Boulevard close to $5 million to restore the sanctuary to its former glory, but the board has grander visions. It is planning to building a large social hall with an industrial kitchen, parenting center, nursery school, rooftop garden and youth lounge.
The board also wants to renovate the current auditorium so that it can become a center for cultural programming in Los Angeles, akin to the 92nd Street Y in New York, and to landscape the gardens and create a perimeter wall to give the facility a campus feel.
The estimated cost of all the renovations is $30 million, and Wilshire Boulevard is currently soliciting funds and negotiating naming rights with some members.
But who will come to the Wilshire synagogue? Leder and Steven Breuer, the temple's executive director, are reluctant to admit that the motive behind the renovations is to attract new members, saying that they are spending $30 million to serve the existing 1,000 families that affiliate with the Magnin facility.
Los Angeles demographers think that Wilshire Boulevard is ahead of the curve.
"I think that [Wilshire Boulevard] is very astute, and what is going to happen is that they are going to anchor a Jewish community there," said Pini Herman, principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research.
He said that the Westside can't handle the density of the population, noting "When the alternatives are a $1.5 million tear-down on the Westside or a $300,000 [house] in that area, which is only a 10-minute drive from Wilshire and Fairfax, and you have reasonable Jewish services, it's going to become a lot more attractive."
Herman doesn't think the new Wilshire Boulevard, which could take two years to renovate, is going to detract from the Westside, "but it will give some alternatives to Jews who like to be urban pioneers but who also want to live among Jews."
Young people and empty nesters may be returning to inner-city properties, said Steven Windmueller, director of the School for Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, "because they reject the commute, and they want the convenience of what downtown L.A. and mid-Wilshire and Los Feliz offers."
With the closing of the Jewish Community Center in Los Feliz and the downgrading of services at the Westside Jewish Community Center, Windmueller said that Wilshire Boulevard can "fill an important community niche."
Still, the question remains that when the renovations are completed, will people come or will they continue to attend synagogues on the Westside?
"It is a gamble, but Los Angeles cannot sprawl forever," Breuer said. "The city is having an internal renaissance, and this [renovation] is a commitment to the future. We trust that there will be people to come. If you build it, they will come. That is the vision at least."
Wilshire Boulevard Temple will "Celebrate the Life of a Building and the Building of a Life," with a Mandy Patinkin concert on Nov. 21 at the Magnin Sanctuary, 3663 Wilshire Blvd. The event will commemorate the sanctuary's 75th birthday and Steven Breuer's five decades of service to the temple. For more information call (213) 388-2401 ext. 521, or visit www.wilshireboulevardtemple.org.