From then to now: an early class of bar mitzvah students at Congregation Beth Shalom of Modest (left) and Andrea Jimenez, who became bat mitzvah at Beth Shalom in 2016
From then to now: an early class of bar mitzvah students at Congregation Beth Shalom of Modest (left) and Andrea Jimenez, who became bat mitzvah at Beth Shalom in 2016

The diverse synagogue of Modesto celebrates a century of Jewish life

The only synagogue in Stanislaus County is no youngster: At 100 years old, Congregation Beth Shalom in Modesto is celebrating its centennial as well as a century of Jewish life in the San Joaquin Valley city.

Families that can trace their roots back to the synagogue’s birth are celebrating along with new members of a changing community. “The community has morphed in a way I don’t think those original founders could possibly have imagined,” Rabbi Shalom Bochner said.

Although many of the descendants of the founding families are still involved in the synagogue, Bochner said, things have changed a lot in 100 years. There are now Israelis and Russian-speakers in the Conservative congregation, and the synagogue is known for its community of Latino Jewish families. “It’s beyond just religious diversity,” he said. “It’s extremely ethnically diverse.”

Beth Shalom began as a small Orthodox synagogue in downtown Modesto called the First Hebrew Congregation. In 1963 it relocated, changed affiliation and renamed itself. The nearest congregations are Temple Israel to the north, 34 miles away in Stockton, and Congregation Etz Chaim to the south, 44 miles away in Merced.

The 100-year birthday party will kick off with a special Shabbat service and dinner on Friday, Feb. 16, and services and lunch Saturday morning, followed by a walking tour of the original Jewish neighborhood in Modesto.

RELATED: Historic Modesto shul welcomes wave of new Latino members

Bochner, who spent some time in the East Bay and was the director of Santa Cruz Hillel for seven years starting in 2001, said the synagogue has been able to reconstruct a lot of the old Jewish neighborhood’s history, with help from city historians.

“We’ve been learning some incredible anecdotes, including during prohibition where the sacramental wine was stored,” he said. “Somebody actually broke in and stole it.”

The centennial celebration will conclude with a dinner and musical celebration on Feb. 24.

Bochner said they are keeping everything low-cost in order to make it accessible. And he said that although there are challenges in being so isolated, the combination of strong historical roots and diverse newcomers makes Beth Shalom special.

But it’s not just the synagogue he praised.

“Modesto is a much more interesting and vibrant place than you’d imagine from driving by it on a highway,” he said.

Tickets for the Feb. 16 celebratory dinner are $5 for children, $12 for adults and $30 for a family of four. It will take place at the synagogue at 1705 Sherwood Ave., Modesto. The Feb. 17 lunch at the synagogue is free, as is the walking tour, which will begin at 3 p.m. in front of the McHenry Museum. The gala dinner on Feb. 24 will be held at the Gallo Center for the Arts and tickets are $100. For more details, click here or call (209) 571-6060.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.