Emek Blockbuster

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Stan Sussman used to go there to rent videos. Now, he goes there to pray.

The building could, in fact, be called Emek Blockbuster, out of respect to its former incarnation. But members of Congregation Emek Beracha, the Palo Alto Orthodox minyan, are just happy to have a home of their own.

And though it did used to be the home of a Blockbuster Video, a Danish furniture store and Paycycle — a business that helps people pay their bills — for the new occupants it is a big step up from the basement of an office building where they used to meet.

The shul first incorporated as an independent organization in 1981.

“We established a small building fund, and years later, we found there was still $75 in it,” said Sussman, a former co-president. “That doesn’t buy very much in Palo Alto.”

The idea was reinvigorated in the late ’90s, and the 110-family congregation launched a capital campaign. The dot-com boom greatly helped in their efforts to raise $600,000, which was added to that initial $75. The money sat in the bank until now.

Jump ahead to Thanksgiving 2003. Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman, spiritual leader of Emek Beracha, said the congregation had been looking for a home for the past five to seven years, but in Palo Alto’s pricey real estate market it was nearly impossible to find something within walking distance for members.

At first, they looked only in their immediate neighborhood. But after so many years yielding nothing, they made the decision to widen their area.

The decision was difficult because it would mean a much longer walk for some members. It was also in the opposite direction of Stanford University, and the minyan has traditionally drawn the more traditional Stanford students for Shabbat services. However, the fact that Stanford Hillel would soon be having its own new space made the change easier.

A member happened to see the “For Sale” sign at 4102 El Camino Real, posted only a few days earlier. “I came on the Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we had more people come on Thanksgiving, and then a week later, we were putting together an offer,” said Feldman.

It wasn’t quite that easy, though, as some zoning issues had to be worked out with the city. As per the prior owners’ request, “this had been identified in the city’s plan as being dedicated for housing,” said Sussman. “He was hoping to build condos on the property.”

Because the city had designated the site as part of its housing inventory, “this might have been a deal-breaker,” said Sussman. “But after some protracted negotiations with the city, they did grant us the use permit.”

The facade of the building hasn’t changed much from its strip mall origins, but the property came with all the all-important criteria: most importantly, the 28 necessary parking spaces as regulated by the city of Palo Alto’s zoning restrictions.

Then, some interior redesigning took place. The shul moved in before High Holy Days in 2004.

The new space is a “healthy step up” in terms of space, said Feldman; they had 3,400 square feet in the old place and now have 5,700 square feet.

“There’s something really nice about having a facility where your community has lifecycle events that evolve around it,” said Jonathan Novich, a co-president. When the lifecycle events of the congregation “all take place in the same setting, there’s a certain connectedness that you didn’t have the same way when it was the basement of an office building. The memories become part of that building, and that’s why having a building of our own is so special.”

“After 25 years,” he said, “it’s really nice to have a place we can call home.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."