Beth Israel celebrates 75th year — and future

Fingering a hole in the stucco walls of Congregation Beth Israel last month, Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman was inspired by the words of Agatha Christie.

"Christie once claimed," the rabbi said, "that she married an archaeologist, because the older she got, the more interesting she became."

And if history is beauty's benchmark, then with its worn wooden floors, cracked ceilings and chipped paint, Beth Israel may be the supermodel of Bay Area synagogues.

The Berkeley synagogue, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, is planning a celebration dinner on Sunday, Jan. 23, highlighted by the appearance of Saul Berman, Beth Israel's first rabbi and now a leading voice of modern Orthodoxy.

Yet even as the synagogue celebrates its past, it will be saluting its future. The existing building, which is seismically unsafe, is due to be replaced in the next five years by a replica of a 16th-century Eastern European wooden shul. The shul reflects more than just history, however. According to many of the congregants, it reflects the communal roots that have been the synagogue's hallmark since its inception.

"I will always remember the texture of Beth Israel," said Berman, during a phone interview from his home in New York, where he is an associate professor of Jewish studies at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University. He served Beth Israel, which had previously been lay-led, from 1963 to 1969.

"I have floor rubbings of the synagogue hanging on my wall," he said. "It reminds me that Beth Israel has always been about continuity. When I first came to the synagogue, what really impressed me was the relationship between the younger and older generation. It was really a wonder to behold, and it provided a framework for future generations."

Friedner Wittman, who was part of the youth brigade that joined the synagogue in the '60s, concurred. "Beth Israel has always been an extended family," he said. "It's ingrained in the synagogue's history. No matter where people are at, Beth Israel tries to meet them halfway."

That trait has helped the 200-household synagogue thrive, as it adheres to traditional customs in perhaps the most liberal city in the country.

"We have the courage to be non-progressive," Finkelman said laughing. "Actually, the synagogue really reflects its constituency, and Berkeley residents are seekers, Often times, the congregants have spectacular secular educations but are looking for a more intense Jewish learning experience."

One such congregant is retired U.C. Berkeley history Professor Sam Haber. He has been a member of Beth Israel for more than 40 years.

According to Haber, before the arrival of Berman, the synagogue was a lively meeting place: long on great food, all-night poker games and bull sessions, but short on Torah studies.

"We did, however, have outstanding fund-raisers," Haber said. "One guy in particular — his name eludes me — was exceptional at it. Every time we fell short of our goal, he would march up to the bimah and dramatically announce that he was leaving the synagogue. And, guaranteed, he would repeat the act the following week."

Berman, said Haber, sparked a renaissance that combined spirituality with intellectual discourse — which has served the synagogue well, given the prevalence of professors and students in its ranks.

"Ever since the mid-'60s, I'd say Torah study has been the anchor of the synagogue," Haber said. "Beth Israel has been a place where Jewish history really comes alive, and is placed in context. For example, every month we host something called the 'psalminar,' where we discuss the Catholic, Lutheran and Jewish [interpretations] of the psalms. I think the intellectual tradition of this synagogue is one of its most unique qualities."

Another endearing quality is the synagogue's strong social fabric, notes Sondra Markowitz, who established the synagogue's first sisterhood in the early '60s. "The late '50s and early '60s really saw a groundswell of hungering for tradition," Markowitz said. "The older congregants had built the foundations of a great synagogue — here was a whole megillah of Torahs, but they were never used."

During that time period, Markowitz also became one of the original members of the "Flying Mitzvah Squad." which assisted other congregants during periods of illness, bereavement or childbirth. The Flying Mitzvah Squad was an early incarnation of the philosophy that has undergirded Beth Israel's reputation as the "neighborhood synagogue."

"Shifrah-puah is a very big deal at Beth Israel," Finkelman said. "Every time a woman gives birth — and since we're a traditional synagogue, it's usually a woman — members of the congregation cook meals for her for the next couple of weeks. That's been going on for many years before my arrival, which was almost eight years ago."

If Beth Israel is draped in history, however, it's also a congregation that doesn't skirt topical issues. Such as cross-dressing.

"Well, it wasn't really as sexy as it sounds," demurred Finkelman, who conducted a lecture on the subject two years ago. "There are a couple of references to the subject in the Talmud, so I thought we could discuss it."

After being pressed on the subject, Finkelman admitted that the congregation hadn't arrived at any concrete conclusions. "What was finally decided was that if something caused a frisson, the Torah probably forbids it."

When asked for a translation, the rabbi laughed. "Frisson," he said, "is a French word meaning 'shiver of excitement.'"