From the barn to its current digs, Temple Isaiah grows

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At first it seemed as if there were no Jews to be found.

Then in July 1951, Mimi Epstein, new to Pleasant Hill, read an ad in the local paper, the Walnut Kernel, publicizing a meeting of Jewish women at the Diablo Country Club. The League of Jewish Women was formed and in short order about 60 Jewish families came out of the woodwork from all corners of Contra Costa County.

They were searching for community. Little did they know they would soon become the charter members of Temple Isaiah of Contra Costa County.

Their first task was to establish a Hebrew school for the kids. It met on Sundays at Lafayette Town Hall, "an old rickety barn with a hayloft," said Lee Perlman, whose three children attended classes there.

"We were all young couples with children, after the war, looking for a way to affiliate and to give our children a Jewish education," said Perlman, who lived in Lafayette at the time and is now a resident of Rossmoor. "The whole community really worked hard to get that going."

As Temple Isaiah's 50th anniversary celebration winds to a close this month, culminating in a dinner bash tomorrow evening at the Claremont Resort and Spa in Oakland, many of the temple's charter members have been reflecting on its humble and collective beginnings.

For instance, every Sunday before the children arrived for Hebrew school at the barn, the men would carry in large, heavy wooden partitions to divide the space into classrooms.

"There were a lot of complaints from the men who took turns moving them," remembered Epstein, who now lives in Alamo. "But the desire for education was very strong. Among the complaining there was also joking."

So in November 1952, when Planter's Dock, a Polynesian-style restaurant in Lafayette went into foreclosure, the men and women jumped at the chance to purchase the building and its 13-acre property for $53,000.

The temple has since expanded around and beyond Planter's Dock several times to accommodate its growth from 60 member-families to almost 900. The original building, which sits on a large piece of hilly land with expansive views of Mount Diablo, now serves as offices.

It was the charter members who raised the money to buy the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center — renamed Temple Isaiah a couple of years later — and stripped the building, cleaned it and did some initial remodeling. The women regularly volunteered their time to cook the food for the gatherings, including fashion shows, community seders and goodwill projects.

Everything, explained charter member Irving "Bud" Leiber, was very "hands on," which created a special closeness among the founders.

"The people who formed Temple Isaiah were a very terrific group of people," said Leiber, a resident of Walnut Creek. "They not only established a temple, but they established a culture of relationships and a community. These people were not a bunch of ordinary Joe McGees."

There were also a lot of standout characters at Temple Isaiah.

Al Baer, who ran Orinda's shoe store, for instance, was a veteran of World War II and the temple's shofar-blower for 34 years. A metal art rendering of his shofar, commissioned by his family, now hangs in the temple's adult lounge. His widow, Ellen, a Holocaust survivor, keeps her late husband's original shofar in her home and plans to pass it down to her grandson.

"At one point we were given the chance to relocate to Tennessee and we turned it down because we had finally put down roots in this country, which was terribly important to us," said Ellen Baer, who lives in Walnut Creek. "Temple Isaiah was our Jewish home. It was our community. It was there in good times and bad."

The temple brought on its first rabbi, Bernard Ducoff, in 1955. After his departure two years later, the temple joined the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, where it has remained.

While the founders contributed to the temple's beginnings, charter member Fred Katzburg, who lives in Walnut Creek, said Temple Isaiah has been very fortunate to have "some very fine" spiritual leaders — including current Rabbis Judy Shanks and Roberto Graetz — who have propelled the temple forward in recent years.

Katzburg, who first moved to Pleasant Hill from Oakland, said he derives "some of the greatest pleasure" from watching attendance at religious services grow, and grow with enthusiasm among the participants.

He is also pleased with the temple's dedication to social action, including a recent Mitzvah Day that drew more than 700 congregants.

"There continues to be tremendous involvement by the membership of Temple Isaiah," he said, "even as the temple has grown."

And though many of the founders admit they were slightly nervous when Temple Isaiah began remodeling its 1960s-era sanctuary last year, they are all now optimistic that the outcome will be positive. "It will come up bigger and better," said Baer.

Epstein agreed. Her son's bar mitzvah was the very first — and the first service — to be held in the sanctuary. She remembered that at 6 p.m. they were "still sweeping out the paint and cement before my son's bar mitzvah. I was completely reminded of that when they began the remodeling process" a year ago.

Before the sanctuary was built, services and most other functions were held in the old Planter's Dock building.

"Planter's Dock happened to be the first restaurant I ate at when I arrived in California," noted Epstein. "I was staying in the motel next door."

She never could have guessed the rest.