Congregation rises from ashes of defunct Bnai Israel

When South San Francisco's Conservative Congregation B'nai Israel shut its doors last spring after 85 years, Betty Benjamin felt like she was losing her home.

But it didn't take long for the Pacifica resident and other former members of B'nai Israel to find a new place of their own.

Less than eight months after the synagogue disbanded, a new congregation has risen to take its place. Called B'nai Tikvah (children of hope) the synagogue has the same haimish (friendly) feeling, members say. And, most importantly, it has the same spiritual leader as B'nai Israel — Rabbi Malcolm Cohen.

When B'nai Israel disbanded, Congregation B'nai Emunah in San Francisco offered to absorb the 55 remaining member families in a merger. But only a handful of families joined B'nai Emunah, in part because B'nai Emunah could not offer Rabbi Cohen a pulpit.

"We didn't want to go with the merger," Benjamin said. "We've been in close association with Rabbi Cohen a long time. We spent 27 years at B'nai Israel.

"Rabbi Cohen performed our son's bar mitzvah and wedding. It was hard to see B'nai Israel close."

Benjamin, like many former members of B'nai Israel, remained unaffiliated until an effort to rebuild a congregation around Cohen's leadership began. However, it was spearheaded not by a congregant, but by former B'nai Israel organist Roseleaf Reed.

Currently an organist at the Aldersgate Methodist Church in South San Francisco, Reed provided the introduction necessary to rent the church's social hall on Friday nights. The opening also provided Cohen with a new pulpit.

"There were a lot of members who wanted to support Rabbi Cohen," said Benjamin, who serves as the congregation's secretary.

Since December, the congregation — about 30 families — has met on the first Friday of each month at the South San Francisco church. Most are former members of B'nai Israel.

There is no Torah, no eternal light, not even a full board of directors. The congregants sit on folding chairs and read from the old B'nai Israel prayerbooks.

Despite the makeshift setting, Cohen is working hard to make Aldersgate a home for his emerging congregation.

"It's difficult to work this way, but we do a traditional Friday night service anyway," Cohen said. "We commemorate yahrzeits. I bless people on their birthdays and anniversaries. We do kiddush. We light candles."

The congregation's orientation could be described as "modern Conservative," Cohen added, but is listed in the Jewish Bulletin as Independent.

"I can't predict where this will go. We want it to grow. But we need members."

In hopes of attracting families and "keeping Judaism affordable," B'nai Tikvah has kept its dues low at $5 per person per month, Benjamin said. Cohen hopes to conduct weekly services again as membership and finances grow.

"We want to be open to everyone," he said. First, Benjamin added, "We need to make our presence known."