Largely Based On:
A HISTORICAL PRESENTATION - BETH JACOB CONGREGATION'S FIRST ONE HUNDRED YEARS
Given on January 9, 1994
By: Barbara M. Barer
The history of Beth Jacob Congregation is closely linked to the history of this area. Jewish settlers had already arrived in this part of California when Oakland received its Charter to become a city in 1854. Research on the early years of Beth Jacob also uncovered references to the origins of Temple Sinai, Beth Abraham, and the Jewish Welfare Federation, which are mentioned below.
It has been said that history is really biography and that certainly applies to our synagogue?s first 100 years. The story of Beth Jacob is the story of particular individuals throughout the decades. It is also a story that rings true today – of a community coming together to educate children, to maintain an orthodox cemetery, to offer charity, to put on fund-raising dinners, to celebrate life events, and to perpetuate tradition.
The history of the whole Jewish community in Oakland originates with the need to establish a Jewish cemetery. Throughout history in the migration of Jews from place to place, the acquisition of a plot of ground consecrated for burial was one of utmost importance. The reason for this was that much earlier in history Jews were buried on the fringes of cemeteries, along with heretics and criminals. Towards the end of the 19th century fraternal societies composed of Yiddish speaking immigrants from the same town in ?the old country? sprang up in cities all over the United States, Canada and Great Britain, to meet the urgent needs of new arrivals and also to immediately acquire a plot of land for burial purposes.
And so it was in Oakland that in 1862 the Oakland Hebrew Benevolent Society was established by a small group of 14 leading Jewish citizens of Oakland, to fulfill the religious and charitable needs of the community. It functioned as a fraternal lodge, and like most benevolent societies in the early American West, it arranged for the use of a tract of land for burial purposes, in what is now Mountain View Cemetery. This cemetery was partitioned into three tracts, one for Roman Catholics, one for Jews, and one for all others. This division reflected the fact that people of all faiths came to Oakland in its first years and granted each other mutual respect and recognition. It was also around this time, in 1868, that UC Berkeley was founded.
At this time, most Jews were engaged in some aspect of the clothing industry, either by tailoring or distributing and retailing. While the history of California is bound up with the 1848 Gold Rush, few of the initial Jewish immigrants were swept up in the gold fever. Also, a lot of immigrants made a living buying rags and bottles to resell, which shows that recycling is not something we just invented.
In most Western communities, organizations such as the Oakland Hebrew Benevolent Society were instrumental in the development of Jewish life. Thus the Oakland Hebrew Benevolent Society was the precursor of the The First Hebrew Congregation, which was established in 1875. That first congregation is now known as Temple Sinai. However, among those early Oakland Jewish settlers were a more orthodox group of ?Landsmen? who found that the First Hebrew Congregation was too ?American? for them. So they formed their own minyan from which both Beth Jacob and Beth Abraham emerged, as did an Orthodox burial society. All three congregations had their origins in Polish or Hungarian Jewish immigrants, whereas the earlier much larger Jewish community of San Francisco originated with immigrants from Germany. Temple Beth Abraham was later incorporated in 1908 and ultimately the Oakland Hebrew Benevolent Society and related groups merged into the Jewish Welfare Federation.
While Beth Jacob was founded in 1884, it was incorporated 100 years ago on December 19, 1893 and a permanent structure for the congregation was built at 9th and Castro Street in West Oakland. In 1901 membership consisted of 40 members. The board meetings were held the first Thursday of the month, daily services were in Hebrew, religious school was on Sundays, with 30 students, and the auxiliary society was known as the Ladies Endeavor Society. Annual income of the congregation was $100. It was in this year of 1901 that the Orthodox Home of Peace Cemetery was purchased in East Oakland.
There is little documentation from these early years but note was made in the 1920?s of the financial difficulties faced during the days of Prohibition. Legend has it that when the congregation was unable to pay the Rabbi, he resorted to supplementing his income through the sale of ?sacramental wine? ostensibly for religious purposes! It is rumored that for each gallon of wine he sold, at the going price of $6.50 per gallon, Beth Jacob was entitled to 12%. Some business professor aligned with the synagogue must have been around in those days to negotiate such a kickback!
By 1927 the synagogue listed a membership of 95, and high holiday seats ranged in price, according to their location in the sanctuary, from $7.50 to $2 each, with, of course, a certain number of complimentary seats set aside. It was also in that year, 1927 that Max Brown had his Bar Mitzvah at the 9th and Castro Street Synagogue. Max recalled what services were like at Beth Jacob at that time, describing how they would slip out of services during the High Holidays and go to Dahlke?s Bar, have a root beer and listen to the World Series on the radio (for an added piece of trivia – the world series has been broadcast on the radio since 1925).
World War II brought a second major surge of Jewish immigrants to Oakland. Several of our most respected and dedicated members today are survivors of the Holocaust. In those same years the city?s general population continued to increase with the shipyard industries and in 1945 Oakland reached a peak population of over 400,000. Through these years the neighborhood of West Oakland began to change and members of the congregation started moving out towards Lake Merritt or the suburbs. Although the Ninth Street synagogue continued to be the home of Beth Jacob Congregation for many years, it finally was sold in 1950, to a Baptist church. If you drive by the today you can see it is still quite an imposing structure.
Meanwhile there was nowhere for the congregation to gather. In the few intervening years, while negotiations were underway to build a new synagogue, services were held in some vacant upstairs offices of Ernie Alexander?s Army and Navy business at 10th and Broadway. Helen Chase described to me how she sewed curtains for the ark to store the original Torahs. For the high holidays different places were rented. There were two kosher butchers in town at that time and picnics were the big fund raisers of the day. Ernie Alexander nostalgically recounted the glorious days of those family picnics and how corned beef sandwiches were sold to raise money, not to mention the pinochle and poker games that took place.
The development of Beth Jacob Congregation continued to be linked with the development of the city of Oakland. With the growth of the Port of Oakland as a major industrial center, plans for construction of the Macarthur Freeway in the heart of the city were implemented. This meant that the State Division of Highways purchased property for freeway access, and closed off some city streets, one of which was Emerson Street. Ultimately the property at Emerson and Park, which turned out to be surplus property, was purchased as a building site for Beth Jacob.
On April 11, 1954, a ground-breaking ceremony was held at the present site of the synagogue on Park Boulevard. The architect, Albert Hunter, designed the structure as a tent, based on the concept of Jews in the desert living in tents, and Abraham's tent that was always open for all to enter.
As for construction of the new building, Max Brown described how ?we struggled. All the members participated from the day we broke ground. After work Sundays, summers, we were there, watering down the cement after work, cleaning the framing. The women were there with coffee and sweet rolls. Everything was done to raise funds, luncheons, dinners, raffles, bingo. We had a Cadillac Ball, selling tickets to raffle off a Cadillac.? Judy Brown added, ?We were there every day. My car went from the house to the synagogue and back home again.?
Members themselves laid the floor tiles and for a couple of years members sat on folding chairs that were rented from Abbey Rents. Eventually pews were ordered which members assembled by themselves. Rumor has it that Gerry Friedkin was persuaded, as a little boy, to crawl under the pews to fasten them to the floor.
In the early 1960?s a new wing was added to the original structure to provide additional classroom space and a large social hall. Ernie Hollander also organized the first youth group in the congregation, a precursor to our current youth programming and NCSY teen program.
In 1985, Rabbi Howard Zack and his wife Linda joined our community, adding a new young spark of life to the congregation and contributing significantly to its current growth. The following decade marked a steady increase in membership bringing together new generations with the old. We saw the re-establishment of the preschool, a resurgence of interest in a wide range of adult education classes, and the inauguration of a Hebrew Day School under the auspices of Beth Jacob.
In 2001, we welcomed Rabbi Judah and Naomi Dardik, and things just kept getting better. Membership continued to increase, with the influx of younger families joining the synagogue. Among these young families were new educational staff brought in by Rabbi Dardik like the Rozens, Davies, and Naimans. With the help of these professionals and the assistance from community volunteers, we now boast a full week of adult classes, expansive youth and teen programming, and social events to fill your calendar. The story of Beth Jacob continues to be the story of a group of individuals coming together, committed to the preservation of an orthodox community in the city of Oakland.
Ernie Hollander said to me that Beth Jacob is his ?home away from home.? I say that it has become my extended family. I am proud to represent the orthodox community, with our commitment to kosher dietary laws, Shabbat observance, and Torah study, as well as our members? commitment to the larger Jewish community and concerned involvement in civic affairs.
As we recall our past and celebrate our history, Beth Jacob Congregation continues into its second century with a vibrant membership committed to passing on the same orthodox traditions to the next generation as we have inherited from past generations.
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