COVER STORY: Organized religion thriving in Bezerkeley

Wherever Sam Haber goes, his hometown follows.

For example, even at a library in upstate New York “when I say I’m from Berkeley, the librarian will admit to me that she’s gay,” said the professor emeritus in the University of California’s history department and a congregant at Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel.

“She wouldn’t have said it to me if I was from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. So Berkeley still represents the counterculture. Which I’m glad for.”

It’s hard to think of another burg of Berkeley’s limited size — 100,000 and change — that elicits so resonant a response from the rest of the nation and, indeed, world. Merely mention the town’s name to an out-of-towner (a closeted librarian, say) and you risk opening the floodgates to an ocean of mental imagery that must be relevant to life in today’s Berkeley:

There’s Mario Savio standing atop a police car after having politely removed his white suede bucks. There’s a cloud of lily-white tear gas settling upon gaping Sproul Plaza protesters below. There’s a lady in a Volkswagen bus heading off to yoga class before shelling out $45 for a green salad and sparkling water at Chez Panisse. There’s a man with a foot-long white beard and a sarong playing a conga drum outside Amoeba Records. There’s the city that let loose the locust swarm of political correctness on the rest of the nation. There’s a group of people you’d never, never, never want to see naked — naked.

And, to a degree, it’s all the truth, if only a cartoonish version of the truth. But, for the most part, when it comes to Berkeley, people think they know, but they just don’t know. They just don’t know that:

• Berkeley’s three mainstream Jewish congregations are all completing new and improved synagogues simultaneously in one of the most treacherous real estate markets on God’s green earth. And they’ll be holding High Holy Day services in those new quarters for the first time.

• Berkeley houses the Graduate Theological Union, one of the largest religious schools in the nation; Hare Krishnas aren’t the only men in robes and sandals you’ll find wandering the city’s streets.

• With 111 churches, temples and mosques, Berkeley leaders claim to have the most houses of worship, per capita, of any city in the United States with more than 100,000 residents.

So, it seems, religion in Berkeley can be very organized indeed. And while images of mothers, fathers and their two-and-a-half children pulling on their Sunday best (or Saturday best) and hopping into the station wagon to head to services hardly jibes with the “Bezerkeley” stereotype, the numbers don’t lie — just call the Alameda County assessor’s office.

“I am not surprised,” said Rabbi Ferenc Raj of Reform Congregation Beth El. “You have 40-plus [political] commissions in Berkeley. Why would I be surprised to see 100-plus religious institutions?”

Many others in Berkeley’s religious communities are not taken aback by the city’s claim to be a bastion of organized religion.

“One of the things I’ve found out about Berkeley is that everything is out of the closet. The things people might hold back in a Midwestern town, whatever it is, lifestyle or ideology, Berkeley gives you permission to flaunt it. Berkeley likes to do a California version of Texas: Our world is a bit bigger than other people’s,” said Professor Bill McKinney, the president of Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion.

“Congregations’ identities become sharper, congregations need to find a niche. Sometimes you get long, hyphenated names: We’re not just Presbyterian but liberal, pro-LGBT Presbyterians.”

And, adds the Beth Israel congregant Haber, it’s been that way for a long time.

“There were conservatives in Berkeley in the earlier days, and the mayor tended to be conservative. But there was always a radical tradition. The mayor of Berkeley in 1911 was a socialist. The ’60s didn’t grow out of nothing,” he said.

A semi-retired professor of intellectual history and American Jewish history, Haber has lived in or near Berkeley, on and off, for more than half a century. He earned his Ph.D. here in 1961, and returned to the campus, for good, in 1965 when the Free Speech Movement was off and running. And, as a longtime member of Beth Israel, he’s given a lot of thought to Berkeley, Jews and Berkeley Jews.

“The 1950s was a bad time for radicals. They became disillusioned by the Soviet Union and many turned conservative. And that was one of the reasons why many turned toward religion.”

Haber witnessed, firsthand, how this infusion of one-time radicals transformed Berkeley’s Jewish community.

“Many people developed a kind of existential Judaism … They took up with a different kind of politics — the politics of lesser evils, in contrast to what they considered the politics of utopianism. This made some traditional religious texts now seem less absurd and possibly even illuminating,” he said.

But, “Berkeley still seems to be a place where old radicals go to die, like elephants,” Haber said with a chuckle.

Yet you can be radical and find yourself listening to the parashah, just the same way you can be involved in the counterculture and still be deeply religious.

“Many people in my congregation are still interested in the counterculture. Identifying as a Jew, perhaps, is the ultimate statement of counterculture,” contends Rabbi Yair Silverman of Congregation Beth Israel.

“We want to be counter to the American mainstream and the materialistic world, and affiliating with religion is one of the ways to do so. [And] isn’t religion a force of social change? It ought to be that everywhere, and it certainly is in Berkeley.”

That being said, the city that throws its own “How Berkeley Can You Be?” parade doesn’t often stop to dwell on a major slice of its population: normal people. Normal families who work too hard to pay off their sky-high mortgages to get as involved in pressing world issues as the average Berkeleyan did a generation ago.

“Berkeley has changed. I was here in the 1970s, and again in the last few years. It was more into the political movements, the social justice movements [in the past] … that was more on people’s minds. I wouldn’t say they aren’t now, but it just isn’t of the same intensity,” said Father Bruno Gibson of St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in North Berkeley.

Gibson notes that Berkeley is far less ethnically and economically diverse than his former parish in San Francisco, and not much, if any, more liberal than his old stamping ground of Eugene, Ore., also a college town.

Yet instead of dancing naked people and drum circles, mentioning Eugene conjures up images of … well, not so much. Maybe Steve Prefontaine running if you’re a sports fan, but that’s about it.

Without Berkeley’s reputation to live up to (or live down), residents of Eugene or other small, liberal college towns can behave as maniacally as they please without being written off as displaying, say, “typical Eugene behavior.” Yet if a visitor to Berkeley spots one man in a sarong preaching hellfire from atop a folding chair, he’s apt to ignore the hundreds of normal people getting on with their days and tell his friends about his “Bezerkeley” experience.

“No, I don’t think [the ‘Bezerkeley’ image] is a real thing at all. But all of us from Berkeley love to play on that image and feed into every neurosis so [out-of-towners] can live and be well,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Congregation Netivot Shalom with a chuckle.

“We can always laugh about Berkeley.”

Raj, for his part, notes that he had far more “weird experiences” in his previous pulpits in Brooklyn and Belmont, Mass. For one, at a Brooklyn bar mitzvah, he was stunned to find a monkey in a tallit, and a chopped liver likeness of the bar mitzvah boy.

“You can imagine, coming from Hungary, it was a big shock for me,” he said.

“You wouldn’t see that in Berkeley. But, then again, that was the 1970s.”

Fair enough. But try to claim that Berkeley is a perfectly ordinary place and you’ll be ignored even more thoroughly than that blood-and-thunder preacher on the folding chair.

As clichéd as the old stereotype of peace and togetherness in Berkeley is, Kelman points out that it’s not always so inaccurate. For the past 17 years, congregants ranging from Chochmat HaLev to Chabad have participated in a joint Shavuot ceremony. You might not see that anywhere else in the world.

Silverman’s first “Only in Berkeley” experience came when he stumbled into the “How Berkeley Can You Be?” parade while out on Simchat Torah.

And nudity and cross-dressing and dancing (oh my!) are indicative of Berkeley, contends the rabbi, but in a less-than-intuitive way.

“We need to put on certain faces in our personal and professional lives, and the question is, how broad a circle do we open up to? I think in Berkeley, people open up to a far broader circle, whereas, on the East Coast, many fewer individuals are able and willing to be open,” said the Montreal-born Silverman.

“When you walk down the street in Berkeley you see people skipping or happy or crying. And in many other cities, because of the force of society, people don’t allow themselves to express their emotions of joy or sadness freely. And that’s a blessing to have that in Berkeley. That is a beautiful thing.”

Three Berkeley synagogues build virtually simultaneously

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.