This tour is based primarily on a video-taped tour by Rabbi Akselrad (z'l) conducted on 18 April 1993. A pamphlet was compiled by Bob Lewis and Harve Citrin. Eph Cannon and Ron Schilling facilitated the video project. The words you will read are substantially those of Rabbi Akselrad. However, observations and material from other sources were woven in to the narrative. Some of the thoughts are the architect's, Goodwin Steinberg or Goody (z'l), and the other artists provided comments. Two copies of the video-tape are available in the Beth Am library (# VC 032 & VC 039, 'Rabbi Sidney Akselrad - Reflections On Beth Am, 1992).
Before we start let us reflect upon the continuity of our faith, the values that we inherited and those that we espouse. When our temple was planned, we decided that any building should reflect Jewish values and Jewish ritual and Jewish symbolism. The congregation appointed a committee to work on this sacred endeavor.
The congregation had already established some traditions. For example, when this beautiful site was secured for Beth Am, our architect, consulting with my predecessor, Rabbi Irving Mandel, developed a master plan and two buildings were erected. One became a temporary Sanctuary and the other a school building.
We established the principle of no names. There would be no names in the building. People who contributed would not be designated according to their gifts, and so whether they gave $5 or $50,000 there was to be no separation or special accolades or honors to any individual. This principle of doing something for God's name's sake and for the greater good, l'shma, has become fundamental to Beth Am. The principle began with the original members who wanted equality, and with the architect, Goodwin Steinberg, who wanted a serenity of design that could not be achieved if plaques were permitted (especially since the design of plaques over the years could not be easily controlled). I became aware of the need for such a principle upon my arrival in 1962. I found a great deal of dis-unity within the congregation, and one concern often expressed was "my mother's name was to be on the organ" or "my mother's name was to be on this or that". So I asked the Board to enunciate to the congregation the talmudic principle of lishma. This has become so much an integral part of the congregation that people from all walks of life advocate it. In fact, when one of our past presidents, who had been instrumental in establishing Beth Am, contacted our then president about having the temple named after his mother because he said that this had been the understanding in the early days of Beth Am, the then president had to say to him, "I'm sorry. You've done so much for the congregation, but we have the principle of 'no names', so your mother's name cannot be placed upon our temple."
Begin By Standing In The Incoming Driveway And Look Up To The Sanctuary
Our congregation had a requirement that a two-thirds vote of the membership be fostered before any building program could commence. Our president appointed a building chair and there were four congregational meetings, at which the vote always fell short of two-thirds by one or two votes. Some thought the building too costly; some felt an acoustical engineer ought to be employed; some were concerned about the kitchen. The opposition was not opposed to the idea of a temple, but was concerned about certain facets of the program. Ultimately, the leadership was restructured under co-chairs and the program passed with a Congregational vote of 90% in favor. By that time, it was relatively easy (although nothing is easy) to raise the essential funds. The very energetic and respected head of the fund-raising committee sort of set the example.
When we talked about the nature of the building, there was a great deal of discussion about whether there should be walls or no walls. Some members, art and theater enthusiasts, forcefully campaigned for walls in the Social Hall to make it more suitable for art exhibitions and theater productions. Our architect, Goodwin Steinberg, (and he has been a magnificent, brilliant architect) advocated windows throughout in order to establish connection to the outdoors. His design was for mood and feeling and sensitivity at every level.
Then I went down to Southern California to a chapel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and I sat in that chapel overlooking the Pacific with a colleague. He was one of the rabbis instrumental in founding Beth Am. He represented the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. As we sat in the chapel at dusk, you couldn't tell where the chapel left off and the foliage around the chapel began. It was a very spiritual moment. I said "that's the feeling I would like to have at Beth Am."
When I returned home I became a supporter of our architect's vision of no walls. It was so that we could symbolize, first of all, the temple going out into the community, and the community coming into the temple-no separation. Also, we could closely identify with the beauty of nature, so much a part of Jewish tradition. Our tradition, although emphasizing the importance of the Torah, of the scrolls, of the written word, of study, has never failed to mention also the beauty of God's creation, the beauty of nature. Some thought it would be disconcerting to sit in a temple where you would be able to see out, where you'd be able to see trees and flowers. We felt it would only enhance the spirituality.
And now, look at the building itself. We had a great deal of discussion over a theme for the building. Again, we didn't want just a building, we wanted a temple, a center of Jewish tradition. Goody's original concept was to shave off the knoll on top of the hill and replace it with an elliptical pane of glass that wrapped the sanctuary and social hall, deep set to protect against the sun and having views in all directions, a rounded dome form that picked up the contour of the hill. That was the origin of the tent form concept, a single tent covering the entire structure. Goody knew that we needed architecture that is sensitive to the houses in the hills in order to get zoning approval, it had to be a gentle step between the houses and our religious ideas and sanctuary mood. He was trying to get something a Jewish Reform congregation could feel was theirs, an original statement. Important were light, California architecture, indoor/outdoor features, gardens and views-using nature to help create a spiritual feeling. We ultimately decided on a tent centered over the sanctuary, a 'tent of meeting' theme, and a lower tent over the sanctuary. And there you see the tent.
Of course I thought of Abraham's tent, and of the strangers who came tovisit Abraham-Abraham 'ran to meet them from the entrance to his tent'. And so we hoped that Beth Am would also be symbolic of Abraham's tent, and that we would reach out to the community and the community would always feel comfortable coming into the temple.
Walk Up To The Patio Just In Front Of The Entry.
When the building neared completion, I became concerned about the need for reflecting Jewish values in the building itself. And so the Committee retained an artist to design special doors on which we could project selections from the talmudic tractate Pirke Avot and selections from the Torah.
Now let's look at the very special doors, one of the first projects after the construction of the temple itself. On the right hand we have the selections from the Tanakh-from the prophetic literature as well as the Torah. I would select verses that John Kapel would inscribe and carve out. And then the wood carver carved it in oak. Here you see again our values-'Let every man dwell under his own vine and under his own fig tree and none shall make him afraid' . . . 'Shalom'
'Simcha'. . 'V'ahafta l're'acha kamocha' 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'.
The importance of light, not only in terms of nature but in terms of human relationships. 'Y'hi Or', would that it would be that simple 'Let there be light and there was light'. 'Hashomer achi anochi'-'Am I my brother's keeper'?
And over here we have the selection from Hillel from the Pirke Avot
'Im ein ani li, mi li'
'If I am not for myself, who will be for me?'
'Uk'shehani l'atzmi mah ani'
'If I am only for myself, what am I?'
'V'im lo achshav eimatai'
'If not now, when?'
Another of our favorite selections,
'Lo alecha ham'lachah ligmor'
'It's not incumbent on you to complete the work,
but neither are you free to desist from it'.
And over and over again we become aware of the validity of this statement as we age.
'Al tifrosh min hatsiboor'
'Do not separate yourself from the community'.
And so this is the precious door that opens the way to our temple.
On the right door post we have the mezuzah. You'll notice it's an open mezuzah designed by Helen Burke, the artist-in-residence at Camp Swig, who was just wonderful. Actually very few people knew that she was not born Jewish, but she was at Swig so many years that we all considered Helen to be a Jew. She inspired a generation, and here you'll notice over the mezuzah is not the traditional Hebrew letter 'shin', standing for Shaddai, Almighty God. I saw so many of these shins suspended at a neighboring temple that I developed an antipathy to them. So I asked Helen if she could have another letter, and she put the letter 'bet', standing for beracha, for blessing, with the hope that those who enter our temple will experience a sense of blessing and also convey it wherever they go. So here's the mezuzah; it should be slanted a little, in accordance with tradition. This was one of Helen's first mezuzot.
To the right of the doors is another of the symbols, the Burning Bush designed by Priscilla Kapel. It's the burning bush that Moses viewed in the desert-the bush burned, but was not consumed. It can be, and is lit up at night. And of course the spirit of Judaism, our faith, burns but is never consumed.
Enter Through The Doors And Enter The Large Hall To The Right
This is the Social Hall.
Here, at the far end and to the right, we have one of the two tapestries that our very fine committee commissioned with Helen Webber, a local artist. It depicts Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt into the desert. You'll notice the various symbols of the Passover, the hard boiled egg and the Kiddush cup and the matzoh. You may discern that there is a space that perhaps could have been filled. Originally the artist had inserted angels of the Lord, but we didn't quite take to the idea of angel-ology, and asked her to remove them. She did get the rainbow in the sky that reminds us of Noah and the Ark, but mainly it's a tapestry devoted to our ideas of freedom.
The second tapestry, to the left, beautifully reflects Sukkot and the joy of Sukkot, the dances, the foliage, the Sukkah, the lulav and the etrog. And we feel that the temple should always reflect the joy of Jewish life, of a family, of coming together as a Jewish community.
As you look at our stage between the tapestries, you may wonder why it is so large. For years we had a Beth Am Children's drama group; the director was Naomi Golden who was superb. And so many of our women worked along with Naomi fashioning costumes and scenery. We had as many as 35 children in the drama group at one time. Later we were fortunate to obtain Doyne Mraz of Foothill College as director of an adult drama group, also superb, presenting plays that reflected spiritual values that we advocate.
Turn About And Cross The Foyer Into The Sanctuary
As you stand at the entrance to the sanctuary you might note some architectural details. The window walls expand the temple to the outdoors.
The sconces around the walls consist each of seven lamps, echoing the menorah.
There are twelve sconces and the ceiling is in twelve sections, echoing the twelve tribes of Israel.
It is formed as a tent canopy, open at the top to the light of heaven. The high point, the light of heaven, shines in above the congregants.
Facing us, as we enter the temple, is the beautiful parochet (Ark curtain) which was facilitated, encouraged and sponsored by my successor, Rabbi Block. [And we'll see, in the Chapel, the curtain that endured, was in the temple for over 25 years until it began to deteriorate. ] The parochet, made of silk, hand sewn and with more than two thousand beads, pearls and gold-filled sequins hand sewn to the curtain, was designed by Ina Golub. It is a celebration of life-'Choose life, that you and your children may live', Deuteronomy 30:19. The parochet depicts heaven and earth with vivid images of sun, moon and stars; fire and clouds; sky, sand and sea recalling God's promises that the descendants of Abraham and Sarah would be 'many like the stars of the heavens and like the sand that is on the shore of the sea', Genesis 22:17. The Ark was designed by the architect, Goodwin Steinberg. Inside, the cherry wood Torah support system was designed by Martin Stan Buchner.
When the Ark is open during services you may see the five scrolls. Each Torah has a cover designed by Ina Golub. Each cover is crafted of padded applique on a wool ground cloth and decorated with braids, cords and hundreds of beads and sequins. They are colorful extensions of the Ark curtain. The themes presented are (from right to left)
CREATION -- The breath of life
PEOPLEHOOD -- You shall be a blessing
REVELATION -- I am the Lord your God
TORAH -- Hear O Israel
REDEMPTION -- An eternal covenant.
On the High Holy Days and major festivals the Scrolls are adorned with distinctive finery. Again each has a theme:
AKEDAH -- And the two of them walked together Genesis 22:8
REPENTANCE -- I am a Hebrew Jonah 1:9
HOLINESS -- You shall be holy Leviticus 19:2
JUSTICE -- Then shall your light break forth like dawn Isaiah 58:10
COVENANT -- You stand together this day Deut. 29:9.
We have Torahs at Beth Am from various places in the world from which our people have come; the Torah from Poland, the Israel Torah, the Torah that we know not where it came from and also the Czechoslovak Torah. A congregation in England rescued Torahs from the ruins of a Czechoslovak synagogue after the Holocaust. The Torahs were in tatters. They brought them to England and sewed them together, and we were fortunate to secure one of the Torahs from the English Congregation for $700 from my discretionary fund. It was and is very precious. It is kept on the far left. The center scroll was commissioned by Beth Am and was dedicated in 1995 together with the new bima textiles.
Before the new covers were created, the Youth group had woven a very beautiful cover for the Torah showing the unity of heaven and earth, the need to bring heaven down here to earth. Women from our congregation presented us with Torah mantles. So for over 25 years we had Torah mantles that were designed, with one exception, by the women of the congregation. The emphasis was on the Torah itself and on the fact that it was a mitzvah to prepare the covers.
Over the Ark is our ner tamid (eternal light) [Exodus 27:20,21 & Leviticus 24:2-4] designed by John Kapel.
To the left of the Ark is an unusual Menorah, or so we originally thought. Our co-chairs located an artist in Berkeley and showed me the design. Initially my reaction was not favorable because I was accustomed to a traditional menorah such as we have on the right side. But I felt that I had been involved to such an extent that I ought to expand my willingness so I went along with the new candelabrum.
After a while the artist came to me and said, "I notice that you are not able to refer to the new candelabrum as a menorah. Perhaps I can help you. What's troubling you?" I said, "Well, to me it doesn't have any real Jewish quality." She said, "What are you looking for?" I said, "I am accustomed to the old Koshin Menorah, but perhaps if you told me what your theme was, it might be helpful." She said, "Well, the menorah reflects to me the individuality of the Jew in each of its branches, and totally the unity of the Jewish People." I said, "I can go along with that." I can refer to it easily now as a menorah.
The menorah to the right of the Ark was designed by Ludwig Wolpert. He was the 20th century's leading designer and craftsman of Jewish ritual objects. Much of his work is in the Jewish Museum in New York. A parent of a congregant contacted Rabbi Block in 1989 with an offer to purchase the menorah from the artist's widow. The Board approved, and the donor purchased the menorah. Note that it is made of bronze ribbon passing back and forth through the triangular trunk forming three branches on either side of the central seventh lamp.
Originally, consideration was given to having verses from Jewish tradition over the Ark. For example 'justice, justice shall thou pursue'-'tsedek, tsedek tirdof'-because that's always been very important to me and I know to our Congregation. Also, in the temple where I started out as a young assistant there were verses from the Tanakh all over the walls. As I looked at the walls here, I thought well, perhaps some time in the future we might have selections from the Psalms or the Prophets, but as we read in the Pirke Avot, 'It is not incumbent upon us to complete the work'. It is the privilege and the opportunity for others to continue.
Walk Out Of The Sanctuary And Turn To The Left And Walk Into The Breezeway
When the first Jews of the present migration from the former Soviet Union trickled into our area they sought sustenance, and many congregants provided assistance. One member who had come out of Russia some 20 years earlier was a physician and was very helpful. One thing that we did to help them was to provide space in this corridor to exhibit Russian-Jewish paintings, many of which were sold resulting in additional support. Where we don't have any walls, we manage to use the glass for worthwhile purposes.
We sometimes call this area the corridor of the presidents; their pictures were suspended from each of the windows in the corridor until recently when they were all assembled on this particular wall. Sisterhood used to operate a gift shop here, but we had other needs and priorities. I came to Congregation Beth Am during the administration of Wally Rubin. There you see Wally's smiling face. Our Board meetings lasted at times until 2 in the morning. It was during Wally's sojourn that the determination was made to have everyone who entered Beth Am contribute to the building fund, a tradition now. Over there you'll see George Saxe and Jim Sammet, Don Seiler and Harvey Koch; they were the leaders during the building period of Beth Am.
There you see Jerrell Siegel, the first woman president. That was quite an experience in the life of the congregation. Long before the year of the woman, our congregation had its first woman president.
On this opposite wall we now have a display that traces the history of Beth Am. You may note that the original concept was a 'tent canopy' covering both the sanctuary and social hall. Three votes were required before the design was approved. During the course of time the 'tent canopy' was focused over the sanctuary, a change that Goody embraced enthusiastically.
I remember at each stage of the construction of the temple we were wondering whether it would be finished in time for certain Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. Beth Am was raised by Hannah Cohan, our beloved bar and bat mitzvah coach. Leo and Hannah, so lovable, so affable, so encouraging to everybody. In tribute to them the people got together and decided to have these doors erected.
''Baruch Ata b'voecha' 'Blessed are you in your coming',
'Baruch Ata v'tsetecha' 'May you be blessed in your going forth'.
Exiting, Turn To The Left
Although we designed the temple as an ohel moed, a tent of meeting, at the same time we recognized the need for a place where we could memorialize our loved ones with yahrzeit tablets, so much a part of Jewish tradition. Even before I came to Beth Am, there was the idea of an outdoor wall on which the names would be engraved. The exact character of the wall was not yet determined. A committee was appointed for whom this project became a sacred mission.
And then I and others expanded the idea of the wall to include an outdoor chapel with an Ark, something that I had always wanted. We held summer services outdoors; we held memorial services and weddings. Those of you who attend during the summer know how inspirational it is. While in the planning stage, the chair met with landscape people to discuss trees that would be suitable. It was her hope to have a biblical garden.
The committee deliberated at considerable length in frequent meetings over the character of the wall until Goody was persuaded to get involved once again. He very graciously assisted us in designing the wall and the outdoor chapel. You'll notice here we inscribed,
'May their memory bless our lives',
and on the other side the kaddish,
'Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei rabbah' -- .
It's difficult for me to express what this wall has come to mean to so many. For example, we have families who lost their loved ones during the Holocaust. They have no place to go to mourn, so they place the name of a loved one on the wall and they come here. There's one particular plaque that's dedicated to the six million. I lost my son-in-law a number of years ago. I brought his two children, one aged four and one six, and we stood at the wall. They had no place to go to view the grave of their father, his resting place, so the wall has come to mean a great deal to them.
Walk Across The Walkway And Enter The Building On The Left - The Chapel
Sitting in the chapel of Congregation Beth Am we see the Ark, designed by John and Suzanne Kapel. It was used for a number of years in the temporary sanctuary until our temple was constructed. It was then brought into the chapel. It wasn't long ago, actually, that a committee was appointed and given the responsibility for beautification of this room. One of our families sponsored the project and as a result we have this very beautiful ner tamid designed by John Kapel.
Within the Ark is a Torah adorned with a new cover designed by Ina Golub. The Saturday morning 'minyan' group suggested the theme which is based on words from the Pirke Avot-'The world is based on three things . . . Torah, Worship and Loving Deeds. ' The words 'Torah', 'Avodah' and 'Gemilut Hasadim' float spherically representing the world as seen from outer space. This sphere, in turn, floats in a sunlit universe of cloud formations. Because this Torah is in constant use the cover had to be exceptionally sturdy. A French Gobelin weave of wool yarn on cotton warp was used and was mounted on a velvet border to add stability.
The menorah to the right of the Ark was designed by John Kapel. It was originally in the main sanctuary.
Recently, when new Torah covers and a new Ark curtain were designed and installed in the Sanctuary, the old curtain was refurbished and installed here in the chapel. This curtain was one of the first projects completed after the construction of the temple. You may notice that we have on it God's words to Abraham,
'V'nivrechu v'cha kol mishpachot ha'adamah'
'May all the families of the earth be blessed through you'.
This was the watchword of our faith and the watchword of our congregation-to be a blessing. We modeled this curtain, in a very general way, after its inspiration at Congregation Beth Abraham in Oakland, where I saw a tallis curtain/cover woven by the women of the Jewish Home For The Aged. I turned to Goody and said I would love to have that. Well, with the structure of our temple, Trude Guermontrez, a very distinguished fiber artist and the designer retained by our committee, was unable to gratify that wish, that image, totally. But what we did get were tsitsit at the bottom of the curtain. The designer had been in the Holocaust and this was a memorial to her experience. At the same time, it brought her back to Judaism.
You may notice the menorah, the pomegranate, the lulav, the etrog, and the hands of the priests, the kohanim. We wanted sort of a symphony of Jewish tradition ranging from Sukot to the blessing of the kohanim, the laying on of hands by the priests (the priestly blessing: May the Lord bless you and keep you). So we have the warmth and the fullness of the Jewish tradition. We are a part of that continuity.
Exit The Chapel And Come Out Into The Center Court
During the early years of the congregation several congregants wanted a pond. Most other people did not want one, and when I arrived on the scene I certainly discouraged it because of the children. The original plan for the site shows a chapel, a concept that changed because of cost. The landscape architect, Lawrence Halperin, instead designed this circle as a kind of amphitheater. Though rarely used that way, it did become a play area for the children. You may question the need for a recess and a place to play during a two hour session. What it has done is not only give the children a breather, especially during the week when they've been in public school all day and then come to Hebrew school, it also has provided an opportunity for them to socialize, to make friends and, especially for some who never had the chance, the opportunity to be on a team.
Next To The Chapel Is The West Building
We have some nine acres and the site offers so much opportunity for expansive programming. One of my assistants when he was in charge of the school had a program in which he had a tour through Jewish history, and the children spent a morning discovering various events and locales in Jewish history. Mementos were placed all around the temple grounds.
Across The Circle Is The Beth Am Library
Over here we had an administration building, and in the south half, a temporary temple. I wish we had a picture of my predecessor, Rabbi Irving Mandel, and the congregants then. We have so many from the original group that are still active in the congregation and provide a bridge from one generation to another.
One of the first institutions to be established was the Beth Am Library.
It was originally located in the separate room on the north end that subsequently became a youth lounge and now is designated the Conference Room. When the sanctuary was completed the temporary temple space was divided into the library and classrooms, and the administration space was expanded. The original founders of the Library, Carolyn & Dick Hoffman, came every Sunday and during the week for some twelve years. They also assigned volunteers to help operate the library on Sunday morning. Some of our most prestigious Jewish communal figures, including the Law Librarian at Stanford University, served as librarians. Eventually, we had a paid religious school librarian who was just superb. She would hold story hours for children and encouraged them to take out books. She also trained young librarians who established libraries at other congregations in the area.
Almost a flood of memories overwhelms me as we go about the temple grounds. So many thoughts and so many feelings. There are so many people who have given of themselves in so many ways to Congregation Beth Am, to our faith and people and community. I have not attempted in any comprehensive way to mention them proportionately or to mention them at all. We, as part of Beth Am, know very vividly who have worked so hard to make Beth Am what it is. There was a movement to name this area after so and so and another area after someone else but somehow the temptation was overcome with the feeling that Beth Am is truly a house of the people and everyone is a part of Beth Am. Someone once said to me, "You don't see any names. It's anonymous". To me, it isn't anonymous. To me, I see so many people who were willing to give far beyond their egos, thinking in terms of Jewish life, of their children, of future generations and hoping that people would continue to enjoy.
A new generation has come since my retirement because of health, and we see a tide of Soviet Jews. One of the hopes that we had for decades was that the Soviet Jews might emerge from Soviet Russia and become a part of our people in Israel and here. I know that there are over 150 families in a tutoring project alone, but I won't even comment because words are inadequate to articulate the nature and full impact. I'll leave that for another occasion.
In a way I see so many faces before me, people who have risen above self and who have invested self in our people and in our faith. Without them, I would not have been able to do what I have done to serve the congregation.
Later Campus Enhancements
It has been many years since Rabbi Akselrad recorded the tour above, and Congregation Beth Am continues to thrive. The strength of our leadership (lay and staff) and the support of our community has made many new projects possible.
The Beit Kehillah
As the membership and the activities of the Congregation continued to grow, the need for additional classrooms and meeting space became pressing. A third phase of construction, completed in 1999, added the Beit Kehillah (a large, flexible room for worship, educational and community activities), a new library, and three more classrooms. The unity of design of the entire complex, now comprising a number of distinct structures, was preserved by plans again prepared by the Steinberg architectural organization, this time with Goody's son Rob leading the way.
Another ark, surrounded by beautiful stained glass depicting creation, was installed in the Beit Kehillah, and is where many shabbat and festival services are held.
The Meditation Garden
In 2008 the Meditation Garden was dedicated. The garden was a gift to the congregation from Beth Am Women and the 50th Anniversary Committee.
The garden features a striking Torah sculpture by artist and member Martin Katz, a stunning stone path in the shape of a Star of David, and plantings from biblical times. Maddie and Jeff Carmel played a central role in the design and installation of the garden.
In 2008 the Congregation received a grant from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund to rebuild the playground. All of the children of the community enjoy hours of fun on these structures.
The Double Menorah
In 2011 Avner and Frankie Naggar gifted a sculpture they commissioned from well-known Israeli artist Yaakov Agam. The individual arms of the sculpture, called Double Menorah, can be positioned as desired, and is a beautiful addition to the Beth Am courtyard.
New Land and the Future
Meanwhile the Congregation continued to experience growth in membership, and there was continued pressure on the facility to support ever growing programs. In 2008 a study was completed detailing the needs for additional office, parking, and program space. By a vote of the Congregation, the Board of Directors was authorized to purchase additional land. In 2011 the Congregation purchased the only undeveloped acre of property adjacent to the current facility.
The future of the Congregation and the continued enhancement of the campus is assured, as we go from strength to strength.