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 maintainss 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 any one’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 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 he 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.