Rabbi Dan Goldblatt
Rabbi Dan Goldblatt

Danville’s Beth Chaim opts for Reform after 45 unaffiliated years

Updated Aug. 24

Throughout his 30 years leading Congregation Beth Chaim in Danville, Rabbi Dan Goldblatt noticed a recurring dilemma when he got phone calls from prospective families seeking a synagogue to join in the San Ramon Valley.

“They’d ask, ‘What flavor of Judaism are you?’” Goldblatt said. His response: “We’re Jewish.” Their next question: “‘Well, what movement?’”

Since its founding in 1978, Congregation Beth Chaim had been unaffiliated with any Jewish movement. The purpose of remaining unaffiliated was to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, Goldbatt said. But he’s found that being unaffiliated did the opposite.

“It leaves them questioning exactly what we are,” said Goldblatt, who is 68. And that ambiguity, he believes, has limited the synagogue’s ability to grow.

In January, the synagogue’s 21-person board began to explore the possibility of joining the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents approximately 850 congregations across the United States and Canada, according to the URJ website.

By April, the Beth Chaim board asked all of the synagogue’s 206 member households to vote on whether the synagogue should join URJ. All but two members voted in favor. Congregation Beth Chaim officially became part of the URJ on April 21.

“We did not lose a single family in affiliating,” Goldblatt said. The individuals that voted against affiliating decided to remain at Beth Chaim.

In fact, since the transition, the synagogue has grown by seven families, bringing a combined eight children with them, according to Arie Cohen, the synagogue board president.

In an interview, Cohen said another benefit of affiliating is that URJ provides summer camp discounts of $150 to $300 to families that send their children to one of URJ’s 14 camps across North America. That includes Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, to which Beth Chaim families have sent their children for years.

Beth Chaim will also join URJ’s national youth group program, the National Federation of Temple Youth, or NFTY, and will have the opportunity to send high school students to live in Israel for up to a year through the URJ.

The timing of joining the Reform movement comes a year ahead of Goldblatt’s planned retirement at the end of June 2024. The synagogue board is searching for an interim rabbi, and URJ affiliation is helping in that process.

“They have so much experience. We do not have to re-create the wheel,” said Evan Levy, a board member who co-led the affiliation process and is helping with the interim rabbi search.

They have so much experience. We do not have to re-create the wheel.

Goldblatt served as spiritual leader — but not rabbi — of Beth Chaim between 1983 and 1985 before he was ordained by ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. He returned in 1993 as rabbi to lead the congregation.

The synagogue was started by 25 “older couples,” Goldblatt said. “As they began to approach the end of their lives, they decided that they had something special and wanted it to continue past them.”

The congregation moved from Pleasant Hill to a Danville church to its current location.

“Right away, growth was huge,” Goldblatt said of the relocation to Danville.

As an unaffiliated congregation, Beth Chaim infused its practices with a hodgepodge of Jewish traditions from across denominations.

Over the years, Beth Chaim did away with using stapled-together pages of prayers and adopted Kol HaNeshamah, the Reconstructionist movement’s prayerbook, Goldblatt said. The synagogue adopted Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s “The Living Torah” as its chumash (Torah in printed form). Melodies at prayer services are from all denominations of Judaism, Goldblatt said.

Thirty years ago, he said, the congregation wouldn’t have felt as strongly aligned with the Reform movement as it does today.

Reform Judaism now mirrors Beth Chaim’s “all are welcome” philosophy, Goldblatt said. In 2020, for example, URJ appointed its first director of racial equity, diversity and inclusion (REDI). The REDI initiative focuses on “racial justice and equity in all its forms, and also addresses homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, sexism, and other forms of oppression,” according to the URJ.

Now when congregants compare Beth Chaim to Reform Judaism, “it’s more of an apples to apples,” Cohen said, rather than “apples to oranges.”

Levy appreciates the extended network of connections that come with joining the URJ.

“If we have any question in the world about how to run our synagogue, there is an email chain that’s active within the URJ that we can just type an email into. And we’ll get 20 responses back within seconds,” Levy said.

It’s also a comfort to be part of something bigger and to shift from being a remote island to being within a big tent. “We’ve been alone,” Levy said. “The support [from URJ] has been massive.”

These days, the synagogue receives two to three calls a week from prospective members who have heard about Beth Chaim’s new Reform affiliation, according to Cohen.

When Goldblatt picks up the phone now to answer their questions, he’s having a different conversation than before.

“It’s not going to change who we are,” Goldblatt said of joining the Reform movement. “It’s just going to enhance who we are.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of congregations in the United States and Canada that belong to the Union for Reform Judaism. It is around 850, not “more than 1,250.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.