Beth El buys land, plans move to bigger site by 2001

After squeezing kids into its meager classroom space for years, Congregation Beth El will be getting some elbow room.

With new land in hand, Berkeley's only Reform congregation hopes to move into a more spacious building by Rosh Hashanah 2001.

"Every square inch is being used now. Sometimes we have to wake up our nursery-school children who are sleeping to make room for the religious-school children, which isn't easy," Beth El Rabbi Ferenc Raj said recently.

This fall, the 54-year-old congregation will begin a campaign to raise millions of dollars needed for the property and construction.

Its new 2.2 acres of lush, tree-studded land is two blocks north of the synagogue's current two-thirds of an acre, which is almost entirely occupied by its building.

The congregation bought the land last year for $1,265,000 from the East Bay Christian Missionary Alliance. One of the congregation families helped obtain a line of credit.

Construction is expected to cost another $6 million. The existing church will be torn down.

Raj called the purchase a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity in Berkeley, where finding two acres for sale is almost impossible.

The new building will encompass 23,000 to 25,000 square feet, compared to the existing structure's 15,000 square feet.

Harry Pollack, Beth El's president, said his congregation is simply too big for its current site.

Completed in the late 1940s, the building on Vine Street in north Berkeley was meant for a congregation of 250 to 300 households. Beth El now has 600.

A small classroom wing was built in the 1960s to accommodate the growing religious school. But the congregation long ago outgrew that addition.

"We're falling all over each other," said Debbie Leon, a temple vice president who is helping coordinate the construction project. "We use every imaginable space."

About 325 children are enrolled in religious school, which meets on weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Another 65 are in the nursery school. And on Sundays, Beth El hosts Berkeley's Midrasha for about 200 Jewish teens.

All of the youths must try to fit into nine classrooms, plus other ad hoc learning spaces such as a small library.

Even the library is overused, though. About 50 congregants jam that space for Torah study on Saturday mornings. Some end up sitting on the floor. And less than two minutes after Torah study ends, religious-school students pour into the library for class.

However physically liberating the new space will feel, it will also bring an emotional release for some, including Raj. A native of Hungary, the rabbi was one of the Jews saved by diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

"As a child of the Holocaust and later as a young rabbi in communist Hungary, I witnessed the destruction and desecration of so many synagogues," he said.

"You can imagine how blessed and excited I am to be part of a communal effort to create a new house of worship, a center for Jewish living and learning."

Temple leaders rave about the land. Codornices Creek runs through the lot, which is filled with large, old trees.

"You can hear the creek. It's got this private, magical feel to it," Leon said.

The congregation plans to take advantage of the new site's natural beauty and tranquility.

Members, for example, will use the creek for tashlich services at the High Holy Days.

The building itself will be designed to incorporate natural light and create a sense of openness to the outdoors.

"The idea here is a synagogue in the middle of a park and keeping it as park-like as we can," Leon said.

The new site will give the congregation plenty of space for future growth and its first parking lot — a rarity among the Bay Area's urban congregations. But with the expansion, Beth El doesn't necessarily want to attract hundreds of new members.

"Everybody is pretty much agreed that we like our size. Our goal is not to become a much larger congregation," Pollack said.

The land has one other unique feature. It's a city landmark. The first home in Berkeley was built there. The house burned down in the 1980s.

The congregation had been pondering a move for years, Pollack said, but "there weren't any obvious opportunities."

Then about two years ago, the congregation wrote a letter to the missionary church to ask if it was interested in selling any of its land.

The church, which offers services in English and Chinese, answered affirmatively and added it was interested in selling the entire plot.

"Their membership has shrunk over the years," Pollack said.

Escrow closed a year ago. Right now, the congregation is in the early stages of designing the new building.

Moore Ruble Yudell, a Santa Monica architectural firm hired by Beth El, is known for its design of another nearby site, U.C. Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

Beth El's eventual move also means that its current building will be up for grabs.

Temple leaders have spoken informally to a number of organizations, including Congregation Netivot Shalom.

With 350 households, the 9-year-old Conservative congregation long ago outgrew its space for services at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

Ken Schnur, Netivot Shalom's president, said his congregation has been considering Beth El's site. There's at least one catch, though.

"It might be too small very soon," he said.