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Stephen S. Wise Temple: Still Growing at Age 25 : 2,800 Families Make Hilltop Synagogue in Bel-Air the Second Largest in U.S.

April 22, 1989|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

The Stephen S. Wise Temple will break ground this summer for a parking garage--probably the most prosaic milestone in the Jewish congregation's 25-year history but certainly the most indicative of its rapid growth into the nation's second-largest synagogue.

"We need it desperately," said Norman Fogel, the executive director of the Bel-Air congregation.

So much so that it will spend $2 million for the extra 140 parking spaces and to reroute roads on the 18-acre hilltop site.

The temple has 2,800 member families--about 300 more than Wilshire Boulevard Temple--and second only to the 3,500-family Congregation Emanu-El in New York City. (All three are part of Reform Judaism, the most religiously innovative of the three major branches.)

Preschool Center

But another 600 to 700 families, most of them not members, are active in Stephen S. Wise Temple's preschool "parenting center" and they receive many of the same benefits accorded to dues-paying members:

"If there is a death in the family, a rabbi will handle the funeral; if a marriage is planned, a rabbi will conduct the wedding," Fogel said.

To handle the workload, in 1982 the temple became the first U.S. synagogue with four full-time rabbis on its staff--headed by the founding rabbi, Isaiah Zeldin. Last year, the temple became the first to add a fifth rabbi.

Stephen S. Wise Temple also runs the largest Reform Jewish day school--700 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The school was started 11 years ago at a time when Reform Judaism, which strongly backs public schools, decided not to leave Jewish education entirely to the Orthodox and Conservative branches.

The temple complex also boasts an Olympic-size swimming pool; one of the key officials among the temple's 350 employees is the "aquatic director."

The temple's location--midway between Los Angeles' Westside and the San Fernando Valley--is recognized as a factor in the congregation's growth.

Attendance From a Wide Area

"The school kids come on 17 bus routes all the way from Bell Canyon, Marina del Rey and Hollywood. The membership is about 50-50 to the north and south, with younger families primarily in the San Fernando Valley," Fogel said.

"This area is just about the epicenter of Jewish population in Los Angeles," he said.

It is also becoming a Jewish cultural hub. The University of Judaism, aligned with Conservative Judaism, sits on land off Mulholland Drive purchased jointly in the late-1960s with Stephen S. Wise Temple. The two institutions are close enough to handle each other's overflow parking for major events.

Directly west, on the other side of the San Diego Freeway, Hebrew Union College will break ground early this summer on a $50-million Cultural Center for American Jewish Life. The Reform-affiliated college, which educates future rabbis on its campus near USC, will build a new and expanded Skirball Museum and an academic and conference center, including a 350-seat auditorium.

One of the leading advocates of the cultural center, according to Rabbi Uri Herscher, executive vice president of Hebrew Union College, has been Zeldin--the man principally responsible for the growth of Stephen S. Wise Temple from 35 families in 1964.

A New York-raised son of an Orthodox rabbi, Zeldin came to Los Angeles in 1953 as western regional director for Reform temples and educational administrator. He became the founding dean for the Los Angeles branch of Hebrew Union College in 1954.

From 1958 to 1963, Zeldin was spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. But after a dispute in 1964 with the temple's lay leadership over areas of authority, Zeldin and 35 families left and held services for nearly five years at an Episcopal church in Westwood.

The temple was named after a Reform rabbi who died in 1949 and had been one of Zeldin's teachers.

Fogel said that in corporate terms, Zeldin functions in the temple as the chief executive officer as well as its spiritual mentor.

"If he were not a rabbi, he would probably be a very successful developer or entrepreneur," Fogel said. "He's the kind of guy who sees what's down the road and leads people there."

Celebration Next Week

The congregation will culminate its celebration of 25 years at the regular Friday night service next week and a dinner dance the next night at the Century Plaza Hotel.

Zeldin, who turns 69 this summer, was out of town and unavailable this week for interviews.

An inevitable question for any booming congregation still led by the founding clergyman is what happens when he leaves?

Fogel said there has been no announcement concerning retirement or a successor. "It's a difficult subject when a man is very active," Fogel said. "He has no health problem and he has a very high energy level."

Although Zeldin and temple leaders are involved in national and regional Reform Jewish institutions, the worship services at Stephen S. Wise Temple do not follow the Reform prayer book.

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