True grit

If Sylvester Stallone ever makes another “Rocky” film, he should rework it as the story of Congregation Netivot Shalom. In its fight for a new synagogue, the indomitable Berkeley shul got knocked down repeatedly, yet every time got back on its feet to fight on and win.

Netivot Shalom is finally ready to start construction on that new synagogue, the first permanent home in the 350-family Conservative congregation’s 15-year history. Getting to this point has been a “nail-biting, sleep-losing, head-balding experience,” according to long-time member (and latent stand-up comic) Charlene Stern.

She’s talking about a seemingly endless trail of snafus that nearly derailed the project, the most recent coming in January when congregants learned at the synagogue groundbreaking they were short a million bucks and had only a few weeks to come up with the cash. (They did.)

It’s possible the shpilkes aren’t over. But given the long strange trip Congregation Netivot Shalom has been on the last few years, a few more knockdowns won’t matter.

Located on University Avenue near Acton, the new synagogue will rise on the site of a former Jay Vee liquor store. Today, the lot looks like Beirut circa 1984. “It wasn’t the pride of the neighborhood,” notes Stern. “It was the embarrassment of the neighborhood.”

But it was “Hello, gorgeous” when the CNS found the 22,000-square foot property for sale nearly four years ago.

The congregation had been holding services at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center and Northbrae Community Church, offering religious school at a different site and housing offices at a yet another location. But congregants finally got serious about building a place of their own, and once the Jay Vee site came up for sale, they started raising money.

“It was step by bloody step,” remembers Mike Irwin, chair of the capital campaign. “But people stepped up.”

At last it was “Shalom, buy it” time, and as of November 2001, the eyesore on University was theirs. “The high point was closing on the property,” says Irwin. “But then, the stock market collapsed, which impacted donations.”

Making matters worse, an appraisal revealed the liquor store “came in valued higher than the amount we would put in to build a synagogue,” says Stern. “So we couldn’t get enough money to go to construction with the bid we had.”

This was true even though CNS enjoyed an all-volunteer design team composed of synagogue members. “We went from slimmed-down to non-fat,” adds Stern. “We had to get the costs down so we could afford it.”

President Mark Privin had a front seat on the roller-coaster ride. “This was a dream for so many people,” he says, “and represented the future of our community. I felt an incredible responsibility to go about it the right way.”

Just when all seemed well, more tsuris. At the groundbreaking ceremony in January, synagogue leaders revealed they were still shy of the necessary funds to do the job. “We got hit with that million-dollar two-by-four,” says Irwin.

But even that wasn’t enough to stop the unstoppable. “It was Jewish true grit,” says Stern proudly. “It meant appealing to the congregation for loans and grants to get us through construction. We did it in six weeks.”

The delay didn’t help. Contractors told synagogue leaders the price of steel was going up, as was the price of lumber (they were told it’s all going to Iraq these days). But the contract with the builders was signed last week. “We’re good to go,” says Stern.

All told, the project will cost an estimated $5.8 million and take 10 months to complete. Unique to the project will be shared space with next-door neighbor, the Berkeley Montessori School (the two will share a common courtyard and will work together on special events).

Still, having fought so much adversity, the principals remain in battle mode, even as they enjoy the sweet sound of jackhammers.

“I’m feeling quite relieved,” adds Privin. “I don’t think it’s over, but I’m ready for the next chapter.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.