Three Berkeley synagogues build virtually simultaneously

In Berkeley, you can learn a lot about someone’s thought process by reading the bumper stickers on their vehicle. But you can learn a lot more by strolling into someone’s house.

Are they tall? Are they short? Do they have children? Grandchildren? Do they travel? Where is their family from? Where is their family now?

Or, perhaps you can tell what someone’s last house looked like. Take Berkeley’s Reform Congregation Beth El, for example. The old Vine Street synagogue was virtually bursting at the seams; you practically had to stack congregants.

Beth El’s new Oxford Street digs, which opened Friday, Sept. 9, virtually scream “Space! Space! We have space!”

The congregation is one of three in Berkeley to almost simultaneously build and complete a new synagogue, despite the slings and arrows of Bay Area real estate and — especially in Beth El’s case — less-than-thrilled neighbors.

A whole wing of the new synagogue is devoted to the kids. Outside, there’s a playground just outside the younger children’s classrooms. On the wing’s second floor are the religious school classrooms, wisely located above the rambunctious young children and not below.

Alex Bergtraun, an East Bay architect and Beth El’s liaison with the building’s designers, can only laugh when he strides through the children’s wing. In the cramped old synagogue, nursery school and religious school students were practically on top of one another. Now, thanks to the building design, they literally are.

A hop, skip and a jump from the children’s wing is a central courtyard, with amphitheater-like steps leading to a small (yet, again, spacious) chapel and the synagogue’s main wing.

Beth El’s new home is twice as large as the old one (31,000 square feet compared to 15,000). But it feels four times as large thanks to its high ceilings and voluminous natural light. A corridor runs around the main sanctuary so children (or adults) can be in the building without actually attending services.

And, Bergtraun, a Beth El congregant, is happy to admit, he got a steal on the carpets. He bought them in bulk with Palo Alto’s Etz Chayim for a great rate. Cantor Brian Reich, who apparently has a skill for these kinds of things, exclaimed, “I’m floored.”

The mini-campus is in a horseshoe, or, if you like, has a shin-shape. One of the variations of the Hebrew word in Hebrew is shinui, or “change.” And that, of course, is fitting. The shape also provides an enclosed space befitting a community. But it also creates a space that is private from the synagogue’s neighbors, who have put up a knock-down, drag-out fight against Beth El’s relocation.

It has been, depending upon whom one supports, a demonstration of Berkeley residents’ commitment to the environment, noise control and quality of life or an exorbitant exhibition of not-in-my-backyard paranoia even by this activist city’s lofty standards.

The synagogue has also poured several hundred thousand dollars into landscaping and protecting Cordonices Creek, which flows through the property, erecting sound walls near the playground, building a driveway clean through campus to prevent bottlenecks on city streets and coming up with a complex parking plan.

A few miles down the road, in a former sleazy liquor store on University Avenue, Rabbi Stuart Kelman’s office is still permeated by the unmistakable odor of a power saw cutting through wood. And it’s no wonder. A congregant of Netivot Shalom is blazing through piles of two-by-fours just around the corner.

Other congregants are hammering, nailing and sanding, even after the synagogue’s first-ever permanent home has opened its doors. And as much as the synagogue’s layout, that tells you a bit of what Netivot Shalom is all about, the rabbi said. In fact, he adds, if he’d hired professionals to do the construction and landscaping work congregants pitched in and did themselves, the synagogue would have been out more than a quarter of a million dollars.

“What’s unique about this place, it seems to me, is that one of the words we use to describe ourselves is ‘participatory,’ and it really is something people have glommed onto and are taking seriously,” he said.

“It reflects the values of people who want to get their hands dirty.”

At Kelman’s behest, Netivot Shalom’s social hall is completely separate from its large, airy sanctuary. Between the entryway and the sanctuary is a small, shoebox-shaped room that serves as something of a spiritual decompression chamber. Kelman calls it “the bullpen.”

But perhaps the most telling aspect of Netivot Shalom’s layout is the massive library on the second floor. The long, rectangular room resembles nothing so much as a balcony for the sanctuary, and doubles as standing room for crowded holidays. It also houses the synagogue’s daily minyan.

“We put the library across the middle, because that’s one of our core values,” explained Kelman, who will hardly be the only one using the library.

“When I got here in 1984, there were very few rabbis around [Berkeley]. Now there are 10 in this congregation alone.”

Congregation Beth Israel is a brisk walk down the road from Netivot Shalom on Bancroft Avenue. A neighbor who had been out of town for a year or so could walk by Beth Israel’s shul and not notice much had changed.

Of course, while that hypothetical neighbor was away, the Orthodox congregation tore down its rickety home of more than eight decades and replaced it with a brand new, larger building but did so discreetly.

Beth Israel has made a concerted effort to not alter the look of the haimish old building that used to house underground card games in the 1920s, while eliminating many of the problems that arise when a clubhouse evolves into a shul. And Michael Feiner, a congregant and the contractor who pulled off the project, can point out a few of those.

For one, the old synagogue was, basically, just one room. So, in order to have a ceremony following services, everyone had to put away their chairs like at the end of a Boy Scout meeting. Two, the ceilings were incredibly low and there was no air conditioning, which transformed the West Berkeley shul into the Black Hole of Calcutta. And, finally, the old building was virtually ready to be blown over.

Now, if you walk into the synagogue and turn left, you won’t find yourself on a patio but in an ethereal new sanctuary with seating for 176, and a pulley system that can raise the back wall, transforming the sanctuary and social hall into one gargantuan room. And Feiner has, literally, raised the roof. It’s now nearly 10 yards high and constructed lovingly out of hearty western red cedar.

“I think what you get is a warm, welcoming place, a simple place, a haimish place,” said Feiner, gazing upwards at Beth Israel’s breathtaking roof.

Standing in a brand new synagogue “feels pretty good,” he admits. But he feels great that so many Berkeley Jews can share his joy.

“Reform, Conservative and Orthodox and all in Berkeley,” he said, shaking his head. “Who would have thought?”

Organized religion thriving in ‘Bezerkeley

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.