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Show biz sanctuary: $150 million restoration of 83-year-old synagogue

Photo by Robert Garcia via Flickr Creative Commons

Non-Westside worshippers at the iconic Wilshire Boulevard Temple are working together to finance a Hollywood-heavy project of biblical proportions -- a $150 million restoration of their crumbling sanctuary.

The synagogue was opened in 1929 in the area now known as Koreatown, with funding from gantseh k'nackers Irving Thalberg, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer and brothers Jack and Harry Warner, reports The Hollywood Reporter

The first since its founding, rehab work is set to wrap in time for the 2013 High Holidays. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion will serve as stand-in for this fall's services.

Backed by gifts from its long-standing, silver screeners (the congregation dates back to 1862), the $150 million makeover ($90 million has been raised, so far) will include renovation of the historic domed sanctuary, construction of a new K-6 school, parking structure with rooftop play area, administration building, and a separate event space for community services, like food-pantry assistance. 

History via the Hollywood Reporter:

First called B’nai B’rith, it was founded by a Central Europe-derived group of professionals and businessmen in downtown L.A. "It reaches back to the pioneer days of not just Jewish Los Angeles but Los Angeles itself," says Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, whose day job is vp legal affairs, original programming at HBO. “It’s the oldest continually operating synagogue in the city.”

It was the arrival of magnetic young reformist Rabbi Edgar Magnin in 1915 that marked the beginning of the temple’s union with film moguls. "To the Hollywood Jews, he was the closest thing they had to a spiritual adviser," wrote historian Neal Gabler a quarter-century ago in his definitive history An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.

Screenwriter and author Budd Schulberg, who grew up in the congregation, once observed: "He was the right rabbi in the right temple in the right city at the right moment in time. If he had not presided over our B’nai B’rith, God and Louis B. Mayer — whose overpowering presences tended to overlap — would have had to create him. Or maybe they did."

The synagogue was constructed with the creative influence of production designers, art directors, set decorators and other multi-faceted machers. "While an aisle down the center typically bisects Jewish sanctuaries, WBT doesn’t have one," notes the industry magazine.

"These guys built movie theaters," the temple's persuasive and charismatic rabbi Steven Leder -- recently named one of the most influential rabbis in America by Newsweek-- told the THR. "They knew where the best seats are!"

As for helping to fund the functional facelift, congregant and CAA partner Bob Bookman (whose father and grandfather were former temple presidents), is "one of many who so far has succumbed to [Leder's] spiel," THR reports.

"Steve shows you a lot of former Jewish synagogues in the neighborhood and says, 'Do you want this one to be next?' " he says. "It’s a nice fear-inducing sales pitch. It’s the perfect pitch for Jews — the ultimate guilt trip!"

Lisa Brenner can be reached via Twitter @lisa_brenner