How Rabbi David Baron Makes Yom Kippur Very Special
The Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts program features not just traditional prayers but also music, arts, meaningful guest speakers and more, making the most important day for Jews accessible to a wide audience
By Alex Ben Block
Rabbi David Baron has been my spiritual leader for decades. My wife and I first began following him at several smaller Los Angeles area synagogues. Since 2005, he has been the visionary founder of The Beverly Hills Temple of The Arts, where on Tuesday and Wednesday he will lead another meaningful and thoughtful service celebrating the most important date on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the highest of the high holy days.
In the past two decades, Rabbi Baron has brought together a community of those in show business, the arts and every other area of life, as he has built an important center for Jewish life in Southern California. He has created an oasis where traditional Jewish values and a meaningful service are mixed with artistic beauty, family, culture and a strong connection to the most important issues in the real world.
“On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” wrote Richard Stellar for The Wrap in 2015, “Rabbi Baron is as much impresario as he is clergyman. The harp polishers of my youth faded from memory as Rabbi Baron worked the congregation. I finally got what these holidays were about. And the music – it worked in harmony with the service, and encouraged all of us to soar.”
Rabbi Baron’s vision has been to restore the legendary theater first opened in 1930 since leading a fundraising effort to acquire the art deco palace designed originally by Charles Lee. For about 50 year it was used for Broadway theater productions and later for movies. Among those who donated to create the Temple were Haim Saban and family, who have given over $5 million. Producer and New York Giants owner Steve Tisch has also donated funds to install a top of the line audio and video system which has made it a place where movie premieres and presentations are now held.
Today the 1,700-seat auditorium (now called the Winnick Auditorium) is as beautiful as it was when Lee designed it. The stage or “bimah” in Jewish parlance, now includes a reproduction of a tapestry art by the famed Jewish artist Marc Chagall entitled “The Journey of the Jewish People.” Baron got special permission to use it. Adjoining it are six backlit panels featuring 18 key “chai” words taken from the Torah.
My appreciation for Rabbi Baron has grown even greater through the Covid 19 pandemic. Once again this year the entire service is available virtually on a video link that is done like a quality TV production, making it almost as good as being in the beautifully restored historic theater’s main auditorium on Wilshire Boulevard.
Many Temple’s now do video presentations. The Temple of the Art’s video services have been expanded over the past three years but Rabbi Baron has been ahead in the creation of a TV version. For decades a recorded version, complete with the religious rites, beautifully presented musical content (a wonderful choir led by a Grammy-winning choir master) and a cantor with an operatic quality voice, along with meaningful readings often delivered by major Hollywood stars. His programs have been seen around the world by those who don’t live near a Synagogue, those who are homebound, and by the U.S. military forces over the Armed Services networks.
The music provided both in the way prayers are presented and in other forms is extraordinary. Most noteworthy are the vocals by longtime Cantor Ilysia Pierce, who has also performed for TV and theater over the years. This year she is joined by a Cantor Natham Lam, who previously served as a Hazzan for the Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles for 45 years.
Cantor Ilysia Pierce
The music director is Sharon Farber, who has many show business credits, and is a composer as well. Her concerto for cello, orchestra and narrator, “Bestemming” ("Destination"), based on the life story of Holocaust survivor and hero Curt Lowens (whom she met at our Temple), has been widely performed.
The special readings this year will be presented by a group that will include longtime Entertainment Tonight anchor Mary Hart, Inside Edition correspondent Jim Moret, TV producer Daphna E. Ziman, actor Stephen Macht, actress Beverly Todd and actor Mike Burstyn.
The Temple of the Arts, as it explains on its web site, is now the “largest arts and entertainment-industry synagogue in the US. (It) offers a unique, contemporary approach to Judaism through music, dance, drama, and film. For 30 years, Temple of the Arts has welcomed people of all backgrounds to our services which transcend religious and cultural boundaries. Our congregation believes in the power of art to connect us - a belief we have spread across the city of Los Angeles and beyond. At Temple of The Arts, we harness creativity to explore the past, present, and future of Jewish life.”
Rabbi Baron’s beautiful services include all of the important prayers, and his always powerful sermons, and on the high holy days the traditional blowing of the shofar; but also include presentations and interviews with people with their own powerful stories to tell, or information that is central ripped from the headlines.
This year, for instance, his guests, including Morton A. Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America, and New York Times Best-Selling Author, Anita Moorjani, about her near-death experience.
His guests will also include Jeannie Opdyke Smith, who will share the story of her mother, Irene Gut Opdyke’s remarkable heroism during the Holocaust; Moti Kahana, who will share how he is currently bringing life-saving food and fuel to Ukrainian farmers; Montana Tucker, a social media influencer who will share memories of a visit to Auschwitz with her mother, to witness where her 94-year-old grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was interned.
Dr. Judea Pearl, a noted UCLA professor (now retired) and father of Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, who was murdered on assignment in the Middle East, will sing a song in memory of his late son. The Pearl family have created an active foundation in their son’s name.
Dr. Judea Pearl,
At many synagogues the morning service, which is followed by a special prayer to those who have passed away, ends, and the congregations returns about 5 p.m. for a final closing Yom Kippur service.
At The Temple of the Arts, much of the congregation stays around to hear Rabbi Baron lead a discussion, which includes spirited question and answer sessions, with his guests and others. Some years he shows timely documentaries or presents other multimedia programming that enriches the entire Yom Kippur experience.
This year the discussion program from 2 to 5 pm, which is open to the public at no cost (RSVP required), will include an expanded session with Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America who will talk about attacks against Israel in the United Nations, the General Assembly and the Security Council. Anita Moorjani will also discuss her journey from cancer to true healing, and what she learned from her near-death experience.
Jews around the world will celebrate Yom Kippur in many different ways, and all offer their own beauty and importance. At a time when anti-Semitism in America and in many other parts of the globe is at a modern era peak, there is much to pray for and to consider, along with fulfilling the traditional importance of renewing the Jewish soul. That includes Hassidic, orthodox, conservative and reform congregations, among many.
The Temple of the Arts is reform but with a conservative bent as well, and is most accessible in many ways to those who are not intensely religious or are converts from other religions.
I was raised in a very conservative atmosphere but find what Rabbi Baron presents much more in keeping with where I am in life, and what is palatable to many others like me whose heritage is Jewish but whose everyday life takes them in many other directions.
In his years at The Temple of the Arts, Rabbi Baron has assembled a family of like-minded people. He has led them to acquire what was once the Wilshire Theater, to create the Saban Theater. It is now a place not just for services on the High Holy Days and once a month services but also as center for the arts all year around. There are numerous programs to train young people for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, but also for adults who want to reclaim their own spiritual heritage.
In the past few years the Temple has also created an adjacent school to teach youngsters, and prepare new generations to appreciate the great richness of the Jewish religion and heritage.
“Rabbi Baron is also active in the community on causes of concern to many thinking people, of matters pertaining to Israel and its survival, and as a representative of his religion who can speak with those of many faiths and ideas in hopes that reasonable men and women can always find common ground,” reads the Temple website. “Rabbi Baron wrote the timeless business ethics and guidance volume “Moses on Management: 50 Leadership Lessons from the Greatest Manager of All Time.” A leader in our community, he believes in the power of art and religion to bring people together.”
This year my wife and I will attend the high holy days by watching the virtual video services. Many other Temples and Synagogues also offer video presentations but for me seeing the full service under the leadership of Rabbi Baron ensures another valuable and special experience.
Rabbi David Baron
For more info or to sign up for the virtual services (which can be seen anywhere in the world there is an internet connection) visit the website at TemplefOfTheArts.org or bhtoa.org.