The little shul that could: With just seven members, San Jose congregation keeps chugging alongby emma silvers, j. staff
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It happened in 1992, but John Wolfson clearly remembers the first time he set foot in Temple Beth Sholom in San Jose.
“I had just moved here from the East Coast, and I had been to loads of the local congregations in the [San Jose] area, just trying them out,” Wolfson recalls. “And I still remember walking into that building. It was like I had known everybody all my life. I met some of the folks that are still there today … everything just clicked right away.”
Twenty years later, Wolfson is one of the handful of people keeping the 42-year-old Reform congregation alive.
Founded in 1970 with the philosophy that no one should have to pay for High Holy Day services — congregations with affordable, sliding-scale dues or fees were a rarity at the time — Temple Beth Sholom has forged a community that past and present members say is unique in its welcoming attitude, its emphasis on family and its intimate atmosphere.
And when TBS members say “intimate,” they mean it. Although larger in the past, nowadays only seven members — individuals and couples — make up the congregation’s core.
While they see each other informally throughout the year for bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and other get-togethers, the congregation’s only official gathering for the past few years has been for High Holy Day services, which, true to the founders’ vision, remain free and open to the public.
Between 100 and 200 people usually turn up for those, which in recent years has meant packing into the rented San Jose Masonic Center, adjacent to the San Jose landmark Church on the Hill. (The congregation has used more than half a dozen churches and community centers for its gatherings over the past four decades, though it did own a building briefly in the ’80s).
Aside from the High Holy Days, members say the congregation feels much like an extended family. Take a Chanukah party, for example.
“We can have the whole congregation at someone’s house,” member Sharon Shackelford says with a laugh. “Three or four of us cook … it’s cozy.”
The temple has no paid staff, except for the rabbis, who have always been part time — and the congregation has gone through many over the years. All operations are funded by voluntary donations, from the core group of seven and from nonmembers who come from up to 50 miles away for High Holy Day services.
In 1970, the story goes, a young couple that had just moved from Canada to San Jose was looking for a congregation to join when they decided there were too few options in the then-sleepy South Bay.
Temple Emanu-El in San Jose was an option, but its dues system was beyond the couple’s means. According to Ira Brandell, who joined in 1973, that couple, Arnie and Millie Mest, teamed up with friends Al and Elaine Sager, Shirley Marks and a handful of other local, unaffiliated Jews. Most of them had small children and several were working to make ends meet.
The group voted to start a congregation in which making Jewish life accessible, regardless of a family’s financial situation, was a guiding principle. They began meeting for weekly Shabbat and other holiday services at Santa Teresa Church in south San Jose and, as their numbers grew, forged a community of like-minded Jews.
“We were young, our children were very young at the time, and we heard there was this new temple that was going to be in the South Bay … when we went to go and explore it, we found a lot of young people just like us,” says Sharon London, whose last name was Jaffe when her family belonged to TBS for most of the ’70s.
She and her then-husband joined the membership committee; soon after, London began teaching religious school. They were also on its political action committee, and London was at one point president of the sisterhood.
“I look back at those years very fondly,” says London, adding that there were about 60 to 75 member families at that time. “It was a great unifying experience, and a lot of long-term friendships came out of it, in large part because it was all about family there. It wasn’t, OK, you drop the kids off at religious school and pick them up and maybe you see some people you recognize at the High Holy Days. Most people were really involved on a day-to-day basis.”
The congregation also did some pioneering of its own: In 1976, it hired Rabbi Michal Mendelsohn (then Bernstein), the second woman to ever be ordained by the Union of Reform Judaism. That made her the first presiding female rabbi at a North American congregation, according to Malcolm Stem, placement director of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in the 1970s.
It wasn’t always an easy position, says Mendelsohn, a writer who now lives outside of Chicago. Among other work, she’s currently writing a memoir about her experiences as one of the first female rabbis, tentatively titled “Rabbi, Your Cleavage is Showing.” Mendelsohn left TBS after just two years to attend law school, but has vivid memories of her time there.
“We were one of the only congregations at the time that didn’t charge, and I really liked that,” Mendelsohn says. “I still absolutely believe in that. I think services should be open to anybody … and I think too much in Jewish institutional life is based on money.”
In one of her first sermons at TBS, Mendelsohn remembers trying to put the congregation at ease about meeting in a Catholic church by proclaiming that the prominent cross in the sanctuary was not a cross but “a T for Torah,” she recalls with a laugh.
In 1977, San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes — regarded as the first female mayor of a major American city — presented Mendelsohn with a key to the city. (Incidentally, it was that ceremony that inspired the title of the rabbi’s memoir, as she was chastised by an attendee about the “clinginess” of her dress.)
“It was a different time,” the rabbi says with a sigh, noting that the Women’s Rabbinic Network had not yet been formed; she says she often felt unsupported, especially after becoming pregnant. “No one wanted to see a pregnant rabbi on the bimah,” she says.
Still, she recalls many people from the Beth Sholom community fondly. “It was absolutely a community, and that’s what keeps us being Jewish.”
Sharon Shackelford was looking for a religious school for her children when she joined Temple Beth Sholom in 1986. “My oldest was 7, and my youngest was a baby,” recalls the San Jose resident, who had moved from just outside Montgomery, Ala.
Another way in which the community was instantly welcoming, says Shackelford, was in their acceptance of her interfaith marriage — her husband is not Jewish. But that actually makes them feel right at home among the current Beth Sholom members, since several of them also are intermarried.
“I know that my husband was very supportive of my Judaism, but I don’t know that he would have been very supportive of a large dues bill,” she says, noting that the congregation did have informal “dues” for a number of years, though “they were pretty much suggestions — whatever you felt like you could afford.” The highest “suggestion” she can remember was
$45 per month, back in the late ’80s.
“It’s very open, very accepting of all kinds of people, and I think that has let some people continue their Judaism when they might not have otherwise.”
Shackelford remembers cooking for at least
70 for Passover seders, when the congregation would rent out a Knights of Columbus hall. But now Beth Sholom doesn’t have the resources to meet regularly outside of the High Holy Days, there’s no longer a religious school, and the congregation’s ark lives in a storage facility most of the year. Bloomberg, the congregation president, says he understands that financial difficulties may have led to something of a rift between members when their building had to be sold, and that membership dropped after that.
Nevertheless, Shackelford has no desire to join another congregation.
“The smallness of it is definitely part of what allows us to be so close,” she says. “People are there for each other. That’s why none of us want to let go of it.”
A congregation with only seven member families might sound like a rarity. But according to Rabbi David Fine, rabbinic director of the Small Congregations Network — a group under the umbrella of the Union for Reform Judaism — such Jewish communities are more common than one might think.
“There’s a deep sense of community that comes naturally, out of necessity,” he says. “There’s an interdependence and a familiarity that members have with each other.”
At the same time, he acknowledges that small congregations face unique challenges when it comes to resources. He advises struggling communities to share clergy members or space with other congregations, and at times he will encourage two small, struggling congregations in the same area to merge.
However, says Fine, “We tend to put too much stock in numbers, whereas I would say what’s more important is a group’s values, how they’re communicating them, where they’re headed.”
Fine says a congregation can be stable even with a small number of members. “The conversation becomes, ‘If we’re not going back to the days of having 100 or however many members, how do we look to the future?’ ”
Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, who has been with TBS part time for about two years, says he’d like to be part of changing that.
“I was blessed to walk into this place that has this incredible warmth, where people have these incredible connections … and I would absolutely like to see them have more events,” he says, adding that a second-night community seder is in the works for Passover next month.
But Dunn Bauer, who lives in San Francisco, also says the connections people can forge from meeting a few times a year shouldn’t be underestimated.
“It might look from the outside as if, ‘Oh, this is only the barest-bones kind of shadow of a community and it’s only these few families there,’ but there really is community there. These are people who have known and worshipped together for years, and there’s an incredibly deep sense of kinship, of communal work,” he says. “As a service leader, it’s all you could hope for — to lead a congregation that people are coming to solely because they really want to be there.”
John Wolfson, who joined in 1992, recalls the moment during last year’s High Holy Days that reminded him why exactly he continues to “really want to be there.”
“There are old-timers, young people, very conservative folks who complain that we’re too liberal, liberal folks who think we’re too conservative,” says Wolfson, who notes that he’s not particularly religious, but has Jewish friends ranging from atheist to Orthodox. “We hear it from every end. But we shrug our shoulders and say ‘We don’t judge.’ And we just keep plodding along, fulfilling this certain niche.
“Financially we’re in dire straights all the time, sure,” he adds. “But somehow, by the grace of God, I might say, we just continue. And people keep showing up for services. If one day we have High Holy Day services and no one shows up, we’ll say ‘OK, our job is done, everyone found other places to go.’
“Until then, we’re here, and we won’t be checking names or anything at the door. That door is always wide open.”
For more information about Temple Beth Sholom, visit http://www.sanjosetbs.org or leave a message at (408) 978-5566.
on the cover
Temple Beth Sholom members (from left) Warner Bloomberg, John Wolfson, Jill Irwin, Bob Baskin, Angie Walias and Sharon Shackelford outside the Masonic Temple in San Jose, where they rent space.
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