Home Culture Arts & Entertainment Documentary offers clues to revitalizing synagogue membership

Documentary offers clues to revitalizing synagogue membership

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Aaron Wolf reflecting. (Howling Wolf Productions)

Less than a month before his wedding date, and one day after picking up his tuxedo, Aaron Wolf’s marriage-to-be fell apart. The ceremony got called off. Guests were told to cancel their flights. Wolf wandered the streets of Los Angeles, despondent and in a daze.

“I was really feeling alone,” Wolf recalls over the phone from L.A. “I had envisioned my life in one way, and then I got thrown through this loop.”

As months passed and he sunk deeper into depression, Wolf decided to visit his rabbi, Steve Leder, who runs the grand Wilshire Boulevard Temple, famously built by Hollywood moguls in the 1920s. Wolf’s own grandfather was the rabbi there decades ago, and Wolf has remained technically – if not spiritually, since moving to New York to study film – a congregant ever since.

Stepping back through those doors, Wolf felt a jarring nostalgia: Rabbi Leder had been spearheading an aggressive $150-million renovation project that would take years to complete, and signs of construction were everywhere. The roof had literally been crumbling over congregants’ heads, the mural and stained glass windows faded into a foggy blur.

Wolf met Rabbi Leder in his temporary office, a dark, windowless room that suffocated his hopes of finding spiritual guidance. Rabbi Leder didn’t offer condolences. Instead, he offered work: Why don’t you document the renovations here at the temple?

“I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew that I wanted to do it,” Wolf says. “Not in a million years did I think this would be a feature film that would end up in 1,000 theatres.”

What started as a series of minute-long documentary snippets quickly transformed into something bigger. The majestic, deeply historical temple began a journey for Wolf that involved interviewing dozens of synagogue members, scouring historical documents, investigating his family history, discovering dozens more rundown shuls and asking himself the painfully personal question at the crux of it all: Why are young people turning away from Judaism?

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In the final documentary, Restoring Tomorrow, “I serve as a microcosm,” Wolf explains. “As a younger person who’s disconnected from this place that matters to him, I started to realize how important places like this were.”

Restoring Tomorrow took three years to complete, debuting in Los Angeles earlier this month. Wolf, who is half-Canadian, will next bring his film to Toronto on Oct. 12 for its Canadian première, ahead of a wider release across North America.

During the film’s post-production, Wolf brought it to synagogues across the United States for private screenings, often for boards of directors or executives. Some asked him for advice on their own dwindling numbers or fundraising efforts. His message remained the same: “If you want to try and recreate what life was like at the synagogue 50 years ago, you’re gonna fail,” he says. “We’re not restoring for the past. We’re restoring so we preserve that past, to share it with the future.”

To that end, Wolf emphasizes synagogue executives think about congregants’ emotional connection to the space. Ask members about their best memories, he says. Focus on the community.

That community can – and often should – extend beyond Jews, he adds. In the film, Rabbi Leder makes a point of opening the Wilshire Boulevard Temple to its Latino and Korean neighbours for events and community service.

Likewise, Wolf has screened his film at multifaith centres across the United States. At the end of the viewings, Wolf says, young people would come up to him and tell him, “Aaron, I need to do what you did. I need to go back to my place.” Some cried during the film.

“All I tell them is, ‘That’s a great idea, and I’m right there with you, because I was you.’ ”