Memoirs of a Small Synagogue
Beth Shalom – the First 35 Yearsby Jean Rubin, founding member
The Jewish Community in Sacramento in 1973
For most of the time until 1900, B’nai Israel was the only synagogue in Sacramento. It started out as what would now be an Orthodox congregation, but became more liberal ritually and in 1879, affiliated with the Reform movement. Some Sacramento Jews were not comfortable with this, and in 1900, a second congregation, Mosaic Law, was formed.
Originally, Mosaic Law was Orthodox, but like B’nai Israel, it drifted towards liberalism, and before 1973 it was affiliated with the Conservative movement. In addition to these two, there was a smallish, unaffiliated congregation in the neighboring town of Davis, the Jewish Fellowship of Davis.
The leadership of the two Sacramento congregations was initially made up of entrepreneurs. Sacramento was an intermediate area where goods landed in San Francisco were loaded from river ships to wagons, to be sent by wagon to the gold fields. Jewish merchants participated in all three areas.
The leadership of both Sacramento congregations was still mostly in the hands of business people: retailers, manufacturers, wholesalers, and some professionals such as physicians, other medical professionals, attorneys, accountants. Many of these leaders were children or grandchildren of earlier Jewish leaders. However, by 1973, the composition of the membership was beginning to change. During recently, Aerojet General, a manufacturer of rocket fuel, had come into Sacramento, bringing with them a number of Jewish engineers and scientists. Sacramento had been the state capitol of California since 1853, and over time had also attracted Federal jobs, mostly in the Department of Defense. There were two large Air Force bases in Sacramento’s suburbs, and an Army supply depot. There was a commissary and an Air Force hospital in the area, and Sacramento had a reputation in the Air Force for being a good place to retire to. In the late 1940’s, California State College Sacramento, was established and it attracted a number of Jewish professors. Particularly in Congregation B’nai Israel, the older, larger, and richer of the two Sacramento synagogues, there was an increasing gap between the leadership and other congregants.
The Sacramento Jewish Fellowship
Cantor Cohn’s firing acted as a catalyst for a number of people who were dissatisfied for one reason or another with the way the temple was being run. Some of them were friends of the cantor’s; some were frustrated because they wanted changes made in various situations to which the board was not responsive. The leadership of the temple was self-perpetuating, and outsiders or those who disagreed with the governing group could not become part of it, although they might be on the board or act as a committee chair. Practically the whole women’s choir left.
The first of a series of congregational meetings was held shortly after the cantor’s firing. It was well-attended, particularly by his supporters, who demanded his reinstatement. This first meeting ended with a statement by the temple leadership that the meeting would have no effect on their decision. Throughout the summer and fall the congregational meetings continued. The congregation became more and more polarized, and the meetings became louder and more impolite. During that time, B’nai Israel hired an interim rabbi, Joseph Freedman. Rabbi Freedman had retired from a congregation in Augusta, Georgia. He had always wanted to live in San Francisco, and had taken the opportunity to move there after his retirement. Rabbi Freedman was described to the board as being friendly and out-going, and a good temporary solution to B’nai Israel’s problems during the process of finding and selecting a permanent rabbi.
During the summer the cantor’s supporters, now known as “The Dissident Group”, began holding Friday night Shabbat services in members’ backyards, led by the cantor. In the fall, as the evenings began to cool, the group moved into a vacant commercial building owned by Dr. David Grossman, one of the leaders of the dissidents. Attendance was good and as it increased, Dr. Grossman knocked down interior walls so that the additional attendees could be accommodated. A steering committee was set up to form a new congregation. There were several members of the committee, three of whom: Dr. Grossman, Lester Gould, and Martin Schwartz, would become the first three presidents. Lester Gould, who had practiced law in Illinois, made the arrangements to set up a non-profit corporation for a new synagogue, and on December 6, 1973, in Dr. Grossman’s building, prospective members voted in a constitution for a new entity to be known as “The Sacramento Jewish Fellowship.” By this time, seventy or so families had resigned from B’nai Israel.
All the available walls had been knocked down in Dr. Grossman’s building, and the numbers attending continued to increase. The “Dissident Group”, now officially the Sacramento Jewish Fellowship, rented space on the second floor of the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in midtown Sacramento, and started looking for permanent quarters.
Martin Schwartz found a building that seemed perfect for the Fellowship, located at 525 Fulton Avenue, Sacramento. It was in the area north of the American River, where the majority of the members lived, was laid out in a manner that looked like it would work for a budding synagogue, and the price was right. The building had been constructed for a funeral home but apparently had never been used for that purpose. At the time of the purchase, part of the building was rented to the Church of Religious Science. This was not a major problem, because generally speaking the church and the new synagogue were not using the premises at the same time. Dave Grossman, who had a contractor’s license (4) as well as his optometrist’s degree, enjoyed remodeling buildings, and dug right in. The chapel, which held about 150 people, was more than adequate for the Fellowship, although unfortunately it faced west rather than east, as a proper synagogue should. Every Wednesday Dr. Grossman took off from his practice, and he and Irving “Mike” Dickstein (a retired architect) worked at the new building, changing the embalming room into a kitchen, making a casket viewing room and a garage into a social hall, dividing another room into a classroom and a library, and moving the water heater several times until they were finally satisfied with its location.. A small apartment with a bedroom and bathroom was left as it was, and during the time the congregation occupied the building, it provided quarters for a live-in custodian. Dr. Grossman heard of a building in Reno which previously had been a synagogue but was now being used for storing tires. (The congregation had moved into better quarters.) He took his truck up to Reno and was able to bring back some panels with amber glass to be used to decorate the area around the ark where the Torahs would be kept when the congregation would be able to get them. (The panels also covered up some flocked wall paper, and were considered more appropriate for a synagogue.)
Cantor Cohn had approached the cantors’ association about his precipitate firing, and had made a settlement with B’nai Israel. Early in 1974, he began job hunting, and in the spring of 1974 took a job as cantor at a congregation in Fullerton, California. An active member of the new Fellowship, Bob Levy, was a member of the Kiwanis Club; so was Rabbi Joseph Freedman. The two of them were attending a Kiwanis meeting, and got into a conversation. As a result, Rabbi Freedman became part-time rabbi of the Sacramento Jewish Fellowship. He would remain in this position for nearly 13 years. Lester Gould, who had been a “boy cantor” in Chicago, and who had had much experience in leading services in small congregations, assumed the cantorial duties. He would continue as volunteer cantor for nearly 20 years.
When Martin Schwartz had made his pitch for buying the former funeral home, he had promised that the additional expense would not be passed on to the members but would be met by a fundraising project. This was the origin of the Food and Crafts Faire, which would continue for about ten years, initially under the direction of Edith Schwartz, Martin’s wife. The first year, the Faire included a rummage sale, as well as Jewish food and outside vendors. It was quickly realized that the rummage sale was a mistake, as the two activities attracted different types of people. It was not repeated. Another thing the Food Faire Committee learned that first year was that it was desirable if not absolutely necessary to have entertainment for children, so that they could play while a parent shopped or bought food to eat. Fortunately, there was a lot next door to the temple which was not occupied except in December, when someone sold Christmas trees; and the temple made arrangements with the owners to allow the Faire to spill over into that area.
Initially, the atmosphere in the new congregation was heady. There was a new building, and a new spiritual leader. The congregation celebrated its first bar mitzvah and first wedding. More members joined and the membership grew, although a few people moved out of town, or got their feelings hurt and resigned. Officers were elected: David Grossman, who had been de facto leader of the congregation until the first officers were elected, became the first president, and served for two years. Everybody knew everybody else (almost) and the Food Faire helped to bring people together. In addition to the elected officers and members at large, there were a few committees. Most of them consisted of only a chairperson, or a chairperson and his/her spouse or a couple of good friends, and serving on a committee did not necessarily mean making new acquaintances. The exception was the choir. At this time, the choir consisted of about twelve or fourteen members, all women. They rehearsed before each performance, car-pooled (first to Trinity Cathedral and later to the new facility on Fulton Avenue), and had lots of time to socialize with each other. They were, and would continue to be, a major influence on congregational policies.
After a while, things began to settle down into a routine. Dave Grossman and Mike Dickstein finished their remodeling, and settled down into doing maintenance, although Dave did build a desk for the office, and a table for the temple kitchen, with formica he had left over from remodeling his kitchen at home. One of the members, Sophye Gold, organized a volunteer system for the office, in which members would work a three-hour or six-hour shift once a week, answering the telephone, sorting the mail, and admitting visitors. Sophye also wrote a manual, so that the office volunteers, who were pretty much on their own while on duty, would have some direction.
During this time, the congregation got their first Torah scroll. A couple, Rene and Betty Rothschild, who had been very active in the congregation, went on a trip to Europe. While they were in London, they visited the Westminster Synagogue and learned about a program in which Torah scrolls from Czechoslovakia which had originally had been collected by the Nazis for a museum were rehabilitated and loaned to synagogues and other locations. ( ) The Rothschilds were able to obtain one these scrolls, which traveled to Sacramento by plane. It still is on loan to the congregation.
Rabbi Freedman and his wife would take the bus in from San Francisco two Fridays a month. They would pick up a rental car near the bus station, and arrive at the temple about one o’clock in the afternoon. The rabbi would catch up on what was going on at the synagogue, and then go out to visit the sick. Rabbi Freedman would conduct services on Friday night, and he and his wife would stay overnight at a congregant’s house. If he did not have further business in Sacramento, they would go back to San Francisco on Saturday. Rabbi Freedman was willing to conduct marriages where one of the participants was not Jewish, and was frequently involved in such interfaith marriages. If he had a marriage to officiate at, he and his wife would go back on Sunday. On the remaining Friday nights, members of the congregation would conduct services. One of the principal duties of the Religious Practices Committee was to see that volunteers were available to cover the services when the rabbi was not in Sacramento. Except for the High Holy Days and Passover, holidays were usually celebrated on the nearest Friday night.
Another tradition of these early days was the plays that were put on by David Grossman. They tended to be put on for the purpose of raising funds, particularly for selling Israeli Bonds. Dave wrote and starred in them, usually with the assistance of Lester Gould and Pearl Blue (Pearl specialized in Yiddish accents). They were not very good, and after a while Dave tended to repeat himself in his plots, but they were good-natured, and people enjoyed them, and contributed towards whatever the subject of the fundraiser was for that evening. There was an additional benefit in that people who might not consider buying an Israel Bond for themselves were willing to contribute towards one or more Israel Bonds for the temple. In addition to these plays, the choir put on a couple of musical programs, with the funds going towards the choir’s expenses: Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat and the lesser-known It’s Cool in the Furnace, which referred to the three Israelites and the fiery furnace mentioned in the book of Daniel.
At this period of the congregation’s development there was a feeling that B’nai Israel was the enemy, and doing things the way B’nai Israel did them was wrong, or at least inappropriate. Initially, the congregation did not have any dues schedule; members paid whatever they wished. Also, there was no membership committee. New members joined, but mostly by word of mouth. This left a void in the congregational structure, which was filled by Evelyn Marcus, a woman of considerable presence and numerous talents. Early in the existence of the congregation, she became Financial Secretary—i.e. the person who was in charge of billing, and for trying to assure that people did not become delinquent in the amount they had pledged to pay. She was extroverted and friendly, and made a practice of approaching visitors to see if they would be interested in joining. If they decided to join, she would size them up, based on occupation, marital status, and her own intuition, and quote them a price. At least one early member worked out a deal with the congregation where she provided services (printing of the monthly newsletter) in lieu of cash dues. It worked well for a while until her circumstances changed, at which time it became a very messy situation, made even messier because the possible solutions were debated in an open board meeting. There was no dues review of any kind, which worked out all right as there were enough volunteers to take care of most of the congregation’s needs, but eventually became sticky when the congregation began to need more funds in order to function.
Sometime in its early history, the congregation developed a membership category called “Friend of the Congregation.” This rather vague category included persons who were not Jewish, (including those who were considering conversion,) former members who had moved out of the Sacramento area, and members of other local synagogues who wished to contribute to the Fellowship or who wished to receive the newsletter or participate in its activities. Many, if not most, of the “Friends” did not request being put in this group but were added to it by someone who decided it was appropriate for them.
The first three presidents had all been members of the steering committee, and active in the establishment of the Fellowship. In 1979, the fourth president, Jean Rubin, was elected. She was not only the first woman to be president of the Fellowship, but she was also an outsider. A tension began to develop between the elected officers on one hand, and the former leadership and some of their close friends. This tension would continue for some time. One symptom of this tension or conflict was that after Nancy Ordway, who completed the remainder of a two-year term when Morton Glazer died in his seventh month of office, no temple president served more than one year in office for the next six years.
At the time of the break from B’nai Israel, many of the people who split off were fifty and up, and their children, if they had children, were in their late teens or grown. There was an active youth group for the first three years or so of the congregation’s existence, but it eventually disappeared as the original members grew out of it and there was no one to replace them.
For the first few years of the congregation’s existence, there were very few children of religious school age. By July of 1979, there were only seven children in the religious school, (three of them from one family) and the suggestion was made that the school be discontinued. An emergency meeting was held with temple board members and parents of children of religious school age or younger. A decision was made to open the school to non-members. This decision was later modified to limit the non-members to a trial period of one year. It had some drawbacks, but as an emergency measure it kept the school going. The congregation hired Susan Halpern as educator. Susan’s husband, Stan, was the principal of the Shalom Day School, and that year he presented a series of adult education programs, a first for the congregation.
In 1974, the Jewish Community opened a day school, Shalom School. At its inception, the school started with kindergarten and then added one grade a year until it reached sixth grade. It met at Mosaic Law for a while, aand then, when the Jewish Federation bought a former public school building, moved in with Federation. About 1975, Mosaic Law Congregation hired a new young rabbi, Yossi Goldman, to replace the aging Joseph Ehrenkrantz. Rabbi Goldman was very assertive in recruiting young male professionals to join Mosaic Law. A combination of Rabbi Goldman’s efforts, and the problems that B’nai Israel had had after the split-off the Fellowship resulted in Mosaic Law’s becoming the leading synagogue in the area, and the one which attracted people who had political ambitions in the Jewish Community.
A few years later, the Sacramento community situation changed again, as two new congregations were born. Both of them split off from Mosaic Law. The first split-off occurred because of problems relating to the Mosaic Law afternoon Hebrew school. The school district of the neighboring community of Roseville released children from public school later than the San Juan School District, where most of the children who participated at the Mosaic Law school came from. In addition, the Roseville students lived farther away, and their parents could not get them to Mosaic Law in time for classes. The parents asked Mosaic Law to modify the starting time, but the they were unwilling to do so. The new group called itself the Sunrise Jewish Congregation, and recruited membership mostly from northeastern suburbs of Sacramento County and the neighboring areas of southeastern Placer County, where the city of Roseville and other communities along Interstate 80 east of Sacramento were experiencing considerable growth. Much of this growth was a spillover from Silicon Valley and included a number of Jews.
About the same time, the Shalom Day School hired a couple named Polstein as teachers. The husband, Yosef, was an Orthodox rabbi, and he began holding religious services in his home for people who found that Mosaic Law was not traditional enough to meet their needs. Additional members came, and the group moved from the Polstein home into the Jewish Federation building. Later they bought a house on nearby Morse Avenue, and remodeled it into a synagogue.
Generally, these changes had a favorable effect on the Fellowship, since it was no longer the only newcomer. To some extent, the Fellowship was competing for members with the Sunrise Congregation, but their territories did not overlap greatly.
Congregation Beth Shalom
Susan Halpern left her job as educator when she and her husband moved to San Luis Obispo. She was replaced by a young Iranian Jewish woman named Mehrnaz Halimi. Mehrnaz was not trained as an educator, but she had had a good Jewish education in Tehran. She stayed for about five years, and during this time got married to a man she had met at one of the Food Faires. Towards the end of that time, she became very involved with family concerns and had to drop out of the Fellowship school.
In December of 1983, the Fellowship celebrated its tenth anniversary. Dave Grossman appointed himself chairman of the Tenth Anniversary Committee, and would not let anyone know what the program was to be. The event was to be held in one of the banquet rooms of the Holiday Inn downtown on J Street. Unfortunately, next door to the Fellowship was another party The other party had a very loud band, and the two events were separated only by a temporary wall. Dave had provided a long, eventually over-long program, much of which was drowned out by the overwhelmingly loud music next door. Dave was devastated, and he wrote a letter for the next monthly bulletin describing the tenth anniversary celebration as a “fiasco”. For a few days, the office was deluged with telephone calls from people who hadn’t attended the party wanting to know what the “fiasco” was. Actually, the experience was not all bad. The room was pleasant enough, the food was reasonably good, some of the women got up and danced the hora between band numbers next door. Dave complained to the hotel, and the Fellowship wound up not having to pay for the room.
About this time members of the Sacramento Jewish Fellowship decided that they preferred to be known by a Hebrew name. Several names were proposed, and the Fellowship decided to call themselves Congregation Beth Shalom (House of Peace in Hebrew.) Beth Shalom is a very popular name for synagogues—there was a Beth Shalom in the Marysville-Yuba City area, and another in San Francisco. Because of this, the Fellowship was unable to change its corporate name, which had to be unique in California, but it became known as Congregation Beth Shalom throughout the greater Sacramento community.
As time passed, Rabbi Freedman was becoming more distanced from the congregation. He was present in Sacramento no more than three or four days a month, although he did make himself available for major holidays and for some community events. When he was in Sacramento, his time was spent on his duties. As a result, he did not get to know the newer members, and even his friendships with the members he was first in contact with were becoming less close. It was not that the rabbi was not a friendly man (he was) but that his life was concentrated in San Francisco and the Bay Area, and his part-time job in Sacramento was less important to him. He and his wife had been staying at members’ houses when he was in Sacramento. By 1985, they stayed with only one family, the Levys, who had first contacted him.
At the annual congregational meeting, it had become a custom to approve the rabbi’s contract. In 1985, when this came up, Rabbi Freedman launched into a tirade, saying that the congregation was the worst that he had ever worked for. He stormed out of the sanctuary (where the meeting was being held), dragging his wife along. Leona Freedman was very short, and like many short women at that time, she wore very high heels. She was running in her high heels to keep up with her husband, as he strode out of the sanctuary toward their rental car.
At the first meeting of the new board, the incoming president announced that he had contacted Rabbi Freedman, the problems had been resolved, and the rabbi would continue on with the congregation as before. Apparently, Rabbi Freedman had been expecting a pay increase, but somehow the message did not get to the proper person. However, a number of members of the congregation had lost their former respect for the rabbi.
Rabbi Freedman continued to be irascible, and during services one Friday evening in the early spring of 1986, he took on the choir. He complained about the piano, which had a broken soft pedal, and then about the choir itself. The choir was the best organized and most powerful group in the congregation, and they were not happy. While the choir was meeting with the co-chair of the Ritual Committee, who was trying to mediate by making himself the judge of what music the choir would sing, the husband of one of the choir members organized a protest meeting. By the time the meeting of the choir with the Ritual Committee co-chair had ended, the members of the protest meeting had passed a resolution to the president of the congregation, asking that he notify Rabbi Freedman that his contract would not be renewed for the coming year.
For the following year, the congregation hired Kalman Dubov, a young man from a Lubavich Chasidic background, who was studying law in Sacramento and working as a chaplain in the Navy Reserve. He was married to a woman he had met and converted when he was on Navy duty in the Philippines. Miriam Dubov seemed to be a pleasant, sensible woman, but her husband was very protective of her, and with one or two exceptions, the congregation did not get to know her well. They had two lively, active young boys. Many of the older members of the congregation (and the congregation was getting older; even the new members were more likely to be the age of the founding members) found the rabbi and his family too lively and active.
Rabbi Dubov was not a good fit for Congregation Beth Shalom: his ultra-Orthodox background made it difficult for him to deal with a Reform Congregation, and he had problems in relating to women and to people much older than he was. He also was not skillful in dealing with the ordinary routine of life. The most memorable example of this was when he completely missed a funeral he was supposed to conduct when he got lost on the way back from the Bay Area.
By the time Rabbi Dubov’s two-year contract was about to expire, it was clear to the congregational leadership that he was not the right person for the job. However, the board failed to terminate him by the contractural deadline, and he stayed for another year.
About this time, (in the spring of 1988), Sunrise Jewish Congregation had a contested election for president. About 20 families who had supported the defeated candidate left the congregation. These families had been active at Sunrise (the group included, among others, the immediate past president and two Sisterhood presidents) and they became active at Beth Shalom almost immediately.
During the middle to late 1980’s, it was becoming evident that the congregation was outgrowing its quarters. The sanctuary had barely enough space to seat congregants for the High Holy Days, and the three available classrooms were not enough for the growing religious school. At the same time, the value of the property on Fulton Avenue was increasing dramatically. When it was first purchased, there was a medium-sized shopping mall, with a supermarket, a restaurant and some other businesses just across Fulton Avenue from the congregation. In the mid-eighties Loehmann’s Department Store opened in the enlarged mall, the shopping center was named Loehmann’s Plaza, and the potential property value of the adjacent area went up steeply. Dr. Grossman was approached by a pair of developers, who thought the site would be ideal for a restaurant. He agreed to work with them, if they could provide a larger site which would meet the congregation’s needs. The developers found a site not far from the Fulton Avenue location, but it was in an area completely enclosed by houses and backyards, with a driveway leading from Northrup Avenue, and many of the congregants who looked at it found it claustrophobic. (This property was later purchased by Chabad of Sacramento.) The developers continued to look for another site, but they discovered that the lot at 525 Fulton was not large enough to provide space for a restaurant and the required customer parking, and they pulled out.
A New Rabbi and a New Building
In 1989, the congregation hired a new rabbi, Joseph Melamed. Rabbi Melamed was a change from both Rabbi Freedman and Rabbi Dubov. A Misrachi (Eastern) Jew, he was born in Bagdad, but grew up and was educated in Jerusalem. He had become a Reform rabbi on a scholarship to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and then spent eleven years in Panama before accepting a position in Fresno, California. While he was in Fresno, he and his wife had befriended a Fresno State College student named Sydney Ziv, whose parents, Bob and Maurine Ziv, were members of Beth Shalom. Sydney, when she found out that Rabbi Melamed was looking for another job, mentioned his name to her parents. He and his wife, Rachel, came up from Fresno, for an interview, and he was hired. The youngest of his three daughters was in her senior year in high school, and the Melameds did not move to Sacramento from Fresno until after she graduated. That first year, Rabbi Melamed worked half-time, coming up on Friday and staying through Monday. His contract provided that the second year he would work three-quarters of the time. By the third year, he would be full time. After his daughter Natanya graduated from high school, the rabbi and his wife sold their home in Fresno and moved to the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael. A Jewish real estate agent named Michael Caplan found a house in Carmichael for them. Just coincidentally (or maybe not) Michael happened to know about a church on the western edge of Carmichael which was constructing a new building, and needed to sell the present building in order to get enough money to finish their new church.
Rabbi Melamed had some talents that were particularly beneficial to Congregation Beth Shalom. He was fluent in several languages, including Hebrew, English, Spanish and Arabic. His intellectual abilities attracted several professors from CSUS who became members, and with whom he became good friends. A couple originally from Buenos Aires joined, as did several Israelis, who felt comfortable with him.
The Church of God and Congregation Beth Shalom agreed that Beth Shalom would buy the church’s old building with the provision that the church could stay in it until their new church was finished. According to the agreement, the church was not to pay rent, but while they were in the old building they would furnish janitorial service (provided by a church member who was a retired school janitor), and pay the utility bills. The pastor of the church moved his office to his home, and turned the old office to Rabbi Melamed. The two groups could hardly have been more different ideologically: the church was Evangelical, Creationist, pro-life, and anti-homosexual; whereas Beth Shalom was Reform, believed in Darwin’s theory of evolution, pro-choice, and welcomed homosexual members. The church had a number of activities during the week, but the synagogue members, although complaining a little about the church using the building so many evenings, managed to be a good sport as long as the church was willing to not use the building on major Jewish holidays.
After about a year of co-existence, the new building of the Church of God was completed, and they moved. Beth Shalom was happy to see them go and to have full use of the building, but their departure meant spending more money. For the first time, Beth Shalom had to hire someone to do janitorial work and someone to take care of the lawns. During the time that the synagogue and the church had shared quarters, Beth Shalom had started planning how they would remodel the building. The building at that time was L-shaped. The long side of the L was two stories high, with classrooms on both floors. The shorter side contained the sanctuary, which faced north, the pastor’s office (now occupied by Rabbi Melamed) and a room off of the sanctuary with sound and recording equipment. Almost all of the building was devoted to classrooms and meeting places for religious services. Although the Church of God and Congregation Beth Shalom differed widely in philosophy and religious doctrine, they had one thing in common: they both believed in having much of their maintenance done by members who volunteered their time.. A member of the church had connections to a carpet store, and had been able to get a great deal of carpet at a bargain price, and it was used throughout the building. It was a deep burnt orange which even in 1990 was outdated. The music room equipment was also put together by volunteers, and was idiosyncratic. The air conditioning system was complicated and did not work very well.
In 1991 Beth Shalom began the remodeling process. The congregation was pretty much in agreement that a new sanctuary should be built and that the current sanctuary should be turned into a social hall. The existing sanctuary faced north, towards El Camino Avenue, whereas the traditional direction for a synagogue was east, towards Jerusalem. The sanctuary, as designed and completed, was oriented 90 degrees away from the social hall. The plans called for construction of a sanctuary and a kitchen. Above and behind the new sanctuary was a space on the second floor, to be used as overflow for the High Holy Days and other occasions where extra seats were needed. In addition, there was to be a lobby leading into the sanctuary, and off of it, a space for a small room to be used as a gift shop.
The congregation applied for a building permit, at which time the realities of remodeling the building became apparent.. The first unpleasant surprise was that the El Camino Avenue building was on the boundary between two water districts, and to provide a water supply from the proper district, it was necessary to run pipes across El Camino Avenue, at a cost of approximately $150,000. The permit also required the congregation to bring the building up to code. The old Beth Shalom building on Fulton Avenue had sold for a little more than one million dollars, but at this point the congregation became aware that it would be necessary to cut back on the planned renovations, and it would also be necessary also to take out a loan for more than $300,000. The kitchen was scaled down, and the additional second floor space was abandoned as overflow for the sanctuary: first, because there no money for building the additional stairway which would be needed for safety reasons; and second, because the congregation was limited in the number of seats it could have because of limited parking space. Debby Nelson, an auditor for the State of California, was president when all of this was going on, and the renovations were completed before the end of her two-year term. When Beth Shalom had moved into the building on El Camino Avenue, there was no room for many of the items brought over from the Fulton Avenue site, such as office furniture and kitchen equipment, and Dave Grossman rented a couple of temporary structures which sat along the side of the building until there was space inside the building where items inside of them could be accommodated.
Debby appointed a decoration committee, who came up with a color scheme for the sanctuary. Chairs which could be fastened together were purchased, much more comfortable than the wooden pews that Beth Shalom had had on Fulton Avenue. The decoration committee also contracted with David and Michelle Plachte-Zuiebach of Santa Rosa to provide stained glass for the twelve windows in the new sanctuary, eight on the southern wall, representing Jewish holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and ending with Shavuot; the four windows on the eastern wall which depicted Shabbat, the Burning Bush, the Tree of Life, and the Creation. The expense of these windows was met by donations from congregants. The lobby and the adjoining hall were paved with white vinyl tiles. Once the new additions were approved for occupancy the former sanctuary was turned into a social hall, and eventually the orange carpet was removed and replaced with tile similar to that in the lobby.
The new members from Sunrise congregation had brought some of their culture with them, including a couple of new fund-raising events: a Service Auction, where congregants contributed services such as cooking and hosting dinners; and a once-a-year Progressive Dinner. At the 1994 Service Auction, an Israeli who had just been accepted as a member volunteered to provide a ride in a small plane over the Sacramento area. One of the younger members, Jory Schneider, made the winning bid for the plane ride. The plane held four people, including the pilot. In July, Jory, his wife, Annette, and Jory’s father, Ed, went on the flight. As it turned out, the pilot was less capable than he thought he was, several other things went wrong, and the plane crashed, killing the pilot and the three passengers. Ed Schneider had been active in Beth Shalom, and Jory and Annette, who were relatively newly married, were close friends of Rabbi Melamed’s daughter Monica and her husband. Robin Schneider, Ed’s wife, filed suit over his death, and Beth Shalom was named as one of the defendants. The proceedings went on for about a year and a half, before a Superior Court Judge decided that the synagogue was not responsible for the accident. The suit eventually was settled out of court.
Lester Gould had become lay cantor for Beth Shalom in 1974. Twenty years later, he was still acting as cantor, although he felt he was no longer capable of doing the kind of job that the congregtion deserved. Carl Nalui, the cantor at Temple B’nai Israel, had a student, Colleen Stevens, who was interested in becoming a cantor. Due to domestic responsibilities she was not able to go to a cantorial school. She needed practical experience, and Cantor Nalui worked out an arrangement with Beth Shalom by which she would work for a year as cantor there without pay. “Cantor Colleen” as she quickly became known, was a success. She had an excellent musical background and soon was teaching trope (the system for chanting the words of the Torah,) and other classes. After her first year, she was hired as a paid cantorial soloist, but without a contract. She and the current educator, Dottie Dressler, worked well together, often having tea in Dottie’s office. About 1997, Colleen, Dottie, and the rabbi started a group that studied Torah on Saturday mornings.
Rachel Melamed was a great help to her husband. He was not a native English speaker, and although his English was very good, it was believed by at least some of the congregation that Rachel, who was teaching English at Sierra Community College, went over his writings to check his usage. Rachel, before her marriage, had been an actress. Two different times she put on a one-person program for the temple which was a very successful fund-raiser. She was also a survivor of breast cancer. In the early spring of 1995, she began to have bad pains. The cancer had reappeared and metasticized into her bones. It became apparent rather quickly that her illness was terminal. Rabbi Melamed’s sister was living in the Sacramento area and working as a nurse, and she gave up her job to spend time taking care of her sister-in-law, with help from her brother and his three daughters. Rachel died about thirteen months after she had first noticed symptoms, leaving her family grief-stricken and exhausted. Soon afterwards, it was announced that Rabbi Melamed would be retiring In June of 1999. He later told a seniors’ discussion group that the first he knew of his retirement was when the announcement was made in his presence(4).
“Cantor Colleen” continued working for Beth Shalom, without a contract. In her early forties she became pregnant for the first time, and in the spring of 1998, gave birth to a little girl. The congregation was still working on a contract for her. The proposed contract turned out to be completely unacceptable to her, and she resigned. She was replaced by a young woman named Jennifer Gunther. Jennifer had a very pleasing and well-trained voice, but although she had a Jewish education, it was not sufficient for her to perform the educational tasks that Colleen Stevens had taken on. Carry Cohn, a founding member who had been teaching Hebrew and Judaica at the Shalom Day School, retired about that time, took over all of the bar and bat mitzvah training. (She was also tutoring Jennifer in Hebrew.)
In the period just after the Church of God had moved out, expenses became heavier than what the board had expected. Not only were there unplanned maintenance costs, but also the congregation had taken out a mortgage to cover the costs of remodeling and the interest rate was unexpectedly high. As a result the board had made it a policy to pay interest only on the mortgage. After a while, Betty Rothschild became aware of what was happening, and was very much concerned. She had the money available to pay off the mortgage, and decided to do so. She told no one except Rabbi Melamed about what she was doing. The two of them planned a presentation at a Friday night Shabbat service. The rabbi spread the word that something important was going to occur on this particular evening, and there was a good crowd present. Betty was called up to the bema, andhanded a check to the rabbi. After that, Beth Shalom owned their building without encumbrance.
During this period, the congregation was also in the process of looking for a successor for Rabbi Melamed. Before Beth Shalom had hired Rabbi Melamed, they had joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) one of whose main objectives is running the Hebrew Union College, which educates Reform rabbis. After Rabbi Melamed was hired, the congregational leadership decided that the cost of UAHC membership outweighed the possible benefits, and dropped their membership. In retrospect, this was a costly mistake. When in 1998 Beth Shalom began to look for a new rabbi, the first step was to rejoin UAHC. This turned out not to be as easy as expected. The congregation missed the due date for rejoining in the fall, and somehow when they presented their application in the spring, it somehow got lost. Reform rabbis are expected to use the recruiting service, and not to accept jobs with unaffiliated synagogues. Two rabbis who were looking for jobs in Northern California showed up for interviews, but both of them were snapped up by larger and more affluent congregations while Beth Shalom trying to decide which of the two they preferred.
Then a third candidate showed up. Rabbi Matthew Friedman was at that time employed at Adath Joseph in St. Joseph, Missouri, and was investigating a job in Vallejo. Rabbi Friedman was originally from Burlingame, where his parents still lived, and like the other two candidates, he was looking for employment in Northern California. He decided he was not interested in the Vallejo job, but stopped in Sacramento to visit the principal of the Shalom Day School, who was an old friend. She told him about the opening at Beth Shalom, and he applied for the job. The Search Committee was divided on whether to hire Rabbi Friedman, but eventually decided to hire him, effective July 1, 1999.
Early in the morning of Friday, June 18, 1999, Jana and Brian Uslan were awakened by a telephone call. The Uslans lived just over a mile from the temple and they were the designated persons to be contacted in case of emergency. Beth Shalom had been fire-bombed. This turned out to be part of a crime wave instigated by two brothers from Shasta County, which involved two other synagogues and the murder of a gay couple in Shasta County (6).
The fire-bombings were devastating initially, but the response, from the Sacramento Jewish Community, the general community in the Sacramento area; and a little later, from the entire United States and even overseas, was overwhelming and gratifying. The people in Sacramento and particularly the religious community made it very clear that they did not condone fire-bombing synagogues. A bat mitzvah had been scheduled for the next day. Rabbi Reuven Taff of Mosaic Law congregation turned their sanctuary over to Beth Shalom for services on Friday night, and also for the bat mitzvah service the next day. Since Mosaic Law belongs to the Conservative movement and maintains a kosher kitchen, Beth Shalom was not able to bring any food in, but people attending the bat mitzvah were invited to share the Kiddush lunch with Mosaic Law congregants after morning services.
As the word spread, money started coming in. A Unity Fund had been established to accept and handle donations. Many people sent donations to this fund, but many others sent donations to the individual synagogues. Some local businesses made contributions in kind: in this way, Beth Shalom received new carpet and four chairs for the sanctuary. Eventually, the Unity Fund contributions were distributed by a committee which included all three of the fire-bombed synagogues. Temple B’nai Israel, which had sustained the most damage, received the largest percentage; Knesset Israel Torah Center received a lesser percentage; and Congregation Beth Shalom, which had had the least damage, received the smallest percentage. Beth Shalom put the money they had received in a Unity Fund, which was supposed to be held for future emergencies.
Shortly after the fire-bombing, Rabbi Matt Friedman and his wife, Mary, arrived in Sacramento. Rabbi Friedman had a considerable talent for networking, which was soon demonstrated by the friendships he made with neighboring Methodist and Episcopal churches. Jana Uslan had become President of Beth Shalom on July 1, 1999. Early in 2000, she started a campaign to discredit the rabbi. Like most such campaigns it was successful with the people who agreed with her, and apparently did not change anyone’s opinion. The congregation appeared to be divided into four groups: those who supported Rabbi Friedman, those who opposed him, those who did not support the rabbi but were not happy with the methods used to get rid of him, and those who were not involved at all. During this period there were nasty rumors about what was going on and a few very unpleasant e-mails. Most of the board opposed the rabbi, his contract was not renewed, and in July of 2001, Rabbi Michael Oblath joined Beth Shalom as a part-time interim rabbi.
Rabbi Oblath had left a congregation in Bellingham, Washington, to study for a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Religions (7), and was teaching at both St. Mary’s College in Moraga and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Initially, he tended to talk a bit too much about his dissertation and its subject matter, but he soon got back into working as a congregational rabbi. Not very long after Rabbi Oblath came to work, it was announced that Beth Shalom had hired a married couple, Rabbis David and Nancy Wechsler-Azen as permanent rabbis, sharing one job, when their current contracts ended. Nancy Wechsler had grown up in Sacramento and had been an entertainer with her guitar and songs at several of the early Beth Shalom Food Faires. She had also served one year as a student rabbi at the Sunrise Jewish Congregation.
During this time, membership was increasing, albeit rather slowly. Most of those who joined came from B’nai Israel and also lived much closer to Beth Shalom than to B’nai Israel. In 2003, the Wechsler-Azens finished their previous contracts and arrived in Sacramento with their three small children. Because they were sharing one full-time job whereas Rabbi Oblath had only worked part-time, their arrival meant that the congregation was assuming an additional financial burden, and the board of Governors voted to operate on a deficit budget.
The Wechsler-Azens started a number of projects, several of which were unsuccessful because of lack of volunteer leadership. The Brotherhood and Sisterhood, which were moribund when the Wechsler-Azens arrived, more or less died a natural death because of lack of interested volunteers. A group for seniors, Renaissance, never got off the ground. The congregation was continuing to lose money, until all of the Unity Fund and much of the restricted funds were exhausted. In 2004, Carol and Arthur Choate became co-Vice Presidents of Finance and were able to clear up some of the problems. It became apparent that the congregation could not stay solvent by depending on dues collections and already scheduled fund-raisers. About the same time, the congregation began to recognize a category of congregants who wished to pay augmented dues. In some other ways, the congregation was doing very well: membership was up, and so was school population. Morale seemed to be high. Most of the ideals of the founders had been discarded, but it could be suggested that these ideals were impractical to begin with and could not be sustained after the initial leadership was no longer in office. About twenty of the founders were still members of the congregation; of these about six were active. By 2008, Beth Shalom had been recognized as a legitimate part of the Metropolitan Sacramento Jewish Community. This community had changed materially since the Sacramento Jewish Fellowship had started 35 years before.
The Jewish Community in Sacramento in 2008
An article in the Sacramento Bee on August 25, 2008, told of the establishment of an eruv in the Arden-Arcade area of Sacramento. An eruv is an artificial area in which Orthodox Jews are able to behave on the Sabbath as though they were inside their own houses. The eruv, approximately six square miles in area, contains three synagogues, two Orthodox and one Conservative; the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region; the Shalom Day School; the Albert Einstein Residence (for seniors); and Jewish Family Service. This area is clearly kind of a Jewish center for the Sacramento community, although the Jewish population is only a small percentage of the total, and it may not even be the area with the highest percentage of Jews.
And the story continues to be written…