The Chabad site on University Ave. in Berkeley. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

From retail shop to Jewish center: East Bay Chabad spruces up new digs

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It used to be a shop that sold healing crystals, but for the past year, the storefront at 1710 University Ave. in Berkeley has been the place that Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad of the East Bay has been able to call his own.

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris
Rabbi Yehuda Ferris

“This is the first time the Ferris’ Chabad has purchased a building in 40 years,” the longtime Berkeley rabbi said. “It wasn’t easy!”

Now Ferris has shot past his fundraising target of $100,000 for renovating the barebones space into a comfortable place for study, camp and services, once the pandemic lockdown has eased.

“Hopefully we’ll be allowed to go back in,” he said.

Chabad of the East Bay — which is sometimes called Chabad Berkeley but is different from the Chabad close to campus that serves UC Berkeley students — has been around for a long time, most of it with the Ferris family at the helm. For many years, they operated out of buildings lent to them by West Coast Chabad in Los Angeles, and then later out of rented buildings. Now they have their own 4,000-square-foot building, about two blocks from Trader Joe’s, although half is rented by a sewing school.

“It’s inside the eruv and very centrally located in Berkeley,” said rebbetzin Miriam Ferris.

Work in progress at the new Chabad center. (Photo/Courtesy East Bay Chabad)

Although Chabad of the East Bay bought the building a year ago, it was only used a short time until the coronavirus pandemic forced the first lockdown in March. For several months, the doors were shuttered, until in May the state allowed minimal indoor worship and Ferris began to hold services for small numbers. The space also served as a distribution center for a program to give free produce boxes to families in need, but under current Alameda County restrictions, it is back to outdoors only, like other houses of worship in the region.

“Even while this Covid thing is still rampaging, we’re still open for business at my house,” Rabbi Ferris said. “We have a deck.”

While the doors remain locked on University Avenue, it’s a good time to do some construction and “cosmetic improvements,” he said. The $136,000 raised (which includes a few five-figure donations) will go toward replacing dank carpeting with wood flooring, making the bathrooms ADA-compliant and installing a kitchen. And the current wall color, which Miriam Ferris dubbed “sherbet green,” will be changed. The skylights will stay.

“During the day, it’s flooded with natural light,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”

The couple is looking forward to holding study sessions and holiday activities in the space, and meeting the groups that will gather there post-Covid. For Miriam Ferris, it is all a continuation of what the Chabad leader, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, told the couple before their wedding.

“He told us we should spread the joy and inspiration of Yiddishkeit,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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