Renewal congregation purchases building

Kehilla Community Synagogue has long been known as “the synagogue without walls.” No longer. The Renewal congregation just moved into a former church in Piedmont, becoming the first synagogue in that community.

The building, at 1300 Grand Ave., across the street from Ace Hardware, is right on the Oakland border.

“When we first started almost 21 years ago, we had no idea to what extent this was a congregation that was here to stay,” said Rabbi David Cooper, who was just ordained by the Renewal movement’s Aleph program last month. Cooper has been Kehilla’s acting rabbi for years. The founding rabbi, Burt Jacobson, is still involved, but not in day-to-day matters.

“Maybe we were just a fly-by-night phenomenon, something that would be around for year or two like a lot of other alternative congregations, and then would fade away,” said Cooper.

But the building is proof that Kehilla isn’t going away. “We now have a sense that those of us who started it in our 30s will grow old in this congregation and will be there for each other.”

The Renewal congregation, formerly based in Berkeley, serves about 400 families and is known for its liberal political bent.

Kehilla congregant and real estate broker Hal Feiger said he had been unofficially looking for the right building to buy for about 10 years. “We had done a feasibility study on what we could afford,” he said. And in what he called a “miracle of miracles,” the new building cost exactly the same figure that the study came up with.

With virtually no capital campaign and the help of what Feiger called a “great” loan, the congregation was able to make an offer around Rosh Hashanah.

Sandy Bredt, Kehilla’s managing director, sent out what she called “the hokey pokey letter” in November, asking each congregant to send in $18 to help with the down payment. “I thought I would ask everyone in our community to put their left foot in and shake it all about,” she wrote.

That initial amount showed that the congregation was ready for the next step, she said, and now the capital campaign begins in earnest.

“This has brought out a lot of joy and commitment and excitement about the future of the synagogue, and that’s a tremendously juicy thing to have happen in an organization.”

Because the building was a already a religious sanctuary, not many improvements need to be made. The sanctuary will be changed, but most of the stained glass windows have no images in them. Only one Christ icon needed to be removed.

The synagogue had been using Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley for its gatherings, and the Scottish Rite Temple in Oakland for High Holy Days. Kehilla will continue to hold High Holy Day services at the temple because the new space is not large enough to hold the approximately 1,400 people who come.

But finally, Cooper said, they’ll be able to have Sunday morning events and decorate the space the way they want. “This is not just to have a space where we can pray, but one in which we can embellish with our artwork and our spiritual decorations.”

Cooper’s ordination celebration was already held there, and a concert with Israeli musician Yair Dalal is planned for Feb. 19.

“We also want the space to be useful for the community beyond Kehilla,” said Cooper. “This is not just Kehilla space but space that Kehilla is adding to the Jewish community as a whole.”

He also hopes some neighborhood residents will come to the Yair Dalal concert.

“It seems that Piedmont is very excited that they finally have a synagogue,” he said. “Not just the Jews but the Piedmont community as a whole.”

But there is one small thing the synagogue doesn’t know what to do about. There is a steeple on the building, which pretty much designates it as a church, not a synagogue. While eventually they plan to remove it, it is not in the first stage of refurbishment.

“We may put a fiddler up there,” said Bredt.