New ark and Torah find home at E. Bay retirement community

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It's taken 18 years, but the Rossmoor retirement community's Congregation B'nai Israel has received its first Torah.

However, the Walnut Creek community didn't need the Torah until recently, said congregation President Gerald Priebat.

For years, the congregation only held erev Shabbat services, which did not require a Torah scroll.

It was only last year, when members celebrated their first High Holy Days on the premises rather than going to another synagogue's services, that the issue arose.

The congregation had to borrow a Torah from another Walnut Creek congregation, so B'nai Israel members Stephen and Betty Loeb began considering giving B'nai Israel a Torah of its own.

A B'nai Israel member for 12 years, Stephen Loeb had been seeking a way to create some sort of memorial to his own relatives and all others who perished in the Holocaust, he said.

A Torah would be an especially fitting tribute, he said, because all the Torahs in the synagogues of his German hometown were destroyed during Kristallnacht.

Stephen Loeb is the only member of his family who survived the war.

"A congregation that did not have a Torah will have a Torah, and I have a memorial here rather than somewhere in Europe," Loeb said.

"It is something that [for] future generations will be a constant reminder that there was a Holocaust."

The Loebs are among the many people who swelled the congregation's ranks after its modest beginnings in 1978. Back then, only a handful of Jews lived in the retirement community, according to founding congregant Ilse Schiff. No one thought the congregation would ever get much larger.

"When we first came, the East Bay was a place no one came to," Schiff said.

Members began a casual tradition of meeting at the Vista Room of Rossmoor's Hillside Complex and conducting services without either a set of Scriptures or a rabbi. The job of leading services would rotate between experienced congregants.

But the East Bay has boomed, and the congregation boasts about 500 members, most of whom are in their early 70s.

Loeb was not the only congregant who offered to donate a Torah — he was simply the first. He narrowly beat out Schiff — another refugee from Hitler's Germany — who offered a Torah as well.

Instead, Schiff is donating an ark in memory of her husband, Dr. William Schiff, who died in 1985. The ark was designed by Bill Chayes, exhibit designer at Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum.

"It's a very fitting memorial for my husband, who was very, very happy here in Rossmoor," Schiff said.

The ark will be custom-designed and portable. Since Congregation B'nai Israel still meets in the same Hillside Complex clubhouse it shares with several other groups, both Torah and ark will have to be carried out at the end of every service.

B'nai Israel dedicated the Torah and the ark during Sabbath services last Friday night.

"I think it's wonderful," congregation member Fred Rau said about the new Torah. "It makes it a complete congregation, even though we don't have a rabbi or a religious school."

Schiff, who says she isn't extremely religious, believes the Torah is what holds Jews together.

"That is what saved me. The world looks on. But we take care of ourselves. We keep Judaism and Jews alive."