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The Jewish Pass

The Growth of Jewish Institutions in Los Angeles' Sepulveda Pass

Erik Greenberg, Author

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Stephen S. Wise Temple

STEPHEN S. WISE TEMPLE (SSWT) was established in 1964 when founding rabbi Isaiah Zeldin inspired some congregants of Beverly Hills' Temple Emanuel to form a more intimate congregation in the Westwood area near UCLA.  Named for one of the most prominent American rabbis in the 20th century, the congregation began with 35 families.  As with every Jewish institution that calls the Sepulveda Pass home, SSWT began in borrowed quarters. Originally, the congregation held services in St. Alban's Episcopal Church on Hilgard Avenue across from UCLA and then, for a time, in the basement of Leo Baeck Temple at the southern end of the Sepulveda Pass.

IN 1967, NORMAN FEINTECH, a member of the congregation, suggested that the synagogue purchase and develop a parcel of land atop the Sepulveda Pass. Feintech and Zeldin realized that the rapid westward expansion of the city meant it would be difficult to find an affordable westside piece of property large enough to house a new synagogue. The once remote land in the pass, now more accessible because of the recently completed San Diego Freeway project, offered both affordable land and the possibility for significant growth over time.

MANY CONGREGANTS INSISTED that the new temple be located closer to their homes in Westwood.  The temple’s executive board, however, stood fast.  Zeldin recognized that the pass stood at the center of Los Angeles' Jewish populations (on LA's westside and in the San Fernando Valley).  Moreover, Zeldin wanted to change the traditional synagogue setting from a building surrounded by an urban environment to one surrounded by natural beauty.  Equally important, Rabbi Zeldin hoped to turn his synagogue into something far larger than a house of worship. He aspired to make the Sepulveda Pass campus a center of Jewish life. After some political infighting, the congregation agreed to relocate, but they could not afford to make the purchase alone (both for financial and structural reasons). In a rarely seen example of inter-denominational cooperation, Rabbi Zeldin struck a deal with the Conservative Movement’s University of Judaism (UJ). Stephen S. Wise Temple would be located on a parcel at the top of a hill and the soil removed to flatten that hill would fill in and support the parcel of land dedicated to the creation of the University of Judaism.

THE FIRST BUILDINGS of the Stephen S. Wise campus were completed in 1968. Over time the institution grew to include a day school (campuses of which sat on both sides of the pass), social and activity halls, and numerous chapels.  The physical plant of the institution is so large, that in 1995 the Los Angeles Times called SSWT the largest synagogue in the world.  All hyperbole aside, though, the congregation has grown exponentially from its humble beginnings.  Its 35 family membership has grown to include thousands of congregants from around the city,  

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