Rabbi David Baron has many of the same goals for his congregation that any clergyman in America might. He would like to raise funds to replace seats in his sanctuary. He would like to establish a religious school on the premises of his synagogue. He would like, above all, to see more people at Friday-night services.
But as the leader of Temple of the Arts, which has its headquarters inside the Art Deco Wilshire Theatre building in Beverly Hills, Baron has resources that many rabbis would climb Mount Sinai for: mainly a 1,910-seat performance space in which to hold services; a bimah (or altar) designed by an Emmy-winning art director of the Academy Awards; a cantor who played Jean Valjean in Les Misérables on Broadway and this year sang the show’s “Bring Him Home” on the High Holidays “for the troops,” Baron says; and a congregation that includes directors Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes) and Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), Forrest Gump producer Steve Tisch, Seinfeld star Jason Alexander, and Larry King, who helped arrange for Hillary Clinton to orate on Yom Kippur in 2006 (the topic: learning to forgive).
Invited speakers are usually housed at the Four Seasons, because the owners belong to the temple too. “I call over and say, ‘We need a room at the inn,’” says Baron. “It’s nice to have a member in the hotel business.”
Baron has the exceedingly well-groomed visage and piercing blue eyes of an actor. Coincidentally, he appeared as a rabbi in the 2004 film Along Came Polly. (Offscreen he presided over the wedding of the movie’s producer, Stacey Sher, but he insists she still made him audition for the part.) Baron, 56, tends to prefer torn, whiskered jeans to dress pants, and though he grew up Orthodox, the temple is just as relaxed as his attire. He wouldn’t call Temple of the Arts, which he founded in 1992, Reform. “I hate denominations. They’re divisive,” he says. “I prefer to call it religion through the arts.” In other words, he incorporates performing arts into services, and roughly 75 percent of the congregants are in the entertainment business.
Ratner was especially impressed by Baron’s choice of speakers this past Yom Kippur. The rabbi brought in Herman Rosenblat, who survived the Holocaust with the help of a young girl who lived near the concentration camp and threw food to him over the fence. Twelve years after World War II, he was living in New York and was set up on a blind date with the very same girl. They married and are still together. “That would make a great movie,” Ratner says.
Of course, catering to the entertainment industry brings up a host of issues. For instance, the writers’ strike. “I think we all want to see it figured out,” says Baron in his office, a few days before the actual picketing began. “We have a congregation of actors, writers, producers and directors, and we hope it doesn’t last long. I might feel that the writers should get DVD residuals, but I’m not going to make any proclamations. Who am I? I’m just a rabbi.”