Miriam Lowe (left) and Amy Midanik-Blum admire the Netivot Shalom Yizkor book. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Miriam Lowe (left) and Amy Midanik-Blum admire the Netivot Shalom Yizkor book. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

This first-of-its-kind memorial book brings an entire synagogue’s departed to life

In the grand scheme of things, Congregation Netivot Shalom isn’t very old. But not too long ago, Rabbi Stuart Kelman, who founded the Berkeley congregation in 1989, noticed that he was beginning to lose track of the details of members who had died over the last 28 years.

“Even though I had done most of their funerals, I felt I was losing my memory of some of these people,” Kelman said.

So he hatched a new way to memorialize his community’s departed: a greatly expanded form of the annual Yizkor booklet many American synagogues produce around the High Holy Days.

These booklets typically list every member of the congregation who has ever died. But what is a new or young congregant to make of the name, birth date and death date of someone they never knew?

Netivot’s Yizkor book — and it is a full book, not a booklet — solves this by devoting an entire page to each individual, including a picture and a written description of the person’s life and accomplishments.

To lead the project, Kelman turned to congregant Diane Bernbaum, who took on the project with gusto. She looked everywhere for the details the book would require. “And then there are people for whom there was nothing to tell me about them,” Bernbaum said. But her dogged determination led to a satisfying bio for each name in the book.

“I was amazed at what you can find from Google,” she said. Bernbaum also consulted obituaries in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post and, of course, J. She also turned to the universities where they might have worked or studied and other institutions she knew they were connected with.

In many cases, it was easy to track down a family member to help compile the biography and photo for her subjects. In others, the name itself presented a challenge. Take the case of Sam Spiegler.

Struggling to find anything about him, Bernbaum went one morning to Tel Shalom, part of Rolling Hills Memorial Park in El Sobrante, where many of Netivot’s dead are buried. “I walked every single row,” she said.

Finally, she came across the headstone of Kurt Samuel Spiegler, his full name. That helped bring things together for Spiegler’s page. Though it lacks a photo, the write-up gives a compelling account of his life: born in Vienna in 1920, studied chemistry in Jerusalem in the 1930s, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley, “a pioneer in the field of water desalination.”

The 70 or so stories represent a broad spectrum of human life. The shortest bio — and the shortest life — is Nina Chava Davis, whose complete 2001 bio reads: “Infant daughter of Jim Davis and Anna Korteweg. She died when she was 36 hours old, after appearing to thrive.”

The oldest is Sarah Ruby, who died in 2005 at age 97; she was born to immigrants in New York, later lived on her in-laws’ chicken farm in Petaluma, taught Hebrew school for much of her adult life — and was a founding member of both Netivot Shalom and Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

The book — with its stories of scholars, scientists, artists, activists of every stripe and Holocaust survivors who carved out new lives in America — tells the story of a community of the accomplished and conscientious.

A page in Netivot Shalom's Yizkor book (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
A page in Netivot Shalom’s Yizkor book (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

It recounts the lives of Rebecca Feiler, “a tenacious idealist who worked hard to bring pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian supporters together in an antiwar coalition,” who died young at 22 in 2004; Leslie Gordon, born with cerebral palsy, “a frontline activist in the fight for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” who died earlier this year at 44; Rabbi Samuel Graudenz, born in 1916 in an orphanage in Cologne, Germany, saved from the Holocaust through the now-famous heroism of Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara, and former rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Modesto, who died at 90 in 2006; and devoted outdoorsman Corey Largman, a biochemistry professor at UCSF, who died at 65 in a 2009 hiking accident in the Sierra National Forest.

The book, while expanding on the Yizkor booklet idea, also draws on two other traditions: Holocaust survivors from many now-extinct towns have created books that record the lives and details of their lost communities; and in Europe, many communities over the centuries have recorded the names and dates of their dead in records maintained by local chevra kadishas (burial societies).

While Bernbaum compiled the contents, fellow congregant Blair Prentice figured out where the book would go. To keep it from becoming a mere relic, Prentice and Kelman wanted to put it in a public place, displayed in a way that invites congregants to learn about their community.

Prentice is also the architect behind Netivot’s building; he knew immediately where the book should go. In designing the sanctuary, he had included a specific request from Kelman: a “bullpen” — a place where congregants could gather their thoughts before going into the sanctuary. It is also where plaques with the names of the dead are displayed.

“There’s a lot of activity here, a lot of gathering your stuff, getting your tallis on, getting your books, saying hi to people before you go into the quieter and more serene space of the sanctuary,” Prentice said.

That center of activity, attached to the sacred space of the sanctuary, was the perfect place. So the book was mounted on an elegant sliding shelf that allows people to pull it out and flip through it.

The finished product isn’t bound like a proper book — rather, it is a ringed binder, making it easy to add newly departed members of the community or to take a page out and replace it with an expanded or corrected version.

The book has been on display since April. Recalling one of the first Shabbats after it appeared, Bernbaum said, “You had people in our age demographic, in their 60s and 70s, a huge number of widows … who made a beeline for the book.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.