Peninsula synagogue rebuilds foundation from ground up

The old cushion chairs may seem a bit out of place — but they'll be replaced in time for the High Holy Days.

So will the ark, the Torah reading table and even the ner tamid.

"We still have some work to do," said Sari Kaplan, past president of the newly renovated Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. "But we've come so far, I know we'll get there."

Even when forced to use a temporary makeshift kitchen — actually a coatroom stocked with a freezer and refrigerator — congregants are "making do," Kaplan said.

"Somehow you just make it work," she explained. "Just like we made it work without a building for nine months."

Other finishing touches are being put on landscaping, furnishings and the addition of a fountain for the courtyard.

After the million-dollar renovation began in September 1999, the Peninsula Jewish community extended a generous hand, allowing Sinai to hold services, b'nai mitzvah and religious-school classes at its various facilities.

This was particularly helpful, said Kaplan, since construction began just before last year's High Holy Days.

"We were all over the place," said Kaplan. "But now, with the high holidays coming up again, we will all be back together."

She added: "It was a really nice experience to see how the community helped us. Everyone cooperated and got along."

The juggling act ended in late April when hundreds of Sinai congregants carried sacramental Torahs from the Jewish Day School of the North Peninsula through the Foster City streets and into the renovated synagogue.

Additional classrooms, a library waiting to be filled, event space and an enclosed courtyard greeted them.

The sanctuary, which once doubled as a social hall, was beautified and a separate wing with administrative offices was added.

Marching into the renovated site was a "goose bump kind of a moment" for Kaplan.

"For months and months I had been over there — watching [the renovation] happen," said Kaplan, "but it didn't really hit me until I walked inside for the first time. I had…tears in my eyes."

The decision to enhance Sinai had its genesis in 1995, when congregants began realizing they had outgrown the 8,500-square-foot building.

"It became self-evident," explained Joel Cohen, who along with Alan Jaffe served as co-chair of the renovation building committee. "Even the religious school was jam-packed with kids."

Four years of planning and fund-raising went into the project before the construction company finally broke ground in 1999. The plan, designed by Sonoma architects Marcus and Willers, preserved portions of the original structure and added 6,000 square feet of additional space.

"We felt as though a number of the buildings in our temple meant something to the members," Cohen explained of the decision to preserve certain buildings.

The renovation was almost entirely paid for through a capital campaign, run by synagogue members Martha Branitsky and the late Jeff Pelzner. The campaign raised $800,000.

"Now everyone feels like they gave," said Branitsky. "We pride ourselves on being a really haimish congregation where everybody is involved in the congregation's projects."

A memorial fountain, to be placed in the new courtyard, will be dedicated to Pelzner. He passed away shortly after the groundbreaking.

"It's a shame he couldn't see the fruition of his work," said Kaplan, "but he'll definitely be remembered. Everybody thinks of him when they walk in. He's in the walls."

And as one glimpses upon the synagogue's renovated walls, floors and ceilings, it's hard to imagine the spacious 14,500-square-foot building was once a tight fit for the congregation's 200 or so families.

"We're kind of in that stage where everyone's getting used to the new building," said Kaplan. "We were just so cramped before.

"Now we have space to grow into."