Plan to replicate Polish shul in Berkeley axed by shortfall

A 17th-century wooden synagogue in Przedborz, Poland, was burned down by Nazis in 1942.

Now, widely acclaimed plans by a Berkeley synagogue to build a replica of that fabled shul have fallen victim to a stalled fund-raising campaign.

Congregation Beth Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue with 165 families, has reluctantly scrapped the project after a fund drive fell some $1.5 million short of its $3.5 million goal.

Congregants believed their wooden shul would have been the first in the nation, serving as a gripping reminder of Eastern European synagogues that flourished before the Holocaust.

"The economy being what it is, we were just not able to pull the rabbit out of the bag," said Denise Resnikoff, a Berkeley resident and congregation president.

Faced with that reality, congregants reluctantly concluded that they must move ahead with more-modest plans to rebuild their dilapidated home on Bancroft Way.

Rabbi S. Yair Silverman described the decision as "very difficult."

"The beauty and the significance of the project was one that touched me personally and I believe had impact on the national Jewish scene," said Silverman, who came to the congregation three years ago when the project was already in the works. "But at the same time, one is charged with what's best for our particular community."

Resnikoff said she and other members were "excited" about alternative plans to "rebuild what we hope will be a beautiful, functional, spiritual space for our community."

The congregation is expected to review and vote on a new design within the next six weeks, according to Silverman.

The wooden synagogue project, which was first discussed more than 20 years ago, had drawn support from such luminaries as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and playwright Tony Kushner. Holocaust survivors and their children also showered the congregation with calls and letters.

But despite that enthusiasm, Silverman said, "We had not received any significant external support" for over two years.

Silverman said all those who had made donations and pledges would be contacted again to determine if they still wanted to fund the new project.

"Our hope is that by this October, we'll be able to break ground," he said, noting that the congregation's current 80-year-old home is "beyond repairable."

Some members of the small congregation had worked steadily for seven years on plans to reconstruct the Polish shul in Berkeley.

Built in 1636 on the shore of the Pilica River, the original synagogue was considered a Polish treasure and leading example of a form of synagogue construction once common in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe.

The shul had a 40-foot vaulted ceiling with carved biblical scenes and timbers adorned with jewels.

In 1942, Nazis set it on fire and slaughtered the town's Jewish residents.

Members of Beth Israel discovered old photographs and drawings of the original building, which was a tour stop for non-Jewish sightseers in the 1920s and 1930s.

"It was extremely difficult" to give up the plan, said Resnikoff, a 23-year member of the synagogue. "It was a dream for many of us and as with all dreams, it came with a lot of mourning."

She supported plans, however, to move ahead with a scaled-back design, noting that the current building has structural problems and is "in dire condition."

Last March, the congregation set fund-raising goals for June and October — and agreed to change the project if those marks were not met.

While June's goal was reached, contributions fell short of the needed amount in October, the rabbi said. The congregation's decision was to pursue an affordable option "while honoring the concept of the wooden synagogue."

The congregation's home was built as a Jewish social club and converted into an Orthodox synagogue around 1960.

Silverman said the new building will be built of wood, like the Polish shul.

"We have no intention to try and pass off this building as the wooden synagogue," he stressed. "It will evoke some of those concepts and some of those sentiments, but it will be a distinctly different construction."

And while the wooden synagogue apparently won't be built in Berkeley, Silverman held out hope that it would be constructed elsewhere.

The rabbi said he had talked to members of an East Coast congregation, which he declined to identify, also interested in building such a shul. "Now, since we're not doing it, they feel the imperative to do it even more," he said.

So do congregants of Beth Israel. "Many members of the community want to see this happen, even if it doesn't happen here," he said.