Temple Beth Jacob’s rise from the ashes

Hans Cohn remembers the day Nazi thugs torched his synagogue in Berlin. Firefighters promptly arrived on the scene — and did nothing. All they were concerned with was that the fire might spread to nearby houses.

But, what Cohn remembers most about that day was his synagogue’s cantor racing headlong into the burning building and rescuing the Torah.

Four decades later, it was Cantor Hans Cohn’s own synagogue, Redwood City’s Temple Beth Jacob, that was ablaze. And the cantor recreated his own childhood memory, racing into the roaring flames to recover the Torah.

“Unfortunately, it was of no avail. The contents of the ark were beyond saving. The silver vestments, crowns, breastplate and pointers that once adorned the Torahs had completely melted. All I could rescue were the charred remains of the scrolls,” recalled the cantor in his memoirs.

“In the blackness of the crumbling sanctuary, I fell, sprained my ankle and injured my knee. Limping into the school wing, however, I was able to save a single Torah, the one our Junior Congregation had used that very morning.”

Longtime congregants of the oldest temple on the Peninsula, turning 75 this summer, remember where they were when they heard about the Beth Jacob blaze just as they recall their whereabouts when the news broke that President Kennedy had been shot. Many still can recall the date of the fire without hesitation: Feb. 3, 1979.

“As I get older, my memory isn’t very good,” said Dr. Norm Stone, a congregant for more than 40 years and the synagogue’s president at the time of the blaze, a probable arson.

“But that event, I think, will stay with me until my last breath.”

And everyone recalls the words Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum spoke the next morning in the synagogue’s parking lot before a crowd so large he had to ascend a step ladder and shout to be heard: “It is permitted to cry.”

“And at that moment,” recalled Dick Harte, a congregant for the past 35 years, “the temple began to rebuild.”

Adversity only strengthened the spirit of family and community that so many longtime Beth Jacob congregants cited as the Conservative synagogue’s hallmarks.

“As the months turn into years, the congregation has become, for me, an extended family,” said Stone, a retired pediatrician.

“Their joys and their sorrows are just part of my life.”

When Teitelbaum took Beth Jacob’s reigns in 1957, the congregation featured about 100 member families. In the nearly five decades since, it has grown slowly and steadily to roughly 500 families. Over the years, Beth Jacob has changed with the times, becoming more and more egalitarian while, at the same time, losing out on the benefit of female volunteers as women joined the workforce.

Yet, in its own ways, the congregation was always ahead of the times as well. Congregants were proud when their rabbi, Teitelbaum, marched in Selma, Ala., with Martin Luther King Jr., chained himself to the Soviet embassy or sneaked Jewish texts into the U.S.S.R.

In the last decade, current Beth Jacob Rabbi Nat Ezray has focused the congregation’s efforts to aid the Peninsula’s homeless and hungry.

And both rabbis have nurtured a strong connection to Israel; Beth Jacob prides itself on its well-attended and active Israel Action Committee.

“When I first came here, nobody had heard of Israel Bonds — or, for that matter, much about Israel,” quipped Teitelbaum, now the synagogue’s rabbi emeritus.

And Beth Jacob’s warmth and inclusiveness didn’t escape the rabbi’s notice.

“There are old-timers there, people who are the offspring of the synagogue’s founders going back to 1930. And, particularly in these later years, a number of young families have come to the synagogue, which is wonderful. And I think you’ll find a real sprit of community and a love of learning there.”

With such a feeling of togetherness, the fire hit Beth Jacob especially hard. But the outpouring of support displayed by Redwood City’s civic and Christian establishments forged relationships that are still strong, and Beth Jacob congregants feel the synagogue is stronger than ever.

“For those of us who attend on a fairly regular basis, it is a home away from home,” said Stone.

“And that hasn’t changed. That hasn’t changed.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.