After debacle, Beth El breaks ground on its new home

It took seven years, a cast of hundreds, an untold amount of volunteer hours, teams of professionals, funds running into the millions of dollars and enough paper to build a stairway to heaven, but on Sunday, Berkeley's Congregation Beth El held a much anticipated groundbreaking, marking the beginning of construction of its new synagogue.

As seven congregants plunged gold-painted shovels into a mound of soil, the crowd of about 400, which included Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and former Mayor Shirley Dean, broke into cheers and applause.

Although the groundbreaking was largely a symbolic act — actual construction of the synagogue isn't expected to begin until late summer — the ceremony marked the end of the congregation's lengthy struggle to obtain the necessary permits and approvals from the city and to get neighbors to sign onto the project.

"Like so many others, I felt connected to many generations across the world through time and geography who have planned and built synagogues. That was our inspiration," said Harry Pollack, who was the congregation's president at the time of the project's inception and has been a driving force throughout. "We all felt honored to be part of this terrific, talented, committed team that brought us to this day."

During the service, Buddy Warner, the congregation's immediate past president, presented the synagogue with one of his most treasured family possessions — an inscribed trowel. The trowel had been given to his grandfather, a Russian emigre, on the occasion of the groundbreaking of the first synagogue in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1929.

"We celebrate the past and anticipate the future," Warner said.

The new synagogue will be located on a two-acre piece of land at 1301 Oxford St., one of the few undeveloped plots in Berkeley. Having long ago outgrown its current building at Arch and Vine streets, Beth El bought the land from the Chinese Alliance Church in 1997 with the dream of building a new synagogue. But as soon as Beth El went public with its plans, neighbors organized to oppose it, raising a multitude of objections, including traffic congestion and parking, to the preservation of Codornices Creek and protection of the steelhead trout, which the creek once hosted and may return one day.

For months, Beth El representatives met with the newly formed Live Oak Codornices Creek Neighborhood Association to find solutions to serve everyone's interests.

Environmental impact reports were prepared, traffic studies were commissioned, plans were drawn and redrawn. Multiple hearings were held before the Zoning Adjustments Board, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Berkeley City Council. A mediator was called in and marathon negotiating sessions were held. Plans were modified, commitments were made to protect the creek and plant native vegetation, and hours of use were determined. Finally, on Sept. 13, 2001, with the neighbors' agreement, the city council unanimously approved the project.

For the past 21 months, Beth El has been finalizing the plans and obtaining construction permits, said Michael Fajans, chair of Beth El's design committee. A few weeks ago work began to grade the land, stabilize the creek banks and install utilities.

"The neighbors have been involved throughout permit process. We've had meetings with community people and taken their input," said Fajans who expects that the building will be completed by fall 2004 at a total cost of $11 million. "They've calmed down, but they're still quite cautious and watching construction to make sure there are no violations."

Beth El will abide by all of its commitments to area residents, Fajans said, pointing out that the synagogue changed the date of the groundbreaking so as not to conflict with the Live Oak Fair. And Beth El is doing what it can to be environmentally friendly, he added.

"We're doing green heating and cooling systems," said Fajans.

Wells, approximately 300-feet deep, are being dug. Water will be run through them to heat the building in winter and cool it in summer. "It's a geothermal heating and cooling system. It's more ecological and will reduce energy consumption by approximately 50 percent," he said.

An added benefit of the geo-thermal system is that all the equipment will be in the basement rather than on the roof, thereby reducing noise.

Although there was no sign of any controversy at Sunday's groundbreaking, Odette Blachman, who spoke during the hour-long ceremony, remembered the protests surrounding the construction of Beth El's current home in 1950, and again, years later when it was expanded. Blachman was one of the congregation's founders.

But on Sunday, the mood was joyous, as young and old, and even some of the neighbors, came to celebrate the occasion. Children ran around and climbed on the bales of hay that, along with yellow tape strung between poles, framed the area of the proposed building. Signs marked where the sanctuary, library, classrooms and other spaces would be built. Cookies and punch were served in the area that will eventually house the new kitchen.

"This is very good for the community," said the Rev. Marvis Peoples of the Liberty Hill Baptist Church, located in west Berkeley, who was in the audience. Peoples was a big supporter of the project. "I'm so excited. It's like I'm a part of this. It's important to us because our tradition comes out of this. [Judaism] is the mother of our belief."

And lest there be any lingering concerns about Beth El's intentions to stand by its commitments, Martin Dodd, the incoming president, closed the ceremony by thanking the neighbors for their cooperation.

"We look forward to being good neighbors," he said.