Bnai Shalom to celebrate 50th anniversary

Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a gala dinner on Sunday, May 17 at the Crow Canyon Country Club in Danville.

Rabbi Gordon Freeman

The only Conservative synagogue in Contra Costa County, B’nai Shalom dates back to 1964, when Cantor Ted Alexander led the first service at the clubhouse of the Rancho San Miguel Swim Club. Later that year, congregants worshipped together for the High Holy Days using Torah scrolls borrowed from two Oakland congregations, Temple Beth Abraham and Beth Jacob Congregation. The synagogue acquired its first Torah in 1966 by cashing in Blue Chip stamps.

On its website, B’nai Shalom traces its roots back even further: to 1948 in Pittsburg, where the Beth Israel JCC grew out of services it offered to Jewish military personnel at nearby Camp Stoneman during World War II. By 1964, the Jewish population center had shifted, and B’nai Shalom was chartered in Walnut Creek by some of Beth Israel’s founders.

In 1968, Rabbi Gordon Freeman became the first full-time rabbi, retiring 38 years later in 2006 — at the time, the Bay Area’s longest-serving rabbi. Today, under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Aderet Drucker and Cantor Risa Wallach, the synagogue has approximately 300 member households.

In an interview with J. a few years ago, Freeman, now rabbi emeritus, recalled the synagogue’s early days in Walnut Creek. “There wasn’t much here. Even the freeway wasn’t here. The congregation did not have a full-time person before me. I was rabbi, cantor, school principal and secretary. On Friday nights we met at the parish hall of the Episcopal church and on Saturday mornings in people’s homes.”

In 1969, one year into Freeman’s tenure, the congregation bought the five acres of land off Eckley Lane that the synagogue sits on today. The first major construction took place in 1972, with additions in 1983. Visitors come away particularly impressed with the sanctuary, which features a pew-level bimah.

Congregation B’nai Shalom today

“The concept was Gordon Freeman’s,” past president Marty Fohrman told J. a few years ago. He and his wife, Dianne, have been B’nai Shalom members since 1967. The rabbi “wanted to be close to the congregation and not up high, so he made sure [the sanctuary] was like a theater-in-the-round. When you think about the history of this congregation, it’s his history.”

Unfortunately, Freeman won’t be able to attend the gala. His grandson is having a bar mitzvah that weekend out of state.

Drucker, the rabbi since July 2012, noted that B’nai Shalom is involved in interfaith work and social action.

“Every day we work to integrate our commitment to honoring our Jewish values and tradition with the current needs facing a synagogue community in the 21st century and in the East Bay,” she said. “Our community takes pride in our diversity, welcoming interfaith families, LGBTQ individuals and families, those on a journey considering a place in the Jewish community, young and young at heart. We are excited to see where the next 50 years take us.” — j. staff