Bay Areas second largest congregation, Beth Am, marks 60th anniversary

Karen Kronick doesn’t need to go far to stroll down memory lane. Just standing in the foyer of Congregation Beth Am, she points to a photo of herself at age 6 posing with the Los Altos Hills synagogue’s first kindergarten class in 1955.

“I remember the oneg Shabbats when tea and coffee were poured for people,“ the Palo Alto native recalls. “People got dressed up to go to services.”

Rabbi Sidney Akselrad at groundbreaking, 1968

That was 60 years ago, the year Beth Am officially incorporated. It’s a nice round number, and this year Beth Am, the Bay Area’s second largest congregation with 1,600 families, celebrates its 60th anniversary with a string of events.

Lifelong members, such as Kronick, along with younger, more recent members, will take part in the festivities, which peak with a three-day weekend party May 29-31.

“People are excited,” said Beth Am’s senior rabbi, Janet Marder. “Our members cherish their traditions, but are also not bound by them. They’re open to change and excited about the future.”

That weekend event includes Erev Shabbat services with guest speaker Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. The next day includes a kid-friendly anniversary carnival, complete with bouncy castles, magicians and face-painters.

Sunday features a gala dinner at the Crowne Plaza Cabana Hotel, where Beth Am honors its 32 past presidents (20 of the 21 still living will attend) as well as the entire congregation.

Active members and clergy agree there is much over the last six decades worth celebrating.

The origins of the synagogue stretch back to 1954, when Jews from Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Los Altos Hills formed what would eventually become Beth Am.

“We wanted a Sunday school, and that was the first thing to happen,” recalls Barbara Emerich, 95, one of the congregation’s founding members. Her living room served as the final meeting place before the congregation filed its charter.

Rabbis Janet Marder and Sidney Akselrad

In its first years, the congregation would hold services at Los Altos Hills’ First Lutheran Church and at the First Methodist Church and All Saints Episcopal Church, both in Palo Alto. One early congregational seder was held at the YMCA, while High Holy Day services were held one year a Buddhist temple. Finally, in 1959, congregants purchased a rustic 91⁄2-acre plot in Los Altos Hills.

There they built a stunning campus, crowned by a sanctuary designed by the late architect Goodwin Steinberg. With windows on four sides and a rounded dome, it was conceived as a beacon of welcome to all, emulating Abraham’s tent.

In 1962, Rabbi Sidney Akselrad arrived, and thanks to his force of personality, Beth Am’s culture of combining social action with robust Jewish learning took shape. As part of the Beth Am credo, despite the region being among the wealthiest in the nation, no bench, no social hall, no chapel or any other part of the synagogue has ever been up for naming rights.

Akselrad, a former civil rights activist, served as senior rabbi for 24 years, and continued to be a strong presence at Beth Am until his death in 2006.

Karen Kronick

Akselrad’s successor, Rabbi Richard Block, took over in 1987. During his tenure, Beth Am became a haven for the influx of Russian-speaking Jews from the former Soviet Union. The congregation established one of the most comprehensive émigré programs in the region. Marder took over the senior rabbi post in 1999.

“When [Rabbi] Block first called me and asked me to apply, he said this is the best rabbinic position in the country,” Marder recalls. “I now know what he’s talking about. There’s a special culture here of respect between clergy and lay leaders, a cordial and gracious tone among the lay leadership. People treat each other well.”

Immediate past president Benjamin Lloyd backs up that sentiment. He and his wife joined Beth Am in 1991 after moving to the region from San Francisco. He quickly signed up for work on various committees, especially those having to do with education.

He says he came to respect the serious approach to Jewish study at Beth Am. The weekly Torah study class led by Marder routinely draws up to 200 people, including members of other synagogues as well as churches.

“We pride ourselves on valuing an intellectual exploration of Jewish texts,” Lloyd says. “There’s a sense that Reform Judaism doesn’t explore texts, but I think we really do here. Torah, Midrash, Talmud, it’s a very intellectually rigorous approach that makes it meaningful for our lives today.”

Beth Am’s first religious school assembly, at Palo Alto Masonic Hall, 1955 photo/courtesy congregation beth am

Early in her tenure, Marder sought to upgrade the music, the siddur and other aspects of worship at Beth Am. But she says one of the most memorable moments came during Yom Kippur services in 2004. Marder offered a special blessing to some of the unsung heroes of Beth Am: the non-Jewish spouses in interfaith families.

“I wanted to acknowledge all they do for our community,” she recalls. “They not only drive our kids to Hebrew school and learn to make hamantaschen, but they come to services, help kids practice for their bar/bat mitzvah, shed tears of joy on the bimah. I asked them to come up. There was a pause, and then a flood of people came up. They were weeping, with the congregation standing in their honor. Later they told me it was the first time they felt truly visible.”

Kronick, a retired optometrist, attended U.C. Berkeley, but always returned to her spiritual home in Los Altos Hills for the Jewish holidays. She married her husband at Beth Am in 1974, the same year she joined the congregation on her own.

She has sat on various committees over the years, and still marvels at Beth Am’s commitment to community engagement. She cites as an example the congregation’s involvement with an early childhood education initiative that encompasses Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.

“I can say Beth Am is really home to me,” Kronick says. “I’m tremendously lucky. In a lot of ways this is one of the most wonderful places in the country to live.”

Adds Lloyd: “We’re growing, but we are also very actively looking at what we can and should do to continue the relevance of this institution. I’m confident that Beth Am will be able to crack that nut and continue to thrive for the next 60 years.”

Congregation Beth Am has information about its 60th anniversary celebrations at www.betham.org/60th

Dan Pine

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