Alameda temple marks 75 years as islands Jewish hub

Like any young man becoming a bar mitzvah, Art Kapler was nervous when he stood in front of the congregation at Temple Israel in 1924.

But his bar mitzvah carried extra significance: It was the first one at the Alameda synagogue, which celebrates its 75th anniversary with a dinner-dance tomorrow night.

Alameda native Kapler, 87, remembers his father and other oldtimers building the original synagogue on Alameda Avenue at Oak Street. "It was roughly 85 percent completed" at the time of his bar mitzvah, he said. "I was scared to death no matter where it would be."

At the anniversary celebration, the synagogue will honor "some of the families who have been with Temple Israel for a long time," said Ben Meyerhoff, chair of the event, which is sold out.

These include Kapler and Wil Garfinkle, 82, whose parents helped found the congregation, as well as grandchildren of two other founding families, according to synagogue member Beverly Blatt, who is compiling a history of Temple Israel.

"There's a tremendous amount of continuity" from generation to generation, said temple president Judith Altschuler. Both Kapler and Garfinkle saw their sons and grandchildren become b'nai mitzvah at the synagogue that their parents helped found.

The sense of community is another hallmark, temple members say.

"There are so many of the original people around," said Blatt, a 10-year member who began to research the congregation's history during the planning of the anniversary celebration. "The nature of Alameda is that it's so small [and] people don't leave."

On an island city of 80,000 separated from Oakland by bridges, "historically, [the synagogue] was really the focus of Jewish life in the community," said Rabbi Allen Bennett, spiritual leader since 1996. It's also the only synagogue in the city. While its official name is "First Hebrew Congregation of Alameda," there isn't a second one, said Bennett. Nonaffiliated at first, it became a Reform congregation 15 or 20 years ago.

The temple, which has 140 households, is "as broad in religious practice and scope as you will find in any congregation," said Bennett. Members are "militantly participatory. If there's something to be sung, everyone wants to sing it."

Fourteen families formed the congregation in 1918, said Blatt, completing the original building in 1924. The synagogue was closed during much of the Depression era because of lack of money for operating expenses, although the remaining families tried to keep it open for the High Holy Days.

The temple reopened in 1944. Originally led by a cantor, the synagogue hired its first full-time rabbi, John Zucker, in 1946. He was followed by longtime Rabbi Gunther Gates, who served from 1947 until his death in 1981. His widow, Gretel, is an active member.

Milestones in the temple's history include the 1980 dedication of a new building on Alameda's Bay Farm Island, bordering a park and shopping center. The city of Alameda took the original site by eminent domain, Blatt said, but had a difficult job in demolishing the building because the original congregants had done such a sturdy construction job. The Alameda school district's swimming center is now on the site of the former synagogue.

Much of the historical background was researched in preparation for the dedication of the new building by Bob Garfinkle, son of Wil and Wilma Garfinkle, and Ethel Heskin, a former religious school teacher who died last year, said Wilma Garfinkle.

Embarking on her own historical research, Blatt discovered the minutes of the sisterhood, formerly the ladies auxiliary, for 1924 to 1926. The minutes described visits to a congregant who was ill. Nowadays, the responsibility for visiting the sick is no longer just a women's function, she said.

Despite this and other changes in the role of women, "I don't think there have been that many significant changes" in the congregation in 75 years, said Blatt. "The smallness and the sense of community that existed then" haven't changed.