Richmond synagogue welcomes former Berkeley rabbi

Richmond, Calif., and the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia lie almost 3,000 miles apart, but to Rabbi Margie Jacobs, their Jewish communities have the same welcoming embrace.

Jacobs, the new spiritual leader at Temple Beth Hillel in western Contra Costa County, spent seven years living and studying in the Philadelphia area and soon became drawn into a tight-knit Jewish neighborhood.

"It's a very small community," said Jacobs, who graduated last year from the nearby Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Many people walked to one of two area synagogues, shopped together at a local store, gathered for joyous occasions like b'nai mitzvah and rallied for families wrenched by hard times.

"It's something that's very impressive, very special to have that sense of community," said the 30-year-old Jacobs. "It is part of what spirituality is about, feeling connected to something that's larger than yourself."

That sense of community is similar to the feeling she's received so far from Beth Hillel, where she recently started working as a part-time congregational rabbi.

Numbering just 100 families, Beth Hillel pulls congregants in large numbers for services and other events, Jacobs has observed. "There are people who have been around the synagogue for 40 years," she said. "A lot of people who built the synagogue are still there. They're very committed to it."

That commitment translates into regular participation in the congregation's twice monthly services — about 60 congregants showed up for an August Shabbat service, for example — as well as a spirit of caring for fellow members celebrating joyous events and coping with calamities.

"People really have the sense of what community is about. They'll show up for lifecycle events and when people are in need," Jacobs said.

A native of the Los Angeles area, Jacobs had worked for a year as rabbi educator at Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom before coming to Beth Hillel. One of her favorite activities there was helping b'nai mitzvah students explore the Torah to find the relevance it held for their lives.

She hopes to do the same kind of instruction with congregants at Beth Hillel.

During Yom Kippur, for instance, she plans to talk about how repentance is "not just an abstract concept, but has real consequences for living our lives in a more sacred way." The process of asking for and offering forgiveness "encourages us to be closer to people in our lives," she said.

While in the seminary, Jacobs won a prize for her study of Chassidism through a feminist perspective.

One of her goals as a teacher, Jacobs said, is to help congregants "locate their own voices" in understanding and discussing the Torah. "That seems to be particularly powerful for women to be able to feel like they can be part of the dialogue in a way that 100 years ago they may not have been able to," she said.

Though trained as a Reconstructionist rabbi, she sees no trouble fitting into Beth Hillel's Reform orientation.

Some characteristics of Reconstructionism — a highly participatory community and an emphasis on ongoing adult learning — are traits she's observed at her new synagogue.

Jacobs replaces Rabbi Shelley Waldenberg, who came to the congregation after retiring from Lafayette's Temple Isaiah. Waldenberg had conducted services and taught adult education for 17 weekends annually at Beth Hillel but had wanted to stop performing Shabbat services.

After lengthy discussions, congregants decided to hire a rabbi half time to lead services, conduct b'nai mitzvah, supervise adult education and perform pastoral work.

"It took awhile to decide that what we really wanted was someone that would fulfill the broad range of functions of a congregational rabbi," said Jan Taksa, the synagogue's president. She noted that Waldenberg was "well-loved" and a "wonderfully gifted teacher."

Among the qualities that appealed to congregants about Jacobs were her interests in teaching, spirituality and women's issues, Taksa said.

"I was attracted to the fact that she had a kind of serenity," added Taksa.

A temple member since 1978, Taksa described Beth Hillel as "the center of my community life as a Jew. Because we're small, everyone participates, everyone's involved."

For Howard Cohen, the cantor and a 17-year member of Beth Hillel, that involvement translated into a major commute.

A former resident of Fairfield, Cohen moved to Davis for 12 years to serve as principal of the high school there. Although a synagogue sat just on the other side of the school's football field, Cohen chose to drive back to Richmond for services.

"These are people who are enormously welcoming and caring and deeply committed," said Cohen, who now lives in Walnut Creek. "You get a sense that you're sort of joining an extended family."