Wednesday, 27 August 2014 08:18 pm

Past Rabbis

Rabbi Saul J Berman
Rabbi Yosef Leibowitz
Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski
Rabbi Manny Forman
Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman
Rabbi Yair Silverman

Rabbi Saul J. Berman

Rabbi Saul J. Berman
Dear Beth Israelites,

Shellee and I had the great good fortune to be in on the start of the building of a Torah centered community at Congregation Beth Israel.

It was a marvelous conglomeration of extremely diverse Jews. We were the aged and the young, from the retired Weissmans and Mrs. Mittler, to the young children of the Greenberg, Hoffer, Levinson, Markowitz, Miller and Rapoport families, to name just a few. We were bearers of the fullest range of Jewish religious and secular persuasions, from the fully to partially observant, through the searchers to the intellectually and culturally inquisitive. We came from all over North America and countries beyond, attracted to the University or to the climate or to the anonymity or to the ease of the life style. We were town and gown, we were transient and settled. We were Jews, seeking and needing community and spiritual identity.

In the fragile old building of The Berkeley Hebrew Center, declared by President Wayne, in 1963, to be on the verge of total collapse due to a rotting foundation, we began to forge ourselves into a community. Mostly, we shared each other's lives. We rejoiced at weddings and birth celebrations - no, we made weddings and parties for and with each other because we were all so far from family. We mourned together at the tragic premature deaths of Richard Levinson, Shula Goldhaber and Sidney Goldstein. We celebrated grants of doctorates and tenure, and shared sadness at frequent departures. We joined together for Shabbat and Holy day meals, and helped shape the community's children to be good Jews and real mentchen.

In that fragile old building, we learned Torah together. We struggled with texts and with issues of deep meaning, beginners and advanced learners together. We understood that the requisite Kavannah in our Avodah, in the performance of Mitzvot and the engagement in Prayer, could only be achieved through study of Torah and the dialectic of our common struggle to penetrate to the most profound meaning of Godly texts. We understood that the Gemilut Chassadim which united us, reached its highest level of transformational power when it was soundly rooted in Torah's moral teachings.

We watched, participated and argued as the world changed rapidly around us. The Free Speech Movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Soviet Jewry movement, the Six Day War, the emergence of the drug culture, People's Park, the war in Vietnam, the House of Love and Prayer - they all played out in special ways in Berkeley and in the intense Jewish discourse of our community. We understood that Torah had much to teach us about all that was happening in the world, and as we struggled intensely to discover what the holy texts taught, we deepened our love of Judaism and of each other.

It's over forty years later, but the richness of the memories and of the relationships is not faded. That fragile old building may be gone, but the deep love of Torah and of each other that was the soul of Congregation Beth Israel continues to reside within us and to animate the community.

Rabbi Yosef Leibowitz

Rabbi Yosef Leibowitz
An Account

In Hebrew as well as English, the word for story and number are the same. In English it is an account. Numbers are relationships - two is between one and three and halfway to four. One's story also tells about relationship. Numbers always remain the same, stories change in perspective.

I was asked to give an account of my memories with Beth Israel. They are strong, intense and very important to me. The feelings of community, friendship and mutual affection and responsibility remain with me and my children until today.

Eda and I were young when we came. It was my first position. The congregation was also young. They had inherited an old building and a young leadership. Most of the leadership were not veterans of congregational life, and quite a few were surprised that they were leaders in an Orthodox congregation.

Berkeley in those days was just emerging from the sixties. It was still one of the gateways to the cults, a city teeming with challenges, alternative lifestyles and radical politics. It was also a place that many people came to "get away." The turnover in the congregation was very high, mainly because of graduate students but also because of people who moved on. Almost nobody had been born in the area, or had family here. We were challenged to build within it an Orthodox congregation that would speak to all. We did manage to attract many people, the majority of whom had never been members of an Orthodox congregation before.

The Hebrew School was a draw to many people, the services were vibrant, and there was a chance for serious study. But most of all was the concept of community. I truly believed that our task was to bind ourselves together through prayer, study and celebration. People who experienced their lives together through these three elements inherited a rare gift for themselves and their families. It was a gift that was not easily found in the modern world.

This story, however fulfilling, was also attached to a greater story, that of the People of Israel. This was an account that had continued for three thousand years and affected the world in the deepest of ways. It was a story of a People who in the twentieth century faced one of the most challenging periods in their history. We experienced five events, each of which would rate as traumatic, the emergence of Jews from the ghettos, the movement from Eastern Europe to the United States, the attempt in the Soviet Union to wipe out Judaism, the Shoah and the State of Israel. We were products of that history and players in it as well. Our realization of the greater story is what brought many of the families to settle in Israel, including ourselves.

I wish you the best in the new building. The challenge for all of us today is to always be in the correct story, wherever we are. It is not always easy. I know that Beth Israel continues to bring blessings to its members, enrichment to the community and meaning to the many lives that it affects. I wish you the blessing of going from strength to strength.

Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski

Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski
Dear Friends,

I was delighted to learn that Beth Israel is finally completing a new building. The old one, while filled with charm and memories of many years of service, has not been able to fully function as an adequate facility for the needs of a vital kehila. Even during my term as Rav (1985-1987) we used various modular additions as well as dealing with the constant scheduling and maintenance issues.

The Talmud in Brachot 55a notes that usually "First a person builds a home and then brings the utensils inside". In the case of a shul, though, the opposite is often true, the "kaylim" the utensils of programs, services, Torah study and chesed have to precede the four walls. The building is only a structure. What goes into the building is far more important than the enclosure.

I offer my blessings to you that the new Beth Israel building becomes a true spiritual home to your congregation all who come within.

With best wishes,
Rabbi Dr. Joseph S. Ozarowski Executive Director Chicago Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Manny Forman

Rabbi Manny Forman
The most meaningful message that one can offer upon this occasion is contained in Psalm 90 - that is the special prayer of Moses which, according to the Rabbis, was composed upon the completion of the sanctuary in the desert.

It begins with 'O Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations'. It ends 'May thy pleasantness Oh Lord our God be upon us'

When Maxine and I reflect upon our stay at Beth Israel the terms "dwelling place" and "pleasantness" take on special meaning. Rare is the community that is capable of developing a synagogue which combines structure and spirituality, the stability of a "shul" together with the sensitivity of a "shtetl"

Beth Israel has forever remained a model for us, as to what is possible in institutional religious life. In addition and most importantly Beth Israel remains a source of many special personal relationships which have endured to this very day.

B' ahava

Manny and Maxine Forman

Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman

Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman

Thirty-four years ago, I had an interview for what would be my first full time employment, my first grown-up post: Director of the Dormitory at Stern College for Women. It seemed important that my wife take part in those interviews; the work would have to belong to her fully as much as it would to me. Besides, the interview itself meant a chance to meet with Rabbi Saul Berman and Shellee Berman, and that seemed exciting enough even if we did not get the job.

We did get the job, which gave us the opportunity, among other things, to work closely with the Bermans. Perhaps during that first interview, perhaps during those years of working with the Bermans, we learned about their nostalgia and affection for Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. Marilyn and I thought of it as a wonderful place to have the privilege to serve, if the opportunity ever came.

Nineteen years after that interview, we came to Beth Israel; as it turned out, I served as rabbi for the next eight years.

All those years later, the Beth Israel community still had the virtues that Rabbi Berman attributed to it. It remained a place where Jews with powerful intellectual strengths in varied secular fields could commit to Jewish observance with the same intellectual vigor, and yet pray beside other Jews with no intellectual pretensions at all. It remained a synagogue filled with people who passionately disagreed about all sorts of things, but could work together and care for each other nonetheless. A community largely made of people whose lives had changed direction at least once, it, at its best, retained the capacity to welcome other people whose lives had begun to change. As a holy community, whenever it achieved its best, Beth Israel retained all these virtues and more.

The Talmud, in its legal sections, largely consists of unresolved disputes. What sort of a sacred literature consists of arguments without conclusions? Prof. Boyarin, in his Sunday morning Talmud lectures, told us that the anonymous voice of the Talmud seems ill at ease when it seems ready to refute a rabbinic opinion, and most at ease when it can defend all opinions. Though the Talmud knows the law of contractions, and rejects contradictions within any one line of thinking, it loves differing lines of thinking. What he showed us in Halakhic dispute applies in Aggadic even more so. The classical rabbinic Midrashim list different, even contradictory, opinions one after the other, rarely stopping to point out the tensions among them. In the Talmud's narrative sections as well, I have noticed that the leading rabbi's assessment of what to do frequently contradicts that of some other figure, and the voice of the Talmud itself usually does not choose between the assessments. The Talmud has its boundaries, of course, but their breadth astonishes us.

Like the pages of the Talmud, the modern Jewish community reaches towards its ideals when and as it contains many different lines of thought - also different lines of emotion - and still holds together, embraced in the covers of one, large, cantankerous, exciting, challenging, multi-volume book.

May the story go on.

23 Adar 2 5765
April 3, 2005
Eliezer Finkelman

Rabbi Yair Silverman

Rabbi Yair Silverman
Dear fellow Beth Israelites,

Last year on the final day of Pesach 5764 we bid a tearful farewell to our original building, which served our congregation with grace and warmth for over eighty years. We sojourned, prayed, studied, questioned, danced, cried, planned and rejoiced over this past year in construction trailers, Finish halls, senior centers and even in the backyard of our Gan Shalom.

Just last week we celebrated together with the entire Jewish people our birth as a nation. We emerged a united people sharing ancestry, history, God's miraculous exodus, and a collective destiny. As a people full of promise and opportunity, relieved of the constraints of physical worry, we began our journey into the desert to explore and build our community and ourselves. Today, as we enter our new building, we too begin this new journey with much promise and possibility. We enjoy the beauty of our new home and at the same time remind ourselves of the most significant design element which will truly make our new home glorious, the people within. In this spirit, we must acknowledge the strength of the community represented in the countless volunteers who invested thousands of hours considering every detail of this project, the skilled craftspeople who executed the magnificent design, and the visionaries and generous donors who enabled us to arrive at this glorious day.

As a modern orthodox community we are committed to living examined lives where we welcome the occasion to engage our modern identities with our halakhic and religious selves. We are devoted to educating ourselves through a process of free inquiry and open questioning in pursuing our growth with Torah. We are open to the challenge of uncovering our spiritual selves and developing our relationship with God. We are committed to being a part of the Berkeley community around us and caring for the entire people of Israel throughout the world. Our deepest blessing is that we capitalize on our momentum and continue our growth in becoming the warm, engaged, intellectually curious, spiritually inspiring, and caring community which will serve to awaken all of us and the community around us.

Just as when we began the journey out of Egypt we responded with heartfelt song in sincere gratitude to God, so too today we express our thanks to God that we are blessed with the privilege of entering our new home, and we do so with the prayer and hope that we continue to make it a makom torah , a makom teffilah, and a true kehilla kedosha; a place of Torah, a place of prayer, and a true sacred community predicated upon acts of kindness.

Thank you

With the blessings of achieving our greatest heights,

and with profound love,

Rabbi Yair & liana Fodiman - Silverman

1630 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94703   |   Directions   |   Congregation Office: (510) 843-5246   |