Shir Ami has been a home away from home for 50 years

The bimah is in the living room. If extra chairs are needed, they might be in the kitchen.

“It’s definitely a house,” Barbara Heimowitz, a longtime member of Castro Valley’s Shir Ami, said with a laugh.

The congregation is located in an 1870s farmhouse.

The small congregation is celebrating its 50th year of being one of the area’s most enthusiastic but least known synagogues, according to members.

“They get that comment all the time. ‘Really? There’s a Reform synagogue in Castro Valley?’ ” said Julie Bressler, a rabbinic student who conducts services at Shir Ami.

With larger Reform synagogues just a short drive away, Shir Ami has carved out a place for itself not only as a Jewish home for the people of Castro Valley, but as a family where everyone has to — and wants to — pitch in. Its mission statement describes Shir Ami as “a place where people feel wanted and where they want to be.”

“We feel connected to Judaism, and have such a strong connection because we’re totally involved,” said congregation president Harriet Skelly.

Shir Ami is located in an 1870s farmhouse purchased 50 years ago by a handful of families in Castro Valley, an unincorporated area in Alameda County. Today the congregation stands at around 66 families, with strong lay leadership and services led twice a month by rabbinic interns from Hebrew Union College.

The ark in Shir Ami’s living room

With no permanent staff, members do everything from answering the phone to less interesting chores. “There’s no one to take out the trash unless you do it [yourself],” Bressler said.

The synagogue itself is representative of the do-it-yourself spirit of Shir Ami. A congregant first spotted the house for sale and members converted and renovated it. For larger events, such as Passover, Shir Ami uses a church room in Hayward, but most of the community life revolves around the house. For Bressler, that’s an advantage.

“I think Shir Ami is very intentional. You can’t be anonymous,” she said.

That familial closeness is exactly what appealed to Heimowitz’s family in 1977. “What we liked was that it was a small and intimate community,” she said.

The congregation has two Torah scrolls, one of them over 200 years old from a synagogue in Dresden. Shir Ami bought it in 1965 and had it restored in 1990, although it is still very fragile. A second scroll was purchased in 1993.

Biweekly services draw 25 to 35 people to the farmhouse living room. “It makes you be creative with space,” Bressler said.

Shir Ami also offers Hebrew and religious school for children, as well as preparation for bar and bat mitzvah or confirmation, adult Hebrew classes, text study and even a book club. One of the most important events for many in the community is the annual Sisterhood retreat.

“For a small congregation, we have a lot of activities,” Skelly said.

Bressler is finishing up her second year as the rabbinic intern. The interns serve for two years, an arrangement that works well for everyone. According to Bressler, the interns love Shir Ami. “I remember feeling like I was walking into a family,” she said.

Although the congregation prides itself on its intimate and cohesive community, it has been growing and is open to new members. A new “Tot Talk” program for children younger than 6 has been bringing in young families, and the Shir Ami website specifically notes that it welcomes interfaith families.

The 50th anniversary will be celebrated on Sunday, March 20 with a brunch at the Crow Canyon Country Club. Even while celebrating the past, Shir Ami is looking to the future, with members continuing to encourage the community to check out their welcoming congregation. “If they live in the Castro Valley area, it’s definitely the place to be,” Heimowitz said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a journalist based in Oakland, CA, and Budapest, Hungary.