First African Methodist Episcopal Church used the sanctuary of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland on Feb. 26. (Photo/Virginia Tiger)
First African Methodist Episcopal Church used the sanctuary of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland on Feb. 26. (Photo/Virginia Tiger)

After Black church destroyed, Oakland synagogue offers space

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Things looked a little different at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland on Sunday. On a morning when the Conservative synagogue would normally be empty, it was full of rousing song.

A week after a fire devastated the First African Methodist Episcopal Church on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, Beth Abraham opened its doors to what is often called its “sister church.”

As soon as he heard about the three-alarm fire that broke out late at night on Feb. 19, Rabbi Mark Bloom called Rodney D. Smith, the pastor at FAME.

“We’ve been friends for a long time,” Bloom said. “That’s what friends are for.”

Tracing its roots to 1858, FAME is the oldest Black church in the East Bay, according to the Online Archive of California, and was the only African American church in Oakland for more than three decades. The fire that nearly destroyed the church started only a few hours after Smith had finished “a wonderful worship” at Sunday services, he said.

Pastor Smith of FAME. (Photo/Virginia Tiger)
Pastor Rodney S. Smith of FAME. (Photo/Virginia Tiger)

“It was unreal,” he said of the fire, which destroyed the building’s roof and much of the interior. The Oakland Fire Department has yet to announce the cause.

Since Beth Abraham and FAME have engaged in pulpit exchanges for many years, Smith was quick to accept the offer to move services to TBA, about a mile away.

“It felt like a hug,” said Smith, who has been with FAME for two years. “It was one of the best hugs that I received [all] week.”

Sunday’s service was bittersweet, as the community dealt with the damage to its sanctuary and the need to pray at another location (not everyone was able to make it).

Virginia Tiger, who works in the office at Beth Abraham, called the service “uplifting” after she attended.

Rabbi Mark Bloom
Rabbi Mark Bloom

“They were glad to be together,” Tiger said of the parishioners. “It didn’t matter what house of worship they were in, they were together worshipping.”

The response from Beth Abraham congregants was overwhelmingly positive, Bloom said.

“It’s an opportunity to do something small, a small act of kindness,” Bloom said. “People are very proud to be part of a community that is hosting this church.”

To help FAME rebuild, a GoFundMe campaign with a $1 million goal has been established, and had raised $55,000 as of Monday afternoon.

With Smith not yet knowing how long the rebuilding process will take, Bloom has made Beth Abraham available to FAME as long as the church needs it.

“The building [is] not the church. The church is in you,” Smith said. “That’s the message we want to spread to everybody.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.