Barbara and I have been married for fifty-nine years now. We are both from rural New England, namely Vermont and western Massachusetts. In 1967 we came here with a new baby, thinking that in two years, we would move on. I was a post doc. I was trained as a physicist, but in the ‘70s I became a nuclear engineer. I have worked to improve the safety of large nuclear power plants all around the world.
We became active in the synagogue in our second year here (1968). A year later, I became a board member. That same year, Barbara was the president of the sisterhood, which at the time was one important and vibrant focal point of the shul. Then in 1971, I became very active in the ritual side of synagogue life. If you go to shul today on Shabbat, we have six men who share the responsibility of being the gabbai in rotation. But back then one person served as the single gabbai every week. From ‘71 to ’78, I was that single gabbai, and then I did it again from ‘87 to ’97. So I was the gabbai for seventeen years. It is fair to say that I have been at the center of the ritual side for a very long time.
Barbara and I have both been on the shul board over the years for extended periods. I was the president for two years from 1990 to 1992. Barbara was also the president for two years, from 1998 to 2000. Most of our close friends are long-term Beth Israel members like us. Which means that all our children went to our Hebrew school together. In those days it was an after school program. The founding rabbi was Rabbi Saul Berman. He was a charismatic leader. He put the congregation together, and he set the tone of a spirit that is still here. A half century later, it has persisted. We have had a lot of great rabbinic leadership after him, including Rabbi Cohen and Maharat Sutton today, but we are lucky that Rabbi Berman initiated that spirit.
Our joining Beth Israel was inspired by Bob. He was more interested in a place with religious practice, so he led the way. Being less experienced with Orthodox ritual and practice, I had a lot to learn. Beth Israel has been a very welcoming and accepting environment for me. There is a kind of friendliness that pervades Beth Israel that is accepting of the different degrees of practice and observance. If you are curious enough, this is a place to learn and understand. If you don’t know which way to go with the level of your observance, there are people to ask — even if you may be asking the dumbest question in the world. Tolerance is a keystone of Beth Israel.
My attraction to Beth Israel has been anchored by the deep and enduring friendships that I have made here and the huge cross-section of people that you may get to know very well. There is a range of observance in Beth Israel, and there is acceptance of differences.
I was a licensed clinical social worker. Like a lot of young people, we moved here with no family nearby. Beth Israel’s members offered us exposure to a full range of ages and different kinds of people, and that was and is a great family for us. We have been exposed to people from all parts of the world. My contact with members has always enhanced my Jewish experience and the rest of my life.
When we joined Beth Israel, the synagogue building was already a very old building, and it declined over the years even more. During my Shul presidency (in the late 1990s) there was a movement to build a replica of one of the beautiful wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe. We were very serious about it, and we had a committee and an architect. One of the thoughts we on the committee had was that not only would this be a way to remember and honor Jewish people in Europe who came before us, but it would also be a way to establish a respectful learning center that reflected older and current Jewish culture. As part of the project, Bob and I went to see the synagogues and the Jewish museums in Poland and Lithuania. But the difficulty and the cost of this dream were too great, and the project did not succeed. I think when it failed the movement to improve the quality of our building took a more realistic path, and now we have our current building.
Beth Israel now (as always) is much more than the dream of a building. It is a warm and caring community that accepts individuals at various stages of religious practice and awareness. Rabbi Cohen offers both intellectual and spiritual guidance to help us to continue our quest. He is a kind and caring guide on this search who is also intellectually able to teach and learn both with scholars like himself and with less Jewishly educated members like me.
An added plus is Maharat Victoria Sutton. She’s present and available in all of the workings of Beth Israel. Having an ordained, educated, contemporary woman as part of our synagogue’s clergy is a special complement to the religious guidance of Rabbi Cohen.
Beth Israel offers the best Jewish experience in the Bay Area. May it continue to succeed.
It’s all there when one wants what is generously offered.