Rossmoor group marks 20 years of do-it yourself E. Bay services

In its 20-year history, Congregation B'nai Israel has never held a service at a synagogue, never hired a rabbi or cantor and only got a Torah three years ago.

Yet, the congregation that serves the Rossmoor retirement community's Jewish population has grown from 16 original members to 560 today.

"We have do-it-yourself services," said Dr. Selig Weinstein, 88, past president of the Walnut Creek congregation. "What's nice is everything is volunteer."

Every Friday night, B'nai Israel holds Shabbat services, followed by Oneg Shabbat. For the last three years, the congregation has added High Holy Day services.

But that's it. There are no britot, weddings, bar mitzvahs, Purim parties, Hebrew day school or fund-raising drives.

Services, including the special Shabbat 20th anniversary celebration held on Friday of last week, are held in a multipurpose room at Rossmoor's Hillside Clubhouse.

"It's pretty informal. It serves a social purpose for the Jewish community at Rossmoor," Weinstein said. "It's a way to welcome new residents and see old friends."

Members volunteer to be officers and on the board of directors for B'nai Israel. A rotating group of about 10 people volunteers to lead Shabbat services in Hebrew and English, using a Reform prayer book. There's also a rotating group of greeters.

Others put up decorations and bring food for after the service. A program committee books at least two speakers per month for the post-service hour.

Shabbat services last about 45 minutes. The speaker presentations that follow have been led by residents who might give a talk about an Israeli trip or a Jewish-related topic. Outside speakers have included docents from the Judah L. Magnes Museum and a representative from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Weinstein, a retired physician, said he gave a talk about suicide. "There's a lot of issues covered about health and the arts," he said.

The congregation also publishes a monthly newsletter and makes contributions to local Jewish organizations each year from donations made by congregants beyond the modest $5 annual membership dues.

"We have no overhead," said Fred Rau, past president, who has been a member since he moved to Rossmoor in 1978. "We encourage our congregation to belong to a Jewish temple in the area. We don't want to compete with synagogues."

Close to 200 congregants attended the May 22 celebration, which was led by past presidents and retired lay cantors. Co-founder and first president Tola Bergen delivered the opening address, asking for a moment of silence for the late co-founder Sam Colnon.

"Our idea was that as people got older and couldn't drive at night, they could come to services [by Rossmoor shuttles]," Bergen said. "And that's what happened. It was exciting for me to see that every week we added more and more members. I could never have imagined our little congregation would grow so much."

While Rossmoor has grown to more than 8,500 residents, the Jewish community has expanded to an estimated 800 to 1,000, according to Weinstein, adding that there are no official figures on the Jewish population.

"We are the largest single-denomination congregation on the Rossmoor Religious Council," Weinstein said.

Even with the growth, in a congregation whose members range from age 55 to the upper 90s, the reality is that members die from time to time. At that time, the deceased is honored by the reciting of the Kaddish at a service.

"We all know that life is finite," said Rau. "But we are a vibrant, upbeat community. We don't dwell on these things."

Said Bergen, "I know a lot of people and a lot have passed away. But the atmosphere is very good. People are nice to each other. There's a closeness."