After decade at Oakland shul, rabbi sees renaissance

When Rabbi Howard Zack arrived at Beth Jacob Congregation fresh out of seminary a decade ago, the synagogue was trying to overcome an identity crisis.

Though considered an Orthodox shul, Beth Jacob had only recently stopped letting men and women sit together during services and using a microphone on Shabbat. At the same time, Beth Jacob was renting space to a Chabad preschool because the congregation didn't have the resources to run its own.

Far from its heyday in the late 1950s when it had 350 households, Beth Jacob's membership had dropped to about 140 households. About 35 mostly older Jews showed up for Shabbat services. And the synagogue hadn't retained a rabbi for two years.

"My sense was that their congregation was a non-entity when I came," Zack said last week.

But Zack, then 27 and a newlywed, saw the potential for a revitalized modern Orthodox community in Oakland. Today, he believes his instincts were right on the mark.

"We're in our renaissance. And we're on the way up, instead of on the way down," he said. "All the work of the last decade is paying off."

Next month, the 102-year-old congregation will host a reception to honor the 10th anniversary of the arrival of Zack and his wife, Linda.

In the past decade, the Park Boulevard synagogue has blossomed, renovating its mikveh, opening a preschool, reinstituting adult classes, and attracting up to 120 adults and 30 children to weekly Shabbat services.

Within the surrounding area, the staples of an Orthodox community — a Jewish day school, a kosher restaurant and a kosher bakery — have opened since Zack's arrival as well.

Many credit the rabbi for much of the resurgence.

"Rabbi Zack is a very dynamic person. He has a lot of charisma," congregation president John Sutton said. "Many of the members have come because of him."

Leslie Edelman and her husband are a good example. When the couple decided to move from New York to the Bay Area three years ago, they checked out many of the Orthodox synagogues. They finally decided on Beth Jacob and moved to Piedmont, she said, because of the "warmth of the community" and the "enthusiasm of Rabbi Zack and his wife."

"Practically every person…welcomed us. It's extremely unique, which is why it touched us," said the 31-year-old mother of two and board president of Oakland Hebrew Day School.

Observant Jews want to join an Orthodox shul, Edelman added, but they also want a rabbi "who is open, warm, welcoming and inclusive."

Zack, whose bright red hair and trim beard immediately fracture stereotypes of Orthodox rabbis, will quickly point to the efforts of others for his synagogue's achievements.

But Zack acknowledges that his "oodles of idealism," plus a certain chemistry with his congregation, haven't hurt.

"I think I'm a good messenger for the message," said Zack, who is now 37 and the father of three girls. "I care about my community."

Despite the successes, Zack will readily acknowledge certain frustrations as well.

Raised in Massachusetts and New York, Zack spent his youth surrounded by an observant community. He attended a Lubavitch elementary school. As a teen, he became a national leader in the Orthodox movement's National Conference of Synagogue Youth. He later earned an undergraduate degree in psychology, a graduate degree in Jewish philosophy, and rabbinic ordination — all through New York's Yeshiva University.

Living in the Bay Area for the past decade has been something of a rude awakening and fodder for "only in California" stories.

For example, he remembers the Jewish mother who called and explained that her father insisted on circumcision for her baby boy. With exasperation in her voice, the woman asked the rabbi if he could talk her father out of such a request.

Along the same lines, he recalls an article about a group of Humboldt County Jews who decided to bring Native American traditions into their Yom Kippur observance. Instead of fasting on the Day of Repentance, they chose to huddle together in a sweat lodge.

Zack mentions these incidents with astonishment, not admiration.

"There are expressions, shapes and forms of Judaism on the West Coast I never encountered in my life before and never imagined encountering," he said. "They take what they're doing and put a Jewish label on it."

Even within his own ranks, the rabbi has had to come to terms with varying levels of observance. For example, some congregants drive to Shabbat services — an activity forbidden under halachah, or Jewish law.

Inside the synagogue, Zack said, halachah is strictly followed. But he purposely looks past what happens outsidethe walls of his synagogue.

"That's their choice. That's between them and God, not them and me," he said. "If I focus on that, it's wasted energy that will get me nowhere."

In fact, focusing on the good comprises a large chunk of his philosophy.

"My sermons…have always been geared for positive reinforcement," he said. "There's a very rare occasion when I chastise my congregation."

Despite Beth Jacob's advances and outreach, Zack still has to deal with the fact that his shul's membership has hovered at about 140 households for years.

The influx of previously unaffiliated Jews from the East Bay and young, observant families from the East Coast has replenished the membership as older members have passed away. And the congregation appears larger because the core of "active" congregants has grown from about 20 percent to about 75 percent, Zack estimated. But he still hopes the membership will grow beyond its current size within the next several years.

When the rabbi and his wife arrived, they expected the revitalization to be completed within a decade.

"Now we're realizing it takes 15 to 20 years to build a community," Linda Zack said.