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More on Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Rabbi Magnin and Hugo Ballin
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, October 23, 2008

I'm happy that my blog entries and ISJM E-Report are beginning to draw responses - mostly positive and often informative. As readership expands, I hope that this will continue.

Historian George M. Goodwin (of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Society and author of many significant articles on synagogues and other topics) contacted me about my piece on the upcoming restoration of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles and its murals by Hugo Ballin. I have posted more photos of the synagogue; some by Paul Rocheleau, who has given permission for their use.

George Goodwin writes "...I grew up at WBT. Rabbi Magnin was my great-uncle (my mother's uncle). My siblings and I were very close to him. He and his wife Evelyn were almost a third set of grandparents. No doubt about it: he was a giant among congregational rabbis for much of the 20th century. I tend to think that his connections to Hollywood have been somewhat overemphasized, however. While the moguls provided some key gifts, they did not actively participate. Indeed, most WBT members had nothing to do with the world of entertainment. One of Rabbi Magnin's most important themes was the patriotism of American Jews. Unfortunately, in this regard, he was somewhat of a reactionary who supported a number of successful politicians, especially Nixon but also Reagan. Rabbi Magnin was a great orator, who also had a radio show and a newspaper column. Indeed, he was a celebrity among rabbis and other clergy. Part of Rabbi Magnin's success was due to his talented and loyal colleagues, many of whom remained at WBT their entire careers. The most obvious examples are his two rabbinic colleagues, but there were many others, including educators and camp directors.

Unfortunately, much of the recent publicity about the Temple has neglected Rabbi Magnin's immediate successor, Harvey Fields, who presided for about 20 years and only recently retired. He was responsible for the idea and construction of the new "campus" in west Los Angeles, which most significantly includes a day school. He was also the mentor of Rabbi Leder [the current rabbi].

As you know, the Wilshire Blvd. facility was never abandoned. Indeed, the western campus was built four or five decades after Jews had departed for the far suburbs. There was an unsuccessful attempt to merge with a Beverly Hills congregation. The first satellite was the summer and weekend camp in Malibu. Eventually a second camp was built nearby. I am not aware of comparable congregational facilities in this country.

It would seem that WBT has been thoroughly successful. Nobody knows how many younger generations have remained Jews, however. And of course Reform is no longer Classical. Indeed, there would be much about today's WBT that Rabbi Magnin would not accept. Indeed, my brother was not allowed to wear a kippah at his own wedding!

I have always loved Hugo Ballin's murals. Indeed, they always meant more to me than liturgy. I recently visited the Griffith Park Observatory and believe that his murals there are relatively insignificant. For the murals alone, WBT must be preserved."

To read more about Rabbi Magnin, see the series of articles by Reva Clar and William M. Kramer in Western States Jewish History vols 17 (1984) and 19 (1986).

"Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin in Stockton (1914-1915: Rehearsal for Los Angeles; Northern California)" (17/2)

"Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin and the Modernization of Los Angeles Jewry; Part 1" (19/3)

"Rabbi Edgar Magnin and the Modernizing of Los Angeles Jewry; Part 2; Los Angeles" (19/4)

Wilshire Boulevard Temple Launches Ambitious Restoration and Building Program
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, September 29, 2008

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple (the third home of Congregation B'nai B'rith of Los Angeles), is about to undergo a massive multi-million dollar restoration. The project, which will probably cost more the $30 million is part of an ambitious program of the congregation to renew its historic sanctuary and campus, and to build a new facility that will flourish in the 21st century. In doing this, Wilshire is following a new trend in American synagogues – one that we might call back-to-roots, or at least back-to-the-city. After decades of expanding further and further into the suburbs and exurbs, American Reform and Conservative Jews are coming back in large numbers to urban areas. A t the very least, widely dispersed Jewish communities are finding that the historic locations of many synagogues in downtowns and early suburbs, are conveniently located at points central to the largest numbers of their congregants. Wilshire Boulevard already has expanded into in the exurbs, with two active campuses. The new project, for which the congregation is raising $100 million, will re-establish the site of the 1920s sanctuary as the heart and soul of the congregation.

To read more about the restoration plans, see recent stories in The Forward Newspaper, and a lengthy piece in The Los Angeles Times.

I have written at length in my book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community, about the architecture of the building and its place in the inter-war synagogue building boom that seemed to transform American Judaism, until the trend was overcome and overwhelmed by the Great Depression and World War II. Many large synagogue centers of the 1920s never recovered and were forced to close their doors (at least for Jewish use) by the 1950s. Wilshire Boulevard Temple has managed to survive. Its triumphant and sometimes overwhelming sanctuayr inteiror is intact, though decades of LA pollution have dulled and darkened the once brilliant colors of the murals and rich gilding.

The restoration plans follow the successful c. $25 million restoration of the near-contemporary Temple Emanuel in New York, which has been returned that enormous synaoggue to glory. Simple cleaning now makes the richly decorated ceiling visible from belo, and the whole interior The Wilshire work also follows the completion of recent restoration of the Burbank City Hall and the Griffith Obervatory in the LA area, both of which house mural programs by Jewish artist and filmmaker Hugo Ballin (1879-1956), who created the tremendous narrative wall painting program for Wilshire Temple. Ballin was an admired artist who had painted the decorations in the State Capitol building in Madison Wisconsin in 1912, and had moved to Hollywood where he became a prolific and accomplished film artist, designer and silent film director.
After the Wilshire Boulevard Temple commission, he returned to painting and created the murals in the Griffith Park observatory and the Los Angeles Times Building (1934), and other works. Brenda Levin, the architect overseeing the Wilshire Temple project, is a longtime temple member who also headed the restoration of the Griffith Observatory, the Autry National Center and the Bradbury Building.

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple was designed by Abram M. Edelman, S. Tilden Norton (honorary president of the Temple), and David C. Allison. Edelman was the son of the congregation's first rabbi, and had designed the congregation's previous building. Norton was a member of the congregation, and had built the first and second homes of Temple Sinai. The new Wilshire Temple was the dream of Rabbi Edgar Magnin who over a career of several decades, managed to meld a Jewish identity for Los Angeles that joined pioneers and Hollywood moguls. Magnin came to B'nai B'rith as assistant rabbi in 1915 and from the time on, he championed a new synagogue building. It was the involvement of the Hollywood movie makers after World War I, the same time Magnin became senior rabbi (1919) that allowed the building to be erected and decorated. Mostly displaced New Yorkers with marginal religious interest, the Hollywood producers were attracted to the media-savvy Magnin's image of a popular modern Judaism.

Rabbi Magnin also foresaw the movement of the city, and especially its Jewish population, westward. In this, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple was both typical and precocious in anticipating the increased suburbanization of the American Jewish life. Because the new synagogue "was beyond the car line" it anticipated the soon near-total Los Angeles dependence on the automobile over the street-car, an urban-suburban transformation that would not affect most Jewish communities until after World War II. It remains to be seen if Rabbi Magin's CEO-style successor Rabbi Steve Leder is as prescient a planner. If he is, then Los Angeles will have (again) a major and spectacular downtown Jewish center.

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