Danville’s Beth Chaim gets home of its own

With tearful congregants surrounding him, Beth Chaim Congregation’s Rabbi Dan Goldblatt took a last look around and pronounced the words from Genesis: “Lech lecha” — “Go forth.”

And with that, clutching a Torah scroll, he went forth, leading the way from Danville Congregational Church to the 4.4-acre hilltop site that will house Beth Chaim Congregation, the first synagogue built in the San Ramon Valley.

It was only four miles from the church — Beth Chaim’s home for the last 10 years — to the new synagogue, but the Beth Chaim members who walked the streets of Danville could not forget the struggles to reach this point.

“Everything was an equally impossible challenge,” recalled John Bronstein, a former building committee chair and one of the driving forces behind Beth Chaim’s new home. “We looked at 40 prospective properties and nothing panned out.”

Bronstein walked the entire four miles on June 28. But because of crowd concerns, organizers asked most marchers to walk in relays, with handfuls dropping in and out along the way. Goldblatt also went the distance, although he did the trek in a wheelchair (thanks to a nasty ankle injury).

For most of Beth Chaim’s 30-year existence, congregants shlepped their kids to one location for religious school, another for Shabbat services and yet another for the High Holy Days.

“We haven’t owned the walls,” Goldblatt said. “I would guess 40 percent of our volunteer hours were setting up and breaking down. It felt like such a loss of precious time.”

As congregants promenaded down Camino Tassajara Road, Torahs in hand, some passing motorists stared in wonder; others honked their horns in support.

For marcher Lynne Gross, this was the first time she had held a Torah scroll. “When I grew up back in the 1800s,” she joked, “girls didn’t have bat mitzvahs or hold Torahs. It was amazingly peaceful and joyful for me.”

The hilltop the new Beth Chaim synagogue stands on is the former home of a Tri-Valley real estate developer. Bronstein and others had their eyes on the property, which finally became available in 2000.

That began the long process of raising money for a project barely on the drawing boards. “We did a capital campaign, and we did our due diligence,” Bronstein said. “By 2005 there was no turning back.”

Projected costs are around $10 million.

As marchers neared Sycamore Valley Park, the throng grew to hundreds. “This is very emotional,” said congregant Marci Porter. “This is not just a place.”

Once at the entrance to the new building, hundreds cheered, cried and applauded as Goldblatt and his Beth Chaim colleague, Rabbi Chaya Gusfield, oversaw the installation of a mezuzah. The piece was designed by 99-year-old artisan Victor Reid, a resident of the nearby Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living.

Inside, as Shabbat descended, it was standing room only while the Beth Chaim community savored the moment.

“They fit!” said Goldblatt upon placing the synagogue’s two Holocaust-era Torahs into the ark, adding, “Am Yisrael chai [May the Jewish people live]!”

Beth Chaim President Martin Fishman thanked the many people responsible. “We have left behind years of being homeless,” he said.

After lighting Shabbat candles, a Motzi, Kiddush and Mourner’s Kaddish, it was time for a party. To the strains of “Hallelujah,” the crowd stepped outside for some celebratory wine, cheese and bruschetta, oneg style.

The sun was low in the west and a cold breeze blew down from Mount Diablo. But the spirits of Beth Chaim congregants could not be chilled.

“I could cry,” said Tanya James, her two children by her side. “This is a coming home. I’m so proud of all the work, the love, the tears. We deserve this.”

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.