The Sacramento Jewish Fellowship

On a Friday evening in June, 1973, immediately following Shabbat services, the board of Temple B’nai Israel in Sacramento fired the cantor. Among other reasons, the cantor and the two most recent rabbis had had difficulties in getting along. The most recent rabbi, Amiel Wohl, who had just departed to join a congregation in New Rochelle, New York, (3) reportedly had advised the board that if they did not get rid of the cantor they would not be able to find another rabbi.

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.