A documentary with a cinematic call to action

New documentary ‘Restoring Tomorrow’ is not only about a Jewish community restoring its former glory; it’s also a director’s plea to the audience to become a force for change.

DIRECTOR AARON WOLF seen in a still from Restoring Tomorrow. (photo credit: Courtesy)
DIRECTOR AARON WOLF seen in a still from Restoring Tomorrow.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Typically, seeing a film is a passive experience: One sits in the dark with strangers and spends two hours escaping from a sometimes harrowing and depressing outside world.
Restoring Tomorrow is not that kind of film.
The documentary, written and directed by Aaron Wolf, tells the story of Los Angeles’s Wilshire Boulevard Temple in three acts – chronicling the iconic synagogue’s creation, deterioration and eventual restoration. In between, Wolf reveals his own personal connection to the building where his grandfather used to command the pulpit.
The temple, the oldest in the city, was created thanks to donations from Hollywood moguls like Irving Thalberg and the Warner brothers, but in recent years, the impressive Byzantine-style structure built in 1928 began to show its age. Plaster fell from its ornate dome, its stained glass windows lost their lustrous sheen and the biblically-themed murals commissioned by the Warner brothers faded into the background.
It’s a phenomenon that is all too common around the world and impacts many faiths and denominations. As younger people disengage from religious life and the older generations die out, there isn’t much left to sustain these places of worship.
Restoring Tomorrow shows that it doesn’t have to be this way.
“I think the millennial generation and Generation Z are cynical of [religion], probably because they were ‘forced’ to go there when they were kids,” Wolf said. “If it’s just about repeating the traditions of the past, then maybe it doesn’t add to your life.”
The fact that millennials are the first generation to basically be raised by technology also exacerbates matters. According to Wolf, that, coupled with increasing negative coverage on a news cycle that thrives on reporting discord instead of harmony, are the two main reasons behind this cynicism.
“I think [those problems] are both falsities,” he said. “I know they’re falsities because I was guilty of the exact same thing. I’m not someone who always felt this way and who thought I always needed the temple. I am an example of what was and what can be.”
Between interviews with senior members of the congregation and its current rabbi, Steven Z. Leder, the film shows the importance of reinforcing the links in the chain of Judaism for future generations and the need to set a positive example.
Thanks to a massive effort in community fundraising on part of the synagogue, the temple was able to raise $150 million to restore the building to its former glory.
Although the film was completed well before last month’s tragic shooting in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Restoring Tomorrow’s message of positivity seems more relevant than ever. It is a message Wolf hopes the audience will take to heart when the film is screened in a one-night only event on November 13.
“When people applaud after a film, that’s fine, but I want people to engage in their community and do things to make their world better,” he said. “I want people to say after this movie, ‘I want to do something. I want to go back to my temple, my church, my YMCA, my place that matters to me and make a difference.’”
The film’s November 13 release date, in which the film screens in approximately 1,000 theaters across the US through Fathom Events, is taking place only a few days after last week’s divisive midterm elections. Wolf hopes the movie will enable viewers to channel that energy into something positive.
“The call to action is not to march or get mad at someone on Facebook, but rather, to do something positive – to be a good ancestor. If we’re fighting, we’re failing,” he said.
While making the documentary, Wolf drew inspiration from the bravery of his grandfather. An immigrant who fled Nazi Germany, Alfred Wolf was a dynamic presence who spearheaded interfaith dialogue across the city and led his congregation to become a bastion of tolerance.
“A big reason why I want this movie to be big and make difference is because I want to honor him in the way he deserves,” he said, holding back tears. “This man came over on a boat to Ellis Island to become a rabbi. The fact that at 19 he was so forward-thinking and immediately wanted to bring people together and work on interfaith relations at such a young age is extraordinary.”
Wolf hopes the film and its release will do justice to his grandfather’s memory, who died in 2004. While obviously Wolf doesn’t know how his grandfather would react if he were to see the film, that if he could be lucky enough to sit beside him in the dark theater, as the credits roll, he hopes the elder Wolf would say, “I’m proud of you. Don’t stop doing what you’re doing.”
In the film, Wolf speaks about his grandfather often and at one point, when asked about the vitality of the future of the Jewish community he quotes him as saying, “You just never know, kid. You just never know.”
While one could easily toss that line right back at Wolf when theorizing what his grandfather would say about the film, after the months Wolf spent honoring the legacy of his ancestors, it is probably safe to say that while the wording may not be totally accurate, the sentiment behind it is right on the mark.
In the new 2018 version of A Star is Born, one of the characters observes, “Music is essentially 12 notes between octaves; 12 notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story, over and over. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”
In many ways, filmmaking follows the same principle – with many stories following the same arc, with little variation in between. What makes a film compelling, then, is how the filmmaker chooses to tell that story.
Wolf’s interpretation of those 12 notes – the creation of something magnificent, its decline, its miraculous restoration and implications for the future – is certainly something to behold.
To order tickets for the one-night only screening of Restoring Tomorrow on Nov. 13, please visit: