Congregation Beth Jacob to sanctify new building days before new year

Rabbi Nat Ezray has been with Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City for 17 years. He knows its members, and its close-knit community, better than probably anyone. But even he has been overwhelmed recently by their devotion to their synagogue — evident in the outpouring of support for the temple’s renovation.

For the last year, 450 member families have smiled cheerfully through the sights, sounds and smells of construction as entire portions of their synagogue were being modified or rebuilt for the first time since 1979, after a suspicious fire that destroyed the sanctuary and social hall.

Congregation Beth Jacob’s new main entry, part of a three-year renovation, has been modified to be more welcoming and accessible.

The Solomon Project, named for the Jerusalem king in charge when the First Temple was built, started in 2008 with a group of congregants and board members who had grown concerned with the synagogue’s deteriorating appearance.

Three years and $3.6 million later, the building — with a renovated front entrance, an expanded, light-filled reception hall, and a chapel with improvements such as additional seating, air conditioning and sound support for the hearing-impaired — is ready for its closeup. The congregation is inviting the community to a celebration, barbecue and dedication ceremony Sunday, Sept. 18.

Future phases of the renovation will focus on developing outdoor spaces.

“There’s been such an energy, such a spirit of excitement about it from day one,” said Ezray. “People really stepped forward.”

He and others had some initial trepidation about beginning such an expensive project — one that required such extensive fundraising — in the middle of a recession.

“We started this when the stock market was at its lowest point, and we did think we might have a little trouble,” recalled Greg Sterling, the board president and lead fundraiser. “But we were very pleasantly surprised. We spent a lot of time talking to individuals and families one on one, and realized this was a very personal thing for a lot of people. Everyone had their own stories about memories from the synagogue, family events, lifecycle events that were very meaningful for them. I was personally very moved by it.”

Ezray stressed that the renovation process was a highly collaborative effort, from planning through completion. Regular progress meetings kept everyone in touch, as congregants helped select the architects (Joel Karr and Bryan Murdock of San Francisco’s Group 41) and gave input on designs and priorities.

That collaboration will continue on through the dedication ceremony. Ezray said he’s particularly looking forward to having the kids affix mezuzahs to the new main entryway and the entrance of the expanded classroom area.

“We have a special community here, and it’s a community that’s really engaged. Part of it is the culture that exists at this synagogue — it’s one of Jewish study and learning, and it’s extremely interactive. We want people to find their own voice within the texts,” he said. “It was important for us that the dedication be connected to learning.”

Ezray also expressed gratitude to neighbors for being patient throughout the construction, and to the “dedicated core of volunteers” who kept the process on track.

“It’s a testament to what a vibrant community we have here,” he said. “Before, I think people would leave feeling that the beautiful spirit we have here wasn’t supported by the physical structure. Now, I think about how many people we have doing amazing things here, in terms of study, social action, love of Israel, education, prayer and spirituality. To finally have a building that supports that and reflects that is just so exciting.” n

Congregation Beth Jacob’s dedication ceremony and celebration will take place 12 to 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18 at 1550 Alameda de las Pulgas, Redwood City, following a morning study preparation for the High Holy Days. Information: (650) 366-8481.


Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.