A group gathers around the Torah at Congregation Beth Sholom, led by Rabbi Alan Lew (third from right, facing Torah) in 1994. (Photo/Phil Head)
A group gathers around the Torah at Congregation Beth Sholom, led by Rabbi Alan Lew (third from right, facing Torah) in 1994. (Photo/Phil Head)

Forward-looking Beth Sholom looks back at 100 years of progress

Judy Stein looked around her Hebrew school class at Congregation Beth Sholom in 1957 and felt jealous. “I was the only girl in the class,” she recalled. “All the boys were getting bar mitzvahed, and I thought, why not me?”

Rabbi Saul White, already known for his innovative thinking, wholeheartedly agreed and pressed ahead — defying norms in the Conservative movement at the time.

In June 1957, as reported in the Jewish Bulletin’s digital archives, Stein became the very first bat mitzvah at the San Francisco synagogue.

“Looking back, I feel it was a milestone,” said Stein, now 77. “It changed Beth Sholom in terms of recognizing women.”

That kind of innovation, sometimes led by its rabbis and just as often by its congregants, has always typified Beth Sholom. White, who led the congregation for nearly 50 years, was the first rabbi hired by the shul, which had been founded 13 years before he came aboard in 1934. At the welcoming reception, Mayor Angelo J. Rossi was scheduled to “extend the official greetings of the city.”

A 1935 announcement in the Emanu-El, this paper's original name, of the arrival of Rabbi Saul White.
A 1935 announcement in the Emanu-El, this paper’s original name, of the arrival of Rabbi Saul White.

Do the math: That makes 2021 the year Beth Sholom officially turned 100, and a yearlong celebration has already begun, with events marking the anniversary happening in the coming months.

“Everybody’s excited,” said Sandy Edwards, 73, a board member who grew up at CBS and is co-chairing the centennial committee. “We want to use this time to look at our history and see what we can learn about propelling us forward.”

“People live their lives at Beth Sholom,” added Ruth Katz, 52, the other co-chair. “It’s a foundation for people, an important place. It deserves to endure, and it will.”

A centennial gala is set for May 14, hopefully in person. Between now and then, CBS is hosting multigenerational reunions of affinity groups, such as Young Adults of Beth Sholom and the Chicken Soupers (volunteers who come together to feed the hungry). An ambitious oral history project, featuring interviews with CBS congregants, will preserve their stories for all time.

A series of lectures and panel discussions has already started. The early history of the congregation, which was founded in October 1921 by a group of Russian Jewish immigrants, is one of the upcoming topics. Another will focus on the strikingly modern architecture of Beth Sholom’s campus on 14th Avenue at Clement Street in the Richmond District, rebuilt in 2008.

Beth Sholom in S.F. has an “apple slice” exterior. (Photo/Natoma Architects)
Beth Sholom’s current building was completed in 2008. (Photo/Natoma Architects)

Lectures held in December and January examined the legacy of two towering CBS rabbis, White and Rabbi Alan Lew, both of whom for years represented the congregation and Bay Area Jewry in general.

Among his achievements, White established Brandeis-Hillel Day School (now the Brandeis School of San Francisco) and marched down Market Street in the name of civil rights, and later in protest of the Vietnam War. He also wrote a column in this publication for years.

“Rabbi White made us an outward-facing congregation,” said Edwards, who grew up at CBS. “He wasn’t just building it internally; he was out there in the community fighting to be more accepting of refugees from the Holocaust. He was committed to the creation of the State of Israel when many were not. He was also very involved in the civil rights movement. He really represented the Jewish community in San Francisco.”

Added Stein, “Rabbi White was very impressive to me. When I look back, I can see how innovative he was, and in my case he was willing to take a stand that was opposed by many people, and that shows great character and an ability to lead.”

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Lew, who served as CBS rabbi for 14 years starting in 1991, brought a new vision of spirituality to the shul, thanks to his Zen Buddhist practice. He co-founded the Jewish meditation center, Makor Or, with Zoketsu Norman Fischer. Makor Or is now a program of the Taube Center for Jewish Life at the JCC of San Francisco. Lew died unexpectedly in 2009, when he was 65.

Current Rabbi Dan Ain values the legacy left by his predecessors. During his days as a rabbinical student, Ain was heavily influenced by Lew’s bestselling 2003 book, “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” which offered a new perspective on the Days of Awe.

Rabbi Dan Ain
Rabbi Dan Ain

“I’ve dug pretty deeply into Rabbis Lew and White since I arrived here,” said Ain, whose tenure began in 2018. “When I first got to CBS, everybody would tell me about Rabbi Lew, but I would go out of my way to ask about Rabbi White because I always felt a certain kinship with him. A rabbi willing to stand alone to do what he felt was right, the rabbi who pulled [Bay Area] clergy together to fight racial discrimination.”

Katz, who joined Beth Sholom in 2014, noted that the synagogue has benefited from other great rabbinic leadership as well.

“Our temple has a history of hiring rabbis outside the traditional mold of Conservative Judaism,” she said. “We also had Micah Hyman [2007-14], who brought a real sense of engagement and warmth, and a focus back on youth and kids. Aubrey Glazer [2014-18] brought in a Kabbalistic element, a lot of new music, and was deeply intellectual. Rabbi Ain brings a very different sensibility to CBS. Our Shabbat services feel different now, not just through prayer but dialogue, bringing Torah into today’s world.”

Once upon a time at Congregation Beth Sholom. (Screenshot/bethsholomsf.org)
Once upon a time at Congregation Beth Sholom. (Screenshot/bethsholomsf.org)

A congregation is more than its rabbis, of course. Today there are 335 member families, and Katz, who was “lured there by friends,” said what drew her in was “the sense of warmth and community. Something cool was going on there, a real sense of belonging. I grew up in New York, and went to Jewish camps my whole life. I recognized an energy [at CBS] that felt very familiar.”

That energy takes many forms. In addition to the Chicken Soupers and Young Adult offerings, Kehillah Connect offers affinity groups for expectant and new parents, women and seniors. The shul has a thriving preschool, speaker series and lifelong learning and Torah study. In terms of diversity, CBS was believed to be the first Conservative shul in the country to have a gay president, Kenny Altman in 2002, which came four years after CBS had established a gay havurah. Among current endeavors, CBS is teaming up with Be’chol Lashon to explore opportunities for Jews of color.

That’s what organizers mean when they describe this centennial celebration as forward-looking, as much as it is a reflection on a storied past.

“We’ve been trying to provide greater access points for people who don’t relate to the midcentury Conservative way of doing things,” said Ain, who sees the centennial events as golden opportunities to reaffirm Beth Sholom’s progressive culture. “Before we move on to our second century as a congregation, it’s important to understand who we’ve been and the values that have persevered through the 100 years. I think this shul really matters.”

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.