Readers’ Choice 2015:
Bay Area synagogues — from Orthodox to alternative, with memberships of less than a hundred or more than 2,000 — offer inspiring programs, lifelong learning opportunities and social action efforts that serve congregants and the greater community.
Congregation Beth Sholom, a 101-year-old Conservative synagogue in San Francisco, takes pride in Jewish tradition with twice-daily minyans and offers such innovations as Makom Sholom, a meditation program promoting prayer, study and contemplation in a quiet environment. Adult programs explore such topics as Jewish mysticism, psalms and spiritual practice, while social action programs include a mental health support group, prisoner outreach, and help for those in need, whether new parents, the elderly, sick or bereaved.
San Francisco’s 165-year-old Reform Congregation Emanu-El, with more than 2,100 members, offers ongoing courses with resident scholar and author Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, programs for interfaith couples and special events such as films, talks on Israel and cultural programs. The synagogue’s museum has featured exhibits by internationally renowned artists as well as those in the Bay Area and, recently, a show featuring Jewish cartoonists.
Reform Congregation Sherith Israel, founded in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, features a 1903 Beaux Arts sanctuary and a 100-year-old pipe organ, providing an elegant setting for many musical programs. On another note, children and adults have gathered every Sunday since 1993 to prepare and deliver meals to the needy, while seminars with clergy as well as educational programs from infancy to adult round out the programming.
In Berkeley, Reform Congregation Beth El hosts a nursery school, a summer camp and Midrasha for high-schoolers as well as weekly Torah and Talmud study, classes in biblical trope (chanting), musical worship services, and classes for youth with special needs. Once a month, volunteers prepare and serve multicourse dinners to 125 to 200 homeless people, while the Ruach Brigade connects volunteers with programs that serve the greater community.
In Los Altos Hills, Congregation Beth Am’s Torah study draws more than 200 each week, many from other spiritual communities. Offerings include Talmud study, yearly scholar-in-residence programs and Oneg Israel programs with cultural events and Israeli food. Social justice initiatives include Equal Start, which supports early learning, and efforts to stop human trafficking.
Palo Alto’s independent Congregation Etz Chayim has prepared its own Shabbat siddur, offers interactive b’nai mitzvah services with a Q&A component and hosts Sunday services for parents and children. Worship draws from all branches of Judaism, and some services have included contemplative chanting, a hand-bell choir and melodies from the Grateful Dead and the Beatles.
In Tiburon, the Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar offers a variety of worship opportunities, from traditional to contemplative, and a Center for Jewish Spirituality, where participants explore alternative paths, as well as Lunch and Learn programs and guest speakers. The synagogue also hosts family Kabbalat services followed by Shabbat dinners and reaches out to senior centers with offsite worship. As a founding member of the Marin Organizing Committee, the shul works with other groups to shelter and feed the homeless and effect social change.
Congregation Beth Sholom
Congregation Sherith Israel
Congregation Beth El
Congregation Beth Am
Los Altos Hills
Congregation Etz Chayim
Congregation Kol Shofar