Beth Am, congregation of learners, marks 40 years

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Los Altos Hills was still a rural town in the early 1950s, with houses snugly hidden behind fruit orchards. In those days San Antonio Road was a two-lane street lined with apricot trees, and Jews who wanted their children to attend religious school had to send them to San Jose or Menlo Park.

Starting in 1954, Jews from Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Los Altos Hills got together to change that. They formed what would eventually become Los Altos Hills' Congregation Beth Am.

"We wanted a Sunday school, and that was the first thing to happen," recalls Barbara Emerich, who at 76 is still active in the Reform congregation. Emerich's living room was the site of the planners' final meeting before the congregation filed its charter.

Beth Am's Sunday school began operating in the back rooms of a Los Altos Hills office in 1956.

The synagogue is now in the midst of a yearlong series of 40th anniversary celebrations, including the dedication of a new eternal light, a food and folk dance gathering and an interfaith Shabbat featuring the bishop of San Jose.

"We continue to strive for the goal of a warm, inclusive, covenantal community," says Rabbi Richard Block, who came to the temple nine years ago.

The congregation purchased its current site in 1959, now comprising 9-1/2 acres in Los Altos Hills. Facilities include a social hall, offices, classrooms, a library, a youth lounge and a chapel. The sanctuary, constructed so that its 400 seats are surrounded by huge windows rather than walls, embodies the congregation's involvement with the community beyond the synagogue's confines, Block says.

Forty years ago, however, congregants had to rely on the good graces of nearby churches.

The congregation met for services at a Methodist church on College Avenue, at Los Altos Hills' First Lutheran Church and at Palo Alto's First Methodist Church and All Saints Episcopal Church. They held one seder at the local YMCA and High Holy Days services at a Buddhist temple.

"We were the original wandering Jews," recalls 87-year-old Bob Emerich, a retired electronics technician.

"We moved around," Barbara Emerich agrees. "But we were treated just beautifully by the community."

Their first rabbi lasted only a couple of years before the congregation voted him out. Then came what Barbara Emerich calls one of the highlights in the temple's history: the arrival, in 1962, of Rabbi Sidney Axelrod.

"When I arrived, they still held the Passover seder at the Methodist church," says Axelrod, now the congregation's rabbi emeritus.

By the early 1960s, Beth Am had a social hall that doubled as a synagogue. But it wasn't large enough to seat everyone who came to the seder.

At that time, the congregation was still somewhat divided following the ouster of the previous rabbi. To forestall future incidents, Axelrod says, congregants established a rule against personal insults. Anyone who was upset over a particular issue might criticize the issue itself, but must not attack a specific individual who represented the opposing viewpoint.

A conflict arose when donors told Axelrod that certain buildings or items toward which they had contributed should be named after them or their loved ones.

The rabbi settled that conflict by a means almost unheard-of in modern synagogues: No nameplates or plaques were posted anywhere.

"A reporter once told me that when my epitaph is written, that will be one of the more significant items [listed in it]," Axelrod says wryly. "`Whoever heard of a Jewish congregation without names engraved?'" he recalls the reporter asking.

Nevertheless, congregants continued to donate funds toward a new synagogue.

That effort seemed threatened for a few days in 1967 when Israel went to war with Egypt. It seemed that all spare Jewish charity would soon be going to the Israelis. Axelrod remembers his congregants brooding, "There goes our temple."

But that was the Six Day War. In less than a week, money was coming in again for the Los Altos Temple, which finally opened in 1969.

Axelrod likes to recall all the individuals who belonged to the congregation over the years and later went on to become leading influences in the community: Some former students have become rabbis, and congregants Felix Bloch and Josh Letterberg both won Nobel Prizes.

The congregation plans to increase its level of social involvement. Current projects include a program aimed at helping some 400 families who have emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

Congregants also want to deepen and enrich their Jewish knowledge. Block says they wish to be a "congregation of learners, and a learning congregation."