Stephen S. Wise Temple

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Coordinates: 34°07′42″N 118°28′10″W / 34.128247°N 118.469413°W / 34.128247; -118.469413

Stephen Wise Temple is a large Reform Jewish congregation in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Founded in 1964 by Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of blessed memory, with 35 families, the congregation grew rapidly. At various times in its history it has been stated to be the largest,[1][2] or one of the largest,[3][4][5][6] Jewish congregations in the world, at one time having a membership of about 3,000 families, six rabbis, two cantors and two cantorial interns, and four schools on three campuses.[6] As of 1994 it was the second-largest synagogue in the United States.[7] The community was founded as the Stephen S. Wise Temple. In 2014 it was renamed the Stephen Wise Temple.


Rabbi Zeldin was raised in New York City, the son of an Orthodox rabbi.[4] Ordained at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1946, he came to Los Angeles in 1953 as western regional director for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) and as dean of the College of Jewish Studies in Los Angeles, a UAHC program that was absorbed into Hebrew Union College in 1954. In 1958 he became rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.[4][8][9]

In 1964 Zeldin and 35 families broke away from Temple Emanuel to establish a new synagogue in Westwood. The new congregation was named for the influential Reform rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise, under whom Zeldin had studied. The new congregation faced immediate controversy as the UAHC felt that some of its members had failed to honor existing commitments to Temple Emanuel, and the UAHC did not accept it for membership for the first five years of its existence.[10] The new congregation was intended to have a membership limited in size to maintain intimacy between the rabbi and the member families, and it met at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Westwood. A year later, the congregation acquired a site for a permanent home; the size limit policy was changed in 1969; and in 1970, Stephen Wise Temple absorbed the existing Westwood Temple, whose membership had been declining, in part due to disruption from the construction of the San Diego Freeway.[10]

The temple's location, on a striking 18-acre (73,000 m2) site in Bel Air, near Mulholland Drive and Sepulveda Boulevard, contributed to its continuing growth and success. The location, in the Santa Monica Mountains between the Westside and the San Fernando Valley, meant that the temple could attract membership from the growing Jewish population on both sides of the mountains. In order to develop the property, the temple was required to remove 50 feet (15 m) of the existing mountain; the resulting dirt was then used to level the adjoining property, which was acquired for the new campus of the University of Judaism, then located on Sunset Boulevard.[2] The wild area around the Sepulveda Pass eventually developed into an "institutional corridor" with a number of schools and cultural facilities, including the temple's expanding educational ventures,[11] which came to include Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School[12] and a pre-school (now collectively called Wise School), and Milken Community High School.[5][7] (On March 25, 2011, Milken Community High School and Stephen S. Wise Temple announced that the school would become independent from the temple, effective July 1, 2012.[13])

The congregation became known for its extensive educational and service programs, parenting center, library, swimming pool, bus service, and other services designed for families at all stages.[9][14][15] Under the leadership of Rabbi Zeldin and its education director, Metuka Benjamin, the temple was an influential proponent of the concept of the Jewish day school in the Reform movement.[16][17] The temple and its cantor, Nathan Lam, also maintained an extensive program of commissioning new musical works.[18]

The religious practice at Stephen S. Wise Temple has been described as more traditional than at many Reform temples, as it uses its own prayer books rather than the official books of the Reform movement.[4] In 1995 the temple again faced controversy in its relationship with the UAHC: a dispute over dues obligations resulted in its expulsion from the organization for a time.[1] As of 2010, the congregational database of the Union for Reform Judaism (as the UAHC is now known) stated that Stephen Wise Temple had 2,886 members, which was more than any other congregation in the database;[19] as of February 2012, the database reported Wise had 2,312 members, still among the largest congregations but smaller than several others.[20]

In 1990, Rabbi Zeldin retired from his duties as Senior Rabbi and was succeeded by Rabbi Eli Herscher, who remained Senior Rabbi until 2015. At that time, Rabbi Herscher became Senior Rabbi Emeritus and was succeeded by Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback. Rabbi Zeldin died in 2018 at age 97.[21] Rabbi Herscher remains on staff.[22]


Wise School, a Jewish primary school, is on the temple grounds.


  1. ^ a b John Dart, "Rabbi Leads Grand Temple in Clash With Reform Officials", Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1995.
  2. ^ a b David Finnigan, "Q & A With Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin", Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, February 12, 2004
  3. ^ "Largest Reform Temple", Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1980 (pay site).
  4. ^ a b c d John Dart, " Stephen S. Wise Temple: Still Growing at Age 25: 2,800 Families Make Hilltop Synagogue in Bel-Air the Second Largest in U.S.", Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1989.
  5. ^ a b John Dart, " What's in a Name? Philanthropy: Wise Community School is now Milken High, thanks to a $5-million gift from a family that includes a famous felon.", Los Angeles Times, September 9, 1995.
  6. ^ a b Stephen S. Wise Temple official website
  7. ^ a b John Dart, "Education: Reform Jewish High School Moving to Hills", Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1994.
  8. ^ "Isaiah Zeldin, 1st Dean" at Hebrew Union College website (accessed March 21, 2010), copy Archived October 5, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^ a b Deborah Dash Moore, To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A. (Simon and Schuster, 1994), ISBN 978-0-02-922111-2, pp. 136-140, 268-270. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  10. ^ a b Kerry M. Olitzky, Marc Lee Raphael, The American Synagogue: A Historical Dictionary and Sourcebook, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996, ISBN 978-0-313-28856-2, pp. 48-49. Excerpt available at Google Books.
  11. ^ Jon D. Markman, "Culture Shock Many Object to the Growing Sprawl of Institutions Atop Sepulveda Pass", Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1995.
  12. ^ Jean Merl, "Are Private Schools Better?", Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1992.
  13. ^ Jonah Lowenfeld, "Milken school, Stephen S. Wise Temple severing ties", Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, March 25, 2011.
  14. ^ E. Brooks Holifield, "Toward a History of American Congregations", in James P. Wind, James Welborn Lewis, eds., American Congregations: New Perspectives in the Study of Congregations (University of Chicago Press, 1994), ISBN 978-0-226-90188-6, pp. 44-45. Excerpt available at Google Books.
  15. ^ Douglas Firth Anderson, "Toward an Established Mysticism: Judeo-Christian Traditions in Post-World War II California and Nevada", in Wade Clark Roof, Mark Silk, eds., Religion and Public Life in the Pacific region: Fluid Identities (Rowman Altamira, 2005), ISBN 978-0-7591-0639-0, p. 78. Excerpt available at Google Books.
  16. ^ Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, "Educator Combines Two Passions in Life", Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, June 26, 2003.
  17. ^ Rosemary Skinner Keller, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Marie Cantlon, eds., Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America, Vol. 2 (Indiana University Press, 2006), ISBN 978-0-253-34687-2, p. 904. Excerpt available at Google Books.
  18. ^ Greg Wager, "Film Composer Scharf, 78, Looks for New Challenge", Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1989.
  19. ^ Congregational Profile of Stephen S. Wise Temple, Union for Reform Judaism (accessed March 21, 2010).
  20. ^ Congregational Profile of Stephen S. Wise Temple, Union for Reform Judaism (accessed February 13, 2012). As of 2012, the same database reported that Temple Israel (West Bloomfield, Michigan) had 3,383 members, Washington Hebrew Congregation had 2,781, and Temple Emanu-El (Dallas, Texas) had 2,546.
  21. ^ Tom Tugend, "Stephen Wise Temple Founder, Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, dies at 97", The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, January 27, 2018.
  22. ^ Nathaniel Popper, "Next Generation Of Pulpit Rabbis Shakes Up L.A.", The Forward, September 23, 2005.

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