October 16, 2007
Photo essay: “Temple to the Stars” now Temple to the Iranian Jews
Hollywood Temple Beth-El was once known as the “Temple to the Stars” in the 1920’s for Jewish celebrities from Hollywood’s golden years but now is one of the emerging synagogues for Iranian Jews living in the Los Angeles area. Today the old synagogue located in West Hollywood is home to a small but growing contingent of Iranian Jews and operated by the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF). Back in March of 1999, the IAJF which is an umbrella organization made up of more than a dozen Southern California Iranian Jewish groups, purchased the site for $2.8 million.
The purchase of the synagogue was quite controversial at the time in the local Iranian Jewish community as the majority of Iranian Jews felt the site was too far away from Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles and Santa Monica where the majority of them reside. The more religious in the community refused to attend the synagogue because of the significant distance and their desire not to drive on Shabbat. Other Iranian Jews were frustrated with the lack of parking for the synagogue which only had a small adjacent parking lot. The temple’s need for renovations was of concern to others who felt the building was too out of date. These frustrations resulted in many local Iranian Jews not attending the synagogue in the first few years since its purchase.
Yet within the past few years an adjacent banquet hall has been elegantly renovated and now become a popular location for a number of weddings, bar mitzvahs and other events for local Iranian Jews to use. While roughly 30 to 40 typically people attend the synagogue’s services on Shabbat mornings, the number of Iranian Jews attending for High Holy Services balloons to a few thousand. Likewise a parking lot across the street from the synagogue that was made available has drawn more Iranian Jews to the celebrate their events at the site. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the synagogue today is the fact that many local Iranian Jews often use the synagogue’s main sanctuary for their memorials during the week. Often large groups of 100 to 200 people, typically friends and family members attend these memorial services to comfort grieving families. Another interesting aspect of the IAJF synagogue is the fact that it’s the only Iranian synagogue in California that also has the pre-Islamic revolution flag of Iran hanging in its sanctuary and banquet hall.
Hollywood Temple Beth-El was originally Ashkenazi and founded in 1920 then relocated in 1952 to its present site on Crescent Heights Boulevard just south of Sunset Boulevard. At one time the synagogue’s members included actors Edward G. Robinson, Eddie Cantor, Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle, the Warner brothers, “Wizard of Oz” director Mervyn LeRoy, cosmetics mogul Max Factor and producer Joe Pasternak. But as the American congregants died or moved to other parts of Los Angeles, Temple Beth El’s membership aged and dwindled. In 1998, the 1,200-seat sanctuary attracted only 50 worshipers, most in their 70s and 80s. Likewise only one of 20 classrooms were still in use. After the temple was sold many in the greater Jewish community were pleased that the site was still preserved for other Jews to enjoy, but many Iranian Jews have not taken to using the synagogue much aside for holding their parties at the banquet hall.
Today, the synagogue’s main sanctuary has not been renovated and still has the early 1950’s look and architecture. When I recently attended a memorial at the synagogue’s main sanctuary it was as if I had stepped into a different point in time as the interior decor has remained the same but is now filled with Iranian Jews instead of American Jews.