View of Temple Israel in Alameda from the street
Temple Israel in Alameda

Alameda’s Temple Israel cuts rabbi, cantor as membership declines

Facing financial difficulties due to declining membership, 120-year-old Temple Israel of Alameda has opted not to renew contracts with its rabbi and cantor.

Current contracts with Rabbi Barnett Brickner and Cantor Brian Reich, hired in 2012 and 2013, respectively, expire on June 30. After that, the synagogue will employ an interim part-time rabbi and draw on lay members to lead some services and other aspects of congregational life.

Temple Israel President Genevieve Pastor-Cohen said the board made the decision last month after membership declined from 148 families to 120 families over the past year.

“Being we are a small congregation, we noticed our membership has been declining,” she said. “We realized we had to adjust. We needed to step back, reassess and decide what we needed, even though our clergy has brought about some wonderful programs, and members are exited about them. We realized we could not support full-time clergy.”

Temple Israel President Genevieve Pastor-Cohen
Temple Israel President Genevieve Pastor-Cohen

Though she concedes it will be a blow to lose fulltime clergy, Pastor-Cohen said Brickner, Reich and the congregation understood the rationale for the decision.

“Both the rabbi and the cantor wrote letters saying they would support the congregation,” she added. “They are professionals.”

Pastor-Cohen noted that Reich, who served at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley after launching his career at Temple Israel in 1984, would stay on as religious school director, a role he also had been performing while cantor.

Temple Israel’s roots stretch back to 1896, when Alameda’s first reform congregation was founded. The congregation has been based at its Farm Island location since 1980.

Starting July 1, an interim part-time rabbi will officiate at weddings and funerals. As for High Holy Days and life cycle events that require a cantor, such as bar and bat mitzvah training, Pastor-Cohen said the synagogue will contract out for services. She also said Temple Israel emeritus Rabbi Allen Bennett has told her he would be available to help out if needed.

Despite the setback, Pastor-Cohen says she and her fellow congregants remain excited about the synagogue’s future.

“Temple Israel is not going to disappear,” she said. “We have a strong community and there is enthusiasm about keeping us here.”

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.