Beth Emeks moving campaign is right on the money

The members of Livermore's Congregation Beth Emek are putting their money where their future is.

In a capital campaign to raise $1.25 million for a larger facility, one family donated an automobile to sell because it didn't have the cash. A retired school teacher signed over a mutual fund. And the rabbi and his wife made a 10-year financial commitment.

"Everyone is expected to participate at whatever level is in proportion to their ability to give," said Karen Holtz, board president. "Here in the valley, membership is homogeneous. We don't have a couple of really rich members who can buy us a new building. It's going to take major giving over a period of years."

The 42-year-old Reform congregation, which doubled its membership in the last three years to 140 families, has outgrown its 3,000-square-foot building at the corner of College Avenue and South M Street.

Synagogue members and the board overwhelmingly agreed that the time had come to find a bigger house of worship.

"The community is growing," said Holtz, a Livermore resident for 25 years. "If we don't do this now, we may miss the opportunity to do something significant for the future generation of the community."

When outgoing board president Mariam Miller delivered her state of the congregation speech more than a year ago, her prevailing message was it's time to "move forward."

No one at Beth Emek could have predicted that the membership would step forward with significant donations, literally investing in the future of their religious institution.

The capital campaign, which officially got under way on Rosh Hashanah, has already raised more than $600,000 toward purchasing an existing building or buying land and constructing a new synagogue.

Beth Emek has owned its current building, a converted Baptist church, since the early 1970s. Despite a remodeling job 10 years ago, its size is now inadequate.

The preschool, which can only accommodate 15 children, has a waiting list. Beth Emek's Hebrew school meets at satellite locations, including a Chinese church in Pleasanton. Sunday school has overlapping morning and afternoon sessions. Shabbat service attendance often exceeds the 100-person capacity of the sanctuary.

And what about b'nai mitzvah celebrations?

"We're expecting about 150 guests at my daughter's bat mitzvah in December," said Holtz. "I don't know. It's going to be crowded."

Beth Emek, which has just started working with a real estate broker, wants to at least double its space and have room for expansion. "Everyone's dream is to build and design our own place," Holtz said. "But we may be limited in our funds to build right away."

Long before the capital campaign took on a life of its own, Beth Emek formed a building committee, which hired the Mark Randall Co., a Malibu consulting firm experienced in raising congregational funds.

The first major donation came from the congregation's rabbi, Richard Winer. The 33-year-old East Bay native has been Beth Emek's spiritual leader since 1995. He and his wife, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, the director of education at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, made a 10-year monetary pledge.

"It was more than a commitment," said Richard Winer, who declined to disclose the figure. "We were setting an example.

"This is to some extent a spiritual project," he added. "It involves the future of Jewish life in the Tri-Valley [Livermore, Pleasanton, Dublin] and what our vision for that is."

The consultant referred to the Winer contribution as a "sacrificial gift," which set the standard for many more generous pledges from the congregants.

The campaign has been a methodical, person-to-person solicitation process, rather than by mail or phone. When appropriate, the rabbi joins congregation volunteers making home visits.

Holtz, who has visited close to half of Beth Emek's member households, has only been turned down twice. She expects to complete the campaign early next year. The way things are going, the committee may up the goal to $1.5 million.

A retired school teacher signed over a mutual fund valued at $93,000. "That blew us away," Holtz said. "She wants to see this happen in her lifetime."

A move to an existing building could happen in six months to a year, Holtz said. Buying land and constructing a new facility would take at least two years.

Holtz averages two campaign home visits a week. "This is something I never thought I could do, but I'm not doing it for me. I'm asking for the future of the community," she said.

"It's my obligation to do that because those that came before me did it for my family."