A Sukkot celebration at B'nai Torah (Photo/Courtesy)
A Sukkot celebration at B'nai Torah (Photo/Courtesy)

Why an East Contra Costa temple is ‘courting’ a Walnut Creek synagogue

Two Contra Costa County synagogues haven’t invoked the “m” word just yet — that would be “merger” — but leaders of Congregation B’nai Torah in Brentwood and Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek are using the language of romance to describe their budding relationship.

“At this stage, we’re past dating,” said B’nai Torah president Denise Duran. “Let’s call us engaged.”

For months, her synagogue has been exploring a partnership with B’nai Tikvah, with congregants getting to know their counterparts in Walnut Creek 30 miles away.

“The first time I attended a service [at B’nai Tikvah], I had that same feeling of being home that I felt at my first service [at B’nai Torah] 18 years ago,” Duran said. “They’re very easy to work with, very engaging. Everybody has been so welcoming.”

Why this shidduch (Yiddish for a marital match)? It’s a matter of survival. Out in Brentwood, an area in the far east of the county, little Jewish infrastructure exists other than B’nai Torah and the newly opened Chabad of the Delta.

Duran said membership at her 35-year-old temple has been flat for years, today hovering around 27 families (it peaked around 60 about five years ago and has declined since then). “The concern is we’re not getting young families,” she said.

B’nai Torah, established in 1988, has never had a building of its own, and hasn’t had a full-time rabbi since 2015, when founding Rabbi Ira Book retired. At that point the synagogue applied to Hebrew Union College’s student rabbi program, and benefited from three student rabbis over six years. But HUC no longer had students available to help.

It was time for Plan B.

To see a change with the temple is sad, but the board figured it might be best to shift to a new paradigm instead of continuing to get smaller.

In February, recalled Duran, “I sent out an email to the congregations in Contra Costa County saying this is where we’re at, this is what we’re facing, and is there an opportunity to explore how we could become an affiliate or a satellite, and somehow build a bridge that connects us? All [responded], but a few rose to the top because we shared philosophies and energy.”

First among equals was B’nai Tikvah, established in 1981, which today has some 300 member families.

“We decided to engage in an initial conversation,” Rabbi Jennie Chabon recounted. “We said, where’s the harm in talking? We pride ourselves on being a community that is experimental, that thinks outside the box and tries things, and hopefully they work out really well.”

As part of a formal one-year agreement, B’nai Tikvah has accepted a flat fee to grant all B’nai Torah congregants membership.

“I do think it’s a win-win,” Chabon said. “Every person I met from the community has been kind and incredibly warm, open and creative, and wanting to make an effort to connect. It felt like they were feeling a bit hopeless, and I think they’re now feeling excited. We’re so happy to grow.”

Congregants from both temples speak of a true compatibility. B’nai Tikvah’s immediate past president David Ratner offered up a JDate-style profile of his synagogue community.

“The way we describe ourselves is that we are warm, welcoming and diverse,” he said. “We’re composed of people of all ages, genders, gender identities and sexual orientations. What’s unique about us is our rabbi [Chabon] who started out as our cantor, and has a very charismatic personality, along with the voice of an angel.”

Duran says B’nai Torah’s dating profile would include terms like “well seasoned, engaging, curious … likes to nosh.”

She noted that for some in her synagogue, “there was a lot of trepidation and fear of the uncertain. Will we be accepted? Will we be separated?” Duran said. “What our congregants who have attended services [at B’nai Tikvah] have found is completely the opposite.”

Rabbi Jennie Chabon, seen here in 2019, celebrated 18 years of service at Congregation B'nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. (Photo/file)
Rabbi Jennie Chabon in 2019 (Photo/file)

Mitch Oshinsky, a member of B’nai Torah since 1996, heartily approves of joining forces with Chabon’s congregation but still feels uncertain, especially now that his longtime synagogue has ceased holding its own services and activities.

“I have mixed emotions,” he said. “I do have a real emotional attachment to B’nai Torah. Both my kids went through the religious school. My wife, who is deceased, ran the religious school, and we were on different committees. To see a change with the temple is sad, but the board took this proactive approach and somehow figured out that it might be best for us to shift to a new paradigm instead of continuing to get smaller.”

Though the two synagogues are not calling their arrangement a merger, other Bay Area synagogues have taken that step. In November 2020, San Francisco congregations Beth Israel Judea and B’nai Emunah voted to merge and a year later became Congregation Am Tikvah (Beth Israel Judea itself was the product of a 1969 merger between Beth Israel — a Conservative congregation that had been founded as an Orthodox shul in 1860 — and the Reform Temple Judea, established in 1953).

In Southern California, two of the largest synagogues in Los Angeles, Wilshire Boulevard Temple and University Synagogue, announced a merger in 2020.

Chabon understands the financial difficulties synagogues face in keeping afloat these days. She cites the phenomenon of the “nones” — those who in surveys increasingly respond to the question of religious affiliation with “none.” A Pew study of U.S. adults showed that number nearly doubled from 16 percent in 2007 to 29 percent in 2021.

The same trend holds within the Jewish community. “There are lots of Jews in Contra Costa County who are not affiliated with synagogues,” Chabon said. “People are finding their meaning outside of churches and synagogues. It’s hard, especially for smaller places.”

Ratner said both congregations will assess the new arrangement as they go. The biggest challenge for now seems to be the 45-minute drive between the two congregations.

“It’s a schlep,” Duran said, “but it’s worth it.”

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.