New Orthodox shul launched in Berkeley

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Berkeley, 94707.

It may not be the name of a prime-time television show — not yet, at least. But recently it became the site of a new Orthodox congregation.

And since demographics show that the part of North Berkeley tagged with the 94707 zip code is home to Northern California's second densest Jewish population, members of Ahavat Yisrael believe their new congregation couldn't be better situated.

"Until now, there has not been a synagogue in that zip code," says Miriam Petruck, a member of the Ahavat Yisrael planning committee. "I think it fills a gap."

Of course, Berkeley is home to another Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel on Bancroft Way in the central flatlands, which is led by Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman.

But for those who live in North Berkeley, Albany or El Cerrito and do not drive on Shabbat, getting to the other side of town for services can entail quite a trek.

"We wanted to make their walking commute a little bit easier," says Phyllis Miller, another member of Ahavat Yisrael's planning committee who lives in Lafayette.

A former member of Beth Israel, Miller says she and her husband Edward switched to Ahavat Yisrael because some of their friends were getting involved. Miller also liked the idea of getting involved in grassroots synagogue-building.

She and other members of Ahavat Yisrael — which meets in the Masonic Hall at 897 Colusa Ave. near Solano — believe there's room for more than one Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley and that their congregation has its own special character.

Currently, Ahavat Yisrael has no rabbi, though the congregants are looking for someone to lead them during High Holy Days.

For now, lay leaders not only plan synagogue activities, but also lead services, celebrations and classes on such topics as the weekly Torah portion, 11th-century Biblical commentator Rashi and Pirke Avot, or sayings of the fathers.

"We have people doing everything from shlepping to reading the Torah. It's a group effort," Petruck says.

"We're fortunate in that we have a knowledgeable group of people who can do whatever needs to be done," she adds.

"I think we would all like a teacher; at the moment, we're taking advantage of the talent among us and learning from each other."

Like Miller, some members previously belonged to other synagogues or chavurot. Others were unaffiliated. "People come from a variety of places, including no place," Petruck says.

The synagogue mailing list currently has about 50 households; Shabbat services, which were first held in early May, have attracted up to 65 people, including children.

Before she joined Ahavat Yisrael, Petruck, a linguistics researcher at U.C. Berkeley, had not belonged to a synagogue for years. Along with wanting to be part of a community, "I like the idea of being involved in starting something new," she says.

Two local organizations, Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito and Oakland's Home for Jewish Parents, have lent Torahs to the new synagogue. The congregation has purchased its own prayer books and chumashim.

For her part, Miller is enjoying the synagogue's infancy.

"When people come in, they are made to feel welcome," Miller says. "Sometimes in larger places, you get lost in the crowd. It's a very warm and welcoming place to be."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.