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.