Synagogue synergy: North Peninsula consortium going strong in fourth year

Rabbi Dennis Eisner of Peninsula Temple Beth El could easily consider Peninsula Temple Sholom as the competition. After all, the two Reform synagogues lie barely three miles apart.

Instead, he views his neighboring synagogue as a partner.

After all, Eisner is an enthusiastic member of the North Peninsula Jewish Community Professionals Consortium, which meets monthly at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City.

Formed by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the consortium brings together 10 synagogues and other Jewish institutions to work on issues of mutual concern.

 

Rabbi Dennis Eisner

One of the other members of the consortium: Peninsula Temple Sholom Rabbi Daniel Feder, of course.

 

Eisner calls his tenure with the consortium “one of the most creative collaborative moments I’ve had in my Jewish professional life. What’s come out of it has been meaningful work that strengthened not only the community as a whole, but established the North Peninsula as a vital Jewish community in the Bay Area.”

What sort of meaningful work? Now in its fourth year, the consortium has created an initiative to serve young Jews with special needs, especially in synagogue religious school and Jewish day school settings.

Using its collective leverage, the consortium negotiated funding from the John and Marcia Goldman Foundation, the Kohn Fund, and others, then teamed up with the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education and now has hired a special-needs consultant.

That consultant, says Eisner,  will “advise and help our congregations in terms of special needs, both early childhood education and religious school.”

 

Roxanne Cohen

Another target of the consortium is Israel education and relationship building. Eisner hopes to organize large-scale missions to Israel — up to 200 people — made up of members of the various North Peninsula Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations.

 

“If we want to fundamentally change Jewish life for the long run, one of the most significant ways to do that is connect people to Israel and take people there,” Eisner says. “They come to synagogue more; they’re more likely to volunteer, to educate their children. It’s exponential.”

Eisner says much of the credit for the consortium’s success goes to Roxanne Cohen, the federation’s director of fundraising engagement and the coordinator of the group. He calls her “one of the most exceptional Jewish professionals I’ve worked with.”

Cohen, who formerly served as the federation’s North Peninsula representative, says the consortium concept is not new. The federation has convened similar bodies in the South Peninsula as well as in Sonoma and Marin counties. They, too, include senior rabbis and executive directors of local Jewish agencies. But in her neck of the woods, Cohen feels an especially high energy.

“Sometimes it’s just about coming together, getting outside your own four walls and learning what other people are doing,” Cohen says.” If this whole community is strong, it’s better for each organization.”

In addition to Peninsula Temple Beth El (San Mateo) and Peninsula Temple Sholom (Burlingame), other members of the consortium include Congregation Beth Jacob (Redwood City), Congregation Sinai (Foster City), Chabad of the North Peninsula (San Mateo), the Peninsula JCC (Foster City), Jewish Family and Children’s Services (Peninsula offices), the Jewish Community Relations Council (Palo Alto office) and the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School (Foster City).

A Los Angeles native, Eisner moved to the North Peninsula a little more than three years ago. He previously held pulpit posts at the famed Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and served in various positions with the Union for Reform Judaism and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

He knows how synagogues work, and firmly believes they work better when they work together.

“We clearly are a better community and congregation when we don’t operate as an island,” he says. “There are times when people are protective, and times when we realize that sort of short-term small thinking is not where we want to be. What’s exceptional about this group, is it’s not ‘me first.’ ”

Upcoming consortium projects and events include a collaborative Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) celebration next year, and bringing in Middle East historian and scholar Paul Liptz for a series of speaking engagements at agencies and synagogues that are part of the consortium.

Liptz’s appearance is an example of the group’s collective purchasing power, as all will share in the expense of bringing the HUC professor here from Israel.

With so much collective thinking, does Eisner have concerns about the consortium’s synagogues losing their distinctive homegrown cultures?

In a word, no.

“They still have their home, rabbi, theology, liturgy,” he says of the congregants and congregations. “It’s not about watering down any of those things. It’s about building up a common ground relationship.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.