The restoration of a venerable Los Angeles synagogue prompts an inquiry into its vital communal value in Aaron Wolf’s moving documentary.
Aaron Wolf grew up attending Los Angeles’ historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which was founded during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and has served as a vital place of worship and cultural center for the city’s Jewish community ever since. “Restoring Tomorrow,” however, isn’t merely a nonfiction celebration of that history, but a plea to keep it alive, given that in recent years, the synagogue’s membership dropped and the grand building itself began to crumble. The efforts to revitalize it — and, by extension, to keep its heritage alive — is the focus of Wolf’s assured documentary, which stirringly melds personal and communal perspectives on the value of religious traditions. It’s a niche offering worth seeking out when Fathom Events debuts it in nearly 1,000 theaters nationwide, for a single night on Nov. 13, following a far more limited release this October in New York.
“Restoring Tomorrow” begins with ominous snapshots of domestic and international holy sites that have fallen into disrepair, and equally melancholy camera pans across pews and podiums covered in cobwebs and plastic sheets, all set to Conor Jones’ mournful score. Those sights follow introductory text claims about young Americans’ diminishing interest in religion — an indifference that’s shared, at least initially, by Wolf, who in first-person monologues admits that he drifted away from Wilshire Boulevard Temple as he became an adult. With the venerable institution in desperate need of renewal, he returns to his hometown to document current rabbi Steve Leder’s campaign to raise funds for the renovation project, as well as to investigate his own connection to the faith (and place) in which he was raised.
Wolf’s ties to Wilshire Boulevard Temple are strong, given that his grandfather Alfred Wolf was one of its most revered — and open-minded — rabbis, having established the Southern California Inter-Religious Council, replete with a 1987 meeting with Pope John Paul II. In these passages, “Restoring Tomorrow” paints an affecting portrait of the way in which synagogues, churches, and mosques are not just venues for prayer and study, but spiritual, social and familial hubs where men, women, and children come together with those like, and different from, themselves. Moreover, they’re links to the struggles and triumphs of ancestors who sought to leave behind cherished legacies for their kids and grandkids, not to mention their fellow parishioners.
An act of local conservationism, “Restoring Tomorrow” confidently details Leder’s efforts to refurbish Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s magnificent sanctuary and domed ceiling. At the same time, it employs newly recorded and archival interviews and clips to elucidate the synagogue’s deep roots in East Los Angeles. When construction began on the edifice, it was Hollywood moguls such as Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg who helped foot the bill (the murals and rose windows they donated are still there). Thalberg even turned to “rabbi to the stars” Edgar Magnin to aid in Norma Shearer’s conversion to Judaism ahead of their wedding — a fact that underscores showbiz’s crucial role in supporting L.A.’s Jewish community.
Wolf’s occasional use of selfie-cam cinematography for his on-screen narration is the film’s only technical misstep; otherwise, his documentary makes its case with aesthetic polish and considerable poignancy. Even non-believers will be hard-pressed to remain unmoved by its depiction of the many benefits — both present and future — derived from staying in touch with the past.