Financial woes at Temple Israel in Alameda forced the congregation’s board to make a difficult decision late last year: letting go of their clergy, Rabbi Barnett Brickner and Cantor Brian Reich. Both contracts were allowed to expire at the end of June.
Simultaneously, the board has brought in Rabbi Steven Chester, formerly of Temple Sinai in Oakland, to help the 120-year-old shul going forward. The veteran spiritual leader will work part time with the Reform synagogue for the next year and, among other duties, will assist in the search for a permanent part-time rabbi.
“I’m going to help them determine their future and what kind of rabbi they would like,” Chester said. “I’m here to help them envision the future, and where they are going as a congregation. They will have some decisions to make.”
The decision to let their full-time clergy go followed a year in which membership dropped from 148 families to 120 (it currently stands at 100 families). Congregational president Genevieve Pastor-Cohen told J. that the synagogue’s finances are now stable, since it no longer has to pay those two salaries.
“We just had the congregation approve our budget for this coming year, and we are in the black,” Pastor-Cohen said. “Finding a permanent part-time rabbi will give us a chance to grow and stabilize our congregation again.”
Initially, congregants were concerned about the decision to let Brickner and Reich go, as both were popular with members, but Temple Israel held a town hall to address people’s concerns.
“Now everyone has accepted the fact that we need to live within our means,” Pastor-Cohen said. “We all realized that if we continued down the same trajectory we would have to close our doors [permanently]. We all have to get involved to keep a shul in Alameda.”
In addition to helping the shul with its rabbinic search, Chester also has been charged with officiating at funerals and lifecycle events. The temple plans to bring in a cantor for the High Holy Days and other services, as needed.
Another plan is to add more family and adult programming. “Our lay leadership will step up,” Pastor-Cohen said. “We have some children’s arts programs and adult education.”
Josh Cohen, co-chair of the search committee, Pastor-Cohen’s husband and himself a past temple president, said that Chester was the standout candidate for the interim rabbi post. “He was loved by all,” Cohen said. “He knew the community, he knew about us.”
A 40-year veteran of the rabbinate, Chester served for 22 years on the bimah at Temple Sinai in Oakland before retiring in 2011. Since then, he said he’s spent a lot of time with his family.
“Retirement has been enjoyable,” he said. “When you’re on call for 40 years, 24/7, it’s very nice not to have to go to meetings. It makes it very nice for traveling, seeing my grandchildren — after a few years of adjusting, I learned you’re in control of your own time, and that’s the big difference.”
Even though Chester was thoroughly enjoying his retirement, duty called — from Canada. For the past year and half, he has been flying to and from Edmonton, Alberta, to serve as visiting rabbi at Temple Beth Ora.
“I got the call to come in, part time, until they found a rabbi,” Chester said. “I thought I’d be able to help them out for a year, and so I would fly up on Friday morning and come back on Monday. [Helping them] was the major reason I came out of retirement.”
As for assisting Temple Israel in a similar manner, Chester said he is looking forward to the challenge. “It’s a wonderful synagogue with a wonderful history,” he said. “It’s going to be a pleasant experience.”