Oaklands oldest congregation celebrates opening of new campus

It was a day of poems, prayers and nailing mezuzahs to the wall.

In a daylong celebration, Oakland’s Temple Sinai dedicated its sprawling new facility on Sunday, Oct. 3. Renamed the Rabbi Steven and Leona Chester Campus, the expanded synagogue is four times larger than the 1940s-era landmark it replaces.

The children of Temple Sinai stand on the new bimah while Rabbi Steven Chester and Cantor Ilene Keys speak to the congregation. photo/richard c. edwards

“It’s gorgeous,” said a beaming Chester, Temple Sinai’s senior rabbi and the man for whom the new facility is co-named. “It’s beautiful, from one end to the other. This new complex will help further Jewish life at the temple and in Oakland.”

The celebration actually began Friday night with an erev Shabbat family service, at which incoming kindergarten students took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Barbara Baker Shupin Education Center. Poems were read, songs were sung and Adrienne Herman, Shupin’s daughter, spoke.

Then, on Sunday, it was party time.

The day began with a concert by contemporary Jewish musician Rick Recht, attended by as many as 500 people. From there, religious school kids hung their hand-made mezuzahs on the doorposts of their new classrooms.

More songs and poems kicked off the afternoon’s formal dedication, held in Temple Sinai’s remodeled sanctuary. Cantor Ilene Keyes had commissioned a song, “How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place (Psalm 84),” composed by Sinai member Robert Schoen and performed by the synagogue’s adult choir.

“I wanted to choose a psalm text that would be appropriate for a new sanctuary, and I went through many of them before I found this particular text,” Schoen said. “Here we are in our new dwelling place, which is a wonderful sanctuary.”

In addition to hundreds of congregants, also in attendance were officials from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and the Union of Reform Judaism. They came to honor this major facelift of the East Bay’s oldest and largest Jewish congregation.

Congregants enter Temple Sinai’s new facilities, which feature stained glass windows from the old building. photo/courtesy of saul bromberger and sandra hoover photography

The dedication culminated a fundraising campaign that raised over $13 million and boasted the participation of 77 percent of temple members. After two years of construction, the completed campus includes the new Henry and Mathilde Albers Chapel, the Shupin education center, the Rabbi Samuel and Judith Broude Clergy wing and administrative offices.

The historic 1913 sanctuary was enhanced by an extended and lowered bimah, new carpeting and sound system, as well as a renovation of the social hall dating from the same era.

“Our community understood the need for this new campus and really came forward in phenomenal ways,” added past president Lynn Simon. “I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to the people I see as my temple family, as well as a tremendous sense of blessing to have a space that represents in so many ways the richness of our heritage.”

The new facility does impress, from the front gate’s 613 stars (representing the 613 mitzvahs) to the Jerusalem

stone entry hall, to the chapel’s tallit-inspired design.

“The architecture is fantastic,” Chester said. “There is so much light, so many windows. For me, in [the Jerusalem stone-lined entry hall] I feel like I’m standing at the Western Wall.”

Admiring the new buildings, congregant Fred Isaac reflected on how they represent Sinai’s past and future.

“The stained glass windows in the entrance are from the old chapel,” Isaac said. “We have a wall with plaques from the old building — we’re trying to connect the past and the present, and we’ve done a wonderful job.”

Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin also took in the day’s festivities. “The entire project was so exciting,” she said. “What’s most thrilling for me is to hear how everybody talked about community and family, and how Judaism and Jewish tradition is important to their family. There was such a feeling today of appreciation and celebration.”

Congregant Dennis Albers spoke about his parents, Henry and Mathilde Albers, for whom the new chapel is named. “The new chapel is a beautiful space which will forever be a special place for my mother and the Albers family,” he said. “But it is not our honor alone. Over three quarters of the congregation made contributions to the building. It is a tribute to all of us.”

Chester said that although the new campus is named after him and his wife, it isn’t his legacy, but the congregation’s. He also reflected on his over two-decade tenure as the congregation’s rabbi and his upcoming retirement.

“I feel so proud of this congregation,” he said. “It’s what goes on here that’s the legacy, as a place where people can relate to one another and care for each other. We make that the legacy.”

J. correspondent Joseph Amster contributed to this story.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.