As far back as 1915, a small group of Berkeley Jews had been gathering for Friday night and Holiday services in rented space above downtown stores. It took nearly a decade for them to find a permanent home, but on July 20, 1924, the cornerstone of the Berkeley Hebrew Center was laid at Bancroft and Jefferson Streets in Berkeley.
Most of the founders of the East Bay’s fledgling traditional congregation were immigrants to this country, and nostalgic for the life they had left behind in Europe. They were helped in their attempts to establish a Berkeley base by two of the area’s leading Reform rabbis, Martin Meyer and Louis I. Newman of San Francisco’s Temple Emanuel. Rabbi Meyer served as a trustee as early as 1915; Newman, his favorite disciple, took over upon his death in 1923.
Even with Reform rabbis officiating at services, the congregation itself directed more customary observance, keeping traif out of the kitchen, covering heads during services and utilizing traditional prayer books. (Which is not to say that all was strict orthodoxy. The most popular social activity of the Berkeley Hebrew Center was the Saturday night card game where a significant portion of the pot would go to Jewish charities, along with paying off the shul’s mortgage.)
Over the years, the congregation began to arrange banquets and dances for Jewish students at U.C. Berkeley, and the shul became an occasional meeting place for the campus Menorah Society. These were the steps that eventually helped to transform the synagogue. By the 1950s and ’60s, Cal had grown from a respectable state university to become one of the country’s most prominent centers of academia, in the process attracting eminent Jewish faculty and graduate students. A growing portion of these transplants were disillusioned with the various forms of secular Judaism with which they had been raised, and looked to their time in Northern California—already positioned as a time of educational and emotional growth and learning—to find a more authentic religious experience.
They, combined with those who had come from observant Orthodox homes, fostered a glowing spirit of modern orthodoxy which merged serious Jewish learning with secular studies
It was these faculty and graduate students who set up the Shabbat minyan and pressed for the hiring of a rabbi. Systematic fundraising was established. (Gone was the dependence on Saturday night card games.) Berkeley Hebrew Center was more and more frequently being referred to by another name—Congregation Beth Israel—and in 1963 took the momentous step of bringing on its first full-time rabbi, Saul Berman from Yeshiva University (who also had a law degree from New York University and an M.A. in political science from U.C. Berkeley). It was his vision that guided the subsequent development of the congregation, including the three-times-per-week Hebrew school that soon acquired the reputation of being the best in the East Bay.
Today, CBI maintains the vision of Rabbi Berman and the founders of 1924 alike: a quest for authentic Judaism and kinship with all who share in it.
Photos by Yvette Hoffer, circa 1962.
Past rabbis include:
Saul J Berman