Walnut Creek synagogue renovation gets final OK

That’s three for three.

With the latest thumbs-up from a municipal design review commission, Congregation B’nai Shalom is celebrating its third unanimous city approval in as many months.

This means there are no more civic hurdles for the Walnut Creek Conservative congregation as it readies an ambitious renovation project. When the last dab of paint dries, B’nai Shalom will boast a new social hall, expanded classrooms, an outdoor prayer area, revamped landscaping and plenty of additional parking.

All it has to do now is come up with $5 million.

Not a problem, says B’nai Shalom past president and renovation project coordinator Craig Judson. “We’re at $2.7 million now,” Judson says. “When we get to $4 million we can [start construction]. I have high confidence about the money.”

Those funds will not come in the form of increased dues or congregational special assessments, but strictly through grants and pledges.

Judson cannot give an ironclad groundbreaking date. It all depends on banking the required cash and gaining one last city sign-off on the final construction design (strictly a formality, Judson says). Still, he anticipates the first shovel to hit the ground right after the High Holy Days next year.

The centerpiece of the renovation is the new social hall, which will boast a pinwheel-shaped roof, a kosher kitchen, a stage and seating for 280 Jewish party animals.

The Walnut Creek Planning Commission and Design Commission weren’t the only ones approving the design. Judson recalls his renovation committee’s marching orders to architect Mark Schlientz of the firm Kava Massih: “‘Come up with a design that will wow the congregation.’ When they revealed the design at a congregational meeting last spring, there was a definite ‘wow.'”

Also wowing the congregation is new rabbi Michelle Fisher, who stepped in following the retirement of longtime spiritual leader Rabbi Gordon Freeman earlier this year. Fisher is the first female Conservative rabbi to lead a Bay Area congregation.

“She is wonderful,” Judson says. “We knew the High Holy Days would be a honeymoon time for the congregation to get to know her, and she has hit home runs in every service. From teens through seniors, she was very well received.”

Though Judson has been one of the most active leaders in the project, he quickly gives credit to other key players, such as congregational president Rayna Arnold, planning committee chair Bernie Notas, treasurer Sid Landman and fundraising coordinator Lynn Levine.

While some local congregations have had their share of tsuris when it came to similar projects — Tiburon’s Kol Shofar and Berkeley’s Beth El have wrestled with strong neighborhood resistance — it’s been smooth sailing for B’nai Shalom.

“We held two neighborhood meetings,” Judson notes, “and had very good attendance. We went through the plan in detail, answered their questions about traffic and parking. We told them, ‘Just because this project is good for us doesn’t mean it’s not good for the neighborhood.'”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.