Oaklands Beth Abraham marks its 100th year

Sam Bercovich remembers skipping down the big, broad steps when he got out of Temple Beth Abraham’s religious school as a tot. That was 88 years ago, and those steps are long gone. But Bercovich, 92, and Beth Abraham, 100, are still going strong.

The Conservative synagogue in Oakland, which celebrates its centennial next month, started out as the local Hungarische — Hungarian shul — in a pearly white former Chinese temple in the far west of Oakland (with the aforementioned steps).

Bercovich’s great aunt, Bertha, gave the local Hungarian Jews the money they needed for the building if they promised to name the temple after her deceased husband, Abraham. Since Abraham is a name of some importance for Jews in general, the deal worked out for everyone.

In 1925, the state of California seized the temple through eminent domain, razed it and constructed the Posey Tube to Alameda.

Beth Abraham’s next home was on the second floor of a two-story building above a machine shop. Loud work on the High Holy Days led to loud arguments with fasting congregants for several years.

In 1929, the local Hungarians scraped together enough money to erect the red brick synagogue Beth Abraham still calls home. But it came at a terrible price: Moses Goldberg, Beth Abraham’s first rabbi, hit an oncoming freight train in downtown Oakland on the way home from a congregant’s office with a contribution for the building fund. He was killed on the spot.

It is one Beth Abraham’s outstanding features that it has so many congregants whose memories stretch back that far, or nearly that far.

“We don’t have a lot of people between [ages] 55 and 75, but we have a lot of elders and we appreciate every last second of them,” said Mark Bloom, Beth Abraham’s popular rabbi for the past six years.

Has it really been 59 years since Agnes and Pinky Pencovic were married at the shul? Has it really been 68 years since Sam Bercovich met his future wife, Ellen, on the temple steps? (Those steps were always good to him.)

“What is strange for us is to have people consider us the fount of information at this point — including our rabbi. He’s a young man,” said Agnes Pencovic.

Bercovich remembers the day the sheriff padlocked Beth Abraham’s front door during the Depression because its utility bills weren’t paid. (Congregants subsequently bailed out the synagogue. In addition, the synagogue paid off its $30,000 mortgage by 1944).

Younger elders remember the trials and tribulations of being a Conservative synagogue grappling with egalitarian issues throughout the latter part of the 20th century, as well as coping with the civil rights movement, Oakland’s tense black-Jewish relations and the Vietnam War. A young Michael Lerner was forced out of a teaching job at Beth Abraham’s Hebrew school in 1965 after comparing the story of Chanukah to the plight of the Vietnamese people.

In the wake of the Watts riots in 1965, Rabbi Harold Schulweis stirred his congregation with a fiery sermon imploring Jews making a living via “a parasitic existence” in black ghettoes to “get out — this is no way for a Jew to make a living. Exploitation of the weak and ignorant is no way for a Jew to make his profit.”

Congregants who ran pawnshops were “very offended,” recalled Agnes Pencovic. “But on a different plane, the rabbi was right.”

A towering figure in Conservative Judaism to this day, Schulweis led Beth Abraham from 1952-70. Bloom said his lasting presence is like that of a “friendly ghost” looking over his shoulder (though it should be noted that Schulweis is still living). His popularity was such that for many years congregants described their rabbis by stating “He’s no Schulweis, but … “

Built several decades ago, Highway 580 not only cut off Beth Abraham from Oakland’s vibrant Lakeshore neighborhood, it also accelerated the suburban flight of many of the synagogue’s members. Membership peaked at roughly 600 families in Schulweis’ heyday but dropped to 458 by 1976 according to Fred Rosenbaum’s history of East Bay Jewry, “Free to Choose.” Membership is now at roughly 380 families, a sizable increase many congregants attribute to the energetic and personable Bloom.

“This synagogue has been here so long and so many people have been through it. It’s an important part of the Jewish community in Oakland,” said current president Rick Heeger. “I find it an amazing place.”

Temple Beth Abraham will be celebrating its 100th year with three days of festivities Aug. 24-26. For more information, call (510) 832-0936.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.