Berkeley shul-closure has silver lining for new high school

Little more than three years after its inception, Berkeley's newest Orthodox synagogue has disbanded.

Ahavat Yisrael, once a vibrant, 30 member-family shul, officially closed its doors because of declining membership, according to former synagogue president Noah Alper.

"It's a little disappointing that we didn't expand and grow as we originally thought we would," he said, "but we are very pragmatic people. We decided to go our various ways."

But with every ending comes a new beginning.

The synagogue recently arranged a permanent loan of all its cash and non-cash assets to the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, slated to open in Tiburon this fall before an intended move to San Francisco.

The school will receive supplies and furniture such as prayer books, a bimah and chairs. The shul's remaining financial savings will help fund a scholar-in-residence program at the school, featuring nationally renowned Jewish educators.

"Our closure dovetailed nicely into providing an initial boost to the high school," said Alper, the co-founder and board president of JCHS. "It provides an interesting and nice ending to our shul."

Most of the member families joined other Orthodox synagogues in the area, including Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley and Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland. Some have joined Berkeley's Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom or have opted not to affiliate at this time.

When Ahavat Yisrael came on the scene in 1997 it filled an important gap, being the only "traditional shul in North Berkeley," according to Alper.

Not only was it a short walk for its members — many of whom had previously embarked on the much longer trek to Beth Israel on Bancroft Way, or had been unaffiliated — but it was lay-led and consisted of a small nucleus of families. Therefore, it was easy for everyone to get involved, including the kids, who sometimes led portions of the Shabbat services.

"Because we operated with rabbinic leniency, we sometimes counted a 10th into the minyan who was underage," added Alper, noting, "at one point my 13-year-old wanted to join our board of directors."

Even the adults had the opportunity to learn and grow in their Judaic practices.

"We were forced to do a lot of things in the morning and evening services that we wouldn't have normally done because we were a small group," said Alper. "As a result, we became a very cohesive community."

Shabbat and holiday services were held at the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center, where Conservative Netivot Shalom concurrently held its services. The two synagogues often held joint holiday programs and joint onegs, allowing "Jews of different denominations to get together," said Alper.

In the last year, however, membership at Ahavat Yisrael began to decline dramatically. Alper believes there were a few contributing factors.

Some families, he said, were never quite comfortable with the mechitzah — the divider that separates men from women during services. "It does present a barrier to some people. We had one because we wanted to be traditional, but it's not for everybody."

He also believed that the hiring of a new spiritual leader at Beth Israel, Rabbi Yair Silverman, may have drawn members away.

Toward the end there were not enough men to hold a minyan — a major problem — and the workload was beginning to fall on fewer and fewer people.

The board, with consultation of members, decided it was time to close.

"I miss it," said Alper, who now embarks on the 45-minute walk to Beth Israel, rather than the 15-minute stroll to the JCC, for services.

"But," he added, "I'm glad that the high school is the beneficiary of our closure."