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Berkeley’s Synagogue Building Boom By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday June 07, 2005

After 16 years of wandering through the desert of homelessness, Berkeley’s only conservative Jewish congregation, Netivot Shalom, finally took shelter in their half-acre of promised land Friday on University Avenue. 

The 300-family congregation marched through central Berkeley, Torahs in hand, to celebrate their first Sabbath in the $6 million synagogue they built right next to the Montessori school at 1316 University Ave. 

For Claudia Valas, who in 1989 attended the congregation’s first meetings in members’ kitchens, the scene Friday was overwhelming.  

“This is just a dream. I always thought this day would come,” she said, as members blew ceremonial ram horns and sang songs after arriving at their new synagogue after a procession from their temporary quarters in Berkeley’s Jewish Community Center on Walnut Street.  

Netivot Shalom is not the only local congregation getting used to a new home. For local Jews, 2005, or 5765 in the Hebrew calendar, might well be remembered as the year of the big move. By August, Berkeley’s four largest congregations will have either moved to bigger homes or enlarged their current ones.  

Besides Netivot Shalom leaving its rented space at the Jewish Community Center, Kehilla Community Synagogue earlier this year moved to a former church in Piedmont from the space it rented at Northbrae’s Community Church, Congregation Beth El is moving to a bigger home still under construction on Oxford Street, and Congregation Beth Israel has nearly completed reconstructing and enlarging their home on Bancroft Way. 

“If you look at national trends, this is impressive growth in congregation life and religious life,” said Joel Bashevkin, executive director of the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center. He added that several congregations in Oakland were also looking for new homes or to expand their current space. 

Bashevkin suggested that the growth of local congregations was being fed by more members from outer suburbs coming to services and the effort by many congregations to welcome interfaith couples. According to some estimates, he added, Berkeley’s population is between 20 and 25 percent Jewish, with about one in four Jews belonging to a synagogue. 

For members of Netivot Shalom, a permanent home brings the opportunity to expand the congregation’s activities and attract new members. While at the JCC, the congregation couldn’t hold traditional Friday night services because of a lack of space and had to pay extra to rent out rooms for special events. 

“It’s particularly important when you have young kids to give them a sense of a communal home,” said congregation member Lisa Fink. “This is where they’re going to grow together.” 

To build their new synagogue, 95 percent of congregation members donated time and money to the effort. Ed Gold said he cashed out of stocks to make a loan to the congregation. Art Braufman said the congregation saved over a quarter-million dollars by having members donate architectural and engineering expertise to the project. 

David Finn, a congregation member and architect, designed the building to maximize natural light and separate the sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of University Avenue. In an agreement with their new next-door neighbors, Berkeley Montessori School, the synagogue will use the school’s courtyard and play area, while the school will have access to the synagogue’s assembly room. 

“This is a very efficient use of space,” Finn said. 

Finn, for a brief time, had his hand in another Berkeley synagogue project. He was hired by Congregation Beth Israel, Berkeley’s orthodox congregation, to design a replica of the wooden synagogue of Przedborz, Poland that the Nazis burned down in 1942. However, the congregation, whose former home was seismically unsafe, couldn’t raise enough money for the project and settled for a building that looks much like their former home.  

In February, the 400 member Kehilla Community Synagogue moved from Berkeley into its permanent home in Piedmont. Several members of Kehilla, the country’s largest Renewal congregation, a left-leaning branch of Judaism, refinanced their homes to loan the congregation money to buy a former church at 1300 Grand Ave., said Sandy Bredt, Kehilla’s managing director.  

“It was amazing. We raised $425,000 in loans and $500,000 in donations 90 days after our feasibility study showed we weren’t ready to buy a building,” she said. 

Bredt said the congregation has already begun reaping the rewards. It has used its space to host music benefits and bolster it syouth programs. 

In August, Berkeley’s largest congregation, the nearly 600-family Congregation Beth El, will move into its new home at 1301 Oxford St. Having long ago outgrown its current home at Arch and Vine streets, Beth El’s estimated $8 million, 33,000-square-foot new synagogue will give the congregation more spaces for its Hebrew school and youth programs, said Harry Pollack, a congregation member. The congregation’s soon-to-be former home has been purchased by the Dominican Friars as classroom space, he added. 

Pollack said the different congregations had “traded notes” on their building efforts and took pride in their successes. 

“The fact that we’re all investing the time and money into new homes shows the optimism and hope that there will continue to be a vital Jewish community.D