Tuesday, 11 March 2014 01:50 pm
Continuing the Beth Israel Legacy
By Sam Haber
There is an aura of the miraculous that sometimes surrounds the establishment of a synagogue - something like the wonderment at the birth of a baby. One can know the whys and wherefores that led up to it, yet the event itself is still astonishing. Looking over the documents of the dedication of the Berkeley Hebrew Center in 1924 it is easy to see that sense of wonder shared by the founders. As far back as 1915, a small group of Berkeley Jews had been gathering for Friday night and Holiday service in rented space above stores in the Downtown area. However, attendance fluctuated sharply and most of those who came were not drawn from the well-to-do section of society. Nonetheless, this group of Jews was determined to create a permanent house of worship. By July 20, 1924 the work was completed and the cornerstone laid at Bancroft and Jefferson Street in Berkeley.
What sort of Jews were these founders? Perhaps they could most accurately be described as the "Jewish" Jews of Berkeley. They openly asserted their Jewish identity, and were willing to give their energies to enriching Jewish life. This brought with it significant costs. There was an upsurge of anti-Semitism in the '20s. In the same year that the synagogue was built, Congress passed a law restricting immigration, and particularly from those lands from which most Jews were coming to this country. The Ivy League schools established Jewish quotas for admission, as did most medical schools. Henry Ford, one of the most admired and powerful of Americans, opened an anti-Jewish campaign, printing and distributing widely the scurrilous anti-Semitic forgery, "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," through his privately owned newspaper. Outspoken Anti-Jewish sentiments increasingly could be found in lower class circles and became a whispering campaign among the genteel. Openly affirming one's Jewishness in 1924 required some spunk and a bit of stubbornness.
For the most part, the founders were immigrants to this country, nostalgic for the life they had left. Although they had not been part of the leadership of the traditional Jewish community in Europe, they still brought with them a love of its customs. Perhaps it is surprising to find that they were helped in their attempts to establish traditional Judaism in Berkeley by two leading Reform rabbis, Martin Meyer and Louis I. Newman. Both were eminent leaders in San Francisco's Temple Emanuel and both were dismayed to find so many of their congregants slipping away from Jewish identification. They took delight in finding Jews in the Bay Area who were moving in the opposite direction. As early as 1915, Rabbi Meyer served as trustee of the East Bay's fledgling traditional congregation, and his favorite disciple, Newman, then a graduate student in Semitics at UC Berkeley, served as the congregation's student rabbi. At first, the Friday night service resembled Reform practice: prayers and then a lecture, followed by concluding prayers. However, the High Holiday services were clearly closer to Orthodox practice. After Meyer died, Newman took over some of his guiding role, until he left in 1929 for a congregation in New York.
Even when these Reform rabbis served as trustees and occasionally officiated at services, the congregation itself pulled in the direction of customary observance. "There will be no traif in the kitchen," they announced. Heads were covered during services and traditional prayer books were used. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ritual was close to Orthodox practice. A Hebrew school was set up to educate the Jewish children of the community, and it had a somewhat sporadic history. Admittedly, the most popular social activity of the Berkeley Hebrew Center was the Saturday night card game, but even here a significant portion of the "pot" would go to pay off the mortgage of the shul and for worthy Jewish charities. They were proud of their outreach to the University students in Berkeley. The congregation arranged banquets and dances at which Jewish student could meet and become acquainted. The shul became an occasional meeting place for the campus Menorah Society. Yet, amidst these many varied achievements, the Berkeley Hebrew Center was beset with a significant failure.
For the most part, the members could not attract their own children to the life of the synagogue. It was the Berkeley Hebrew Center's efforts to promote Jewish life on the University campus that helped transform the synagogue itself. In the '50s and '60s, the University of California had grown from a pleasant and respectable state university to one of the most prominent centers of academic learning in the country. This brought to Berkeley some eminent Jewish faculty and a large group of first-class Jewish graduate students. Some of these faculty members had become disillusioned with the various forms of secular Judaism to which they had given their allegiance, and were looking for a more authentic religious experience. Many of the graduate students had come from observant Orthodox homes and brought to the Congregation a level of learning and practice that greatly enriched congregational life. These students and faculty embodied the spirit of Modern Orthodoxy, the endeavor to combine serious Jewish learning with secular studies. The one shortcoming of this influx was the transience of an important part of the synagogue membership that it brought with it. The comings and goings of graduate students and, to a lesser extent faculty, gave a degree of an instability to long-term congregational life that Beth Israel continually had to counterbalance.
It was these faculty and graduate students who set up the Shabbat minyan and pressed for the hiring of a rabbi. That meant important changes, the most immediate of which was an increase in dues and the setting up of a systematic fund raising that would displace the dependence on the gleanings of the Saturday night card games. Of more fundamental importance was the decision that this rabbi should be Orthodox. This brought less dissension than might have been expected, for many of the "old timers" considered themselves Orthodox, in their fashion.
The coming of Rabbi Berman and his wife, Shelley was a turning-point in the history of Congregation Beth Israel, as it was now more frequently called. Much of the subsequent development of the congregation was along lines that he laid down. His intelligence, energy and wit made him an immensely attractive leader. Even more important, his confidence in who and what he was allowed him to interact openly with this babel we affectionately call Berkeley. Within the congregation he welcomed members with various levels of observance, but always tried to lead then to more exacting knowledge and practice. He transformed the Sunday school to a Hebrew school that met three times a week and provided more rigorous Jewish learning. He hired Pinchas Bak as educational director, who brought a spirit of adventure and joy to the school. Soon the Beth Israel Hebrew School acquired the reputation of being the best in the East Bay. Many parents seriously concerned with their children's Jewish education joined the synagogue for that reason.
The wonderful rabbis who followed in Berman's footsteps may have shifted course somewhat to adjust to shifting conditions. The Hebrew Day School rather than the Hebrew school, for example, has become the locus of rigorous Jewish education in the East Bay, and systematic Jewish education for children no longer has the central place it once did in our synagogue life. Yet looking back at the broader continuities of our history from at least 1924 to the present, we can discern a legacy that we can bring with us into our new synagogue building. The founders of 1924 and we of the present day are justly proud of the house of worship that we have built. All three generations were aware and continue to be aware that within such structures it is always the people of the congregation and their spirit that is uppermost—a spirit that is in quest of an authentic Judaism and at the same time welcoming all who share that quest.