Antioch synagogue installs S.F. native as new rabbi

Antioch's Congretation B'nai Torah congregation and San Franciscan David Robins have each found what they're looking for.

Eastern Contra Costa County's only synagogue has hired Robins as its new rabbi.

"We were looking for a rabbi whose talents were in the direction of youth education," said congregation president Lynn Levine, since B'nai Torah was primarily formed as an educational resource for children. "He has great ideas and energy."

For Robins, the installation means he's finally home again.

A graduate of San Francisco's Lowell High School, Robins has not worked in the Bay Area since leaving Lafayette's Temple Isaiah in the mid-1960s. During his 30-year absence, Robins served congregations from San Jose to Los Angeles. He even went as far as Hilo, Hawaii, to aid a start-up temple.

Now Robins succeeds Rabbi Sholom Groesberg, a specialist in startup congregations who retired after leading the region's first local synagogue since World War II for its first seven years.

When Robins saw B'nai Torah's advertisement in the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, he knew it was just what he wanted: an opportunity to help build a congregation in the region he loves.

"It's a lengthy process which forces us to keep our eyes on goals for our youngsters," Robins said. "I find it exciting."

Already 50 families strong, with 35 children attending its religious school, B'nai Torah has a promising future.

Like many new congregations, B'nai Torah does not have its own building. Services, religious school classes and b'nai mitzvahs are conducted at Antioch's First Congregational Church.

Both church and synagogue members are so comfortable with this arrangement that the two groups occasionally co-host interfaith services. Neither the rabbi nor the congregation find the church's ambience at all inhibiting.

"We convert the sanctuary to a Jewish sanctuary every Saturday morning," Levine said. An aron (ark) and bimah (synagogue platform) are brought in and the pews angled, making room for the Torah to be paraded up and down the aisles.

"It doesn't feel like a church," he said.

Levine expects B'nai Torah's membership to grow at a rate of 10 percent per year. His five-year goal is to have 120 families, a full-time cantor and an educational director in addition to a rabbi.

And of course he hopes the synagogue will someday occupy a building of its own.

Robins plans to expand adult and youth programs with an eye to developing spiritual and social ties among temple members.

As the region's only synagogue — embracing a wide spectrum of congregants — B'nai B'rith defines its orientation broadly.

"We're Reform, leaning toward traditional," Levine said.

But most importantly, B'nai Torah has created a sense of a Jewish community were once there was none.

B'nai Torah "is more than a ritual center. It's a community where ritual is one of [many] aspects," Levine said. "We really are an extended family."